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Running Old Desktops Headless?

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the must-be-the-new-chicken-os dept.

Operating Systems 347

CajunArson writes "I recently dug up an old P4 that is in fine working order and did what any self-respecting Slashdotter would do: I slapped Linux on it to experiment with making an NFSv4 server. One other thing I did was to remove the old AGP video card to save on power, since this is a headless machine. Now, I removed the video card after the installation, and I'm doing just fine as long as the machine will boot to a state where networking works and I can SSH to it. My question: Is there a good solution to allow me to log into this box if it cannot get on the network? I'm looking for solutions other than slapping a video card back in. In my case, I will have physical access to the machine. A few caveats to make it interesting: This question is for plain old desktop/laptop systems, not network servers designed to run headless. Also, I am aware of the serial console, but even 'old' machines may only have USB, and I have not seen any good documentation on how and whether USB works as a substitute. Finally, if there is any way to access the BIOS settings without needing a video card, that would be an extra bonus, but I'm satisfied with just local OS access starting from the GRUB prompt."

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Gentoo?? (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331689)

I use Gentoo; how does this affect me?

Lick my balls, -1 (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331713)

Balls exist only to be licked. -1 -1 -1 -1 -1!!!!

Yes (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331701)

use a USB/serial adapter.

Serial console (4, Informative)

timeOday (582209) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331715)

A serial console [tldp.org]. As far as I know, this is what serial ports were actually put into computers for in the first place.

The question about bios settings is a good one though, and I don't know.

Good luck (2, Informative)

gravos (912628) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331747)

Most of the Dell and IBM servers I've used will let you get to the BIOS/GRUB over a serial console with some configuration, but I've never seen a desktop motherboard that would do it. If you really care about power consumption the easiest route is probably to buy a cheap, low-power itx board that has VGA built in and skip the console altogether. Plus, that way you don't need a laptop to talk to the box, just an old monitor.

Anyone know some tricks to get serial console to work with grub on a desktop mobo?

Re:Good luck (2)

Bert64 (520050) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331925)

You would need a lights out management card, many servers have them built in but they're not usually found on desktops.

Re:Good luck (3, Interesting)

mariushm (1022195) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331935)

Even easier, go to eBay and get a PCI video card for a couple of dollars. I got an ATI Rage with 8MB of memory for something like 2$ plus about 4$ shipping. It's only a few watts, which if you really freak out about power usage, you can recover by lowering the CPU voltage and the frequency to a bit lower than the normal. Well, anyways you'll make it more economic simply by replacing the power supply with a 80-85+ certified one, but it's probably more expensive than the whole computer, or the money saved in 2-3 years.

Re:Good luck (5, Insightful)

Useful Wheat (1488675) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332115)

You're all putting WAY too much thought into this. The easiest way to do this is to take a magnet and manually adjust your hard drive until it has the SSH capability you're looking for. Everyone has at least 1 or 2 good magnets laying around, and with a steady hand this could become a great do it yourself project. Plus, you get epeen bragging rights when people start talking about how they used to code in assembly. You coded with a magnet and a HD.

Wait? That would be a pain in the ass? Almost impossible?

The AGP card is rated for 63 watts, maximum. Over a year that's 552 kWh. Paying for electricity at $0.15 a kWh you run into an additional $6.90 a month to run the AGP card.

1. Find a quarter in your couch cushions.

2. Plug the damn thing in for the 10 minutes it would take to setup a remote SSH connection using the suggestions people have put in this thread.

3. Pay the additional power bill with the quarter.

4. Move on with your life


6. Profit!

Re:Good luck (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332337)

Grub works just fine with serial console. Add the following lines to your grub.conf:

    serial --unit=0 --speed=38400 --word=8 --parity=no --stop=1
    terminal --timeout=10 serial console

Also, make sure to add:

    console=tty1 console=ttyS0,38400n8

to your "kernel" line for linux boot images so the kernel will send console messages to the console. Of course the kernel itself must be configured to support serial console too!

Re:Serial console (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331757)

Did you even read the summary? He specifically mentioned that he knows about serial console and many of these machines might not have serial ports.

Re:Serial console (5, Funny)

tverbeek (457094) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331859)

Yes, he added several conditions, effectively saying "No, I don't want to do this the easy or logical way; I want to make this unnecessarily difficult, by disabling every form of I/O built into the machine except one (the NIC), but still having a way to interact with it (other than that one)." I recommend clairvoyance and telekinesis. :)

Re:Serial console (5, Funny)

schon (31600) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332295)

I recommend clairvoyance and telekinesis.

Now, now, there's no need for snarkiness. We can accommodate the specs without resorting to hocus-pocus and imaginary abilities.

The solution is quite simple - he just needs to get a lemon (although lemon juice might suffice, it's not optimal, as I'll explain further.)

How it works is simple - you put a 1/2" slice of the lemon in your mouth, then stick in the end of the ethernet cable. The juice from the lemon reacts with your metal fillings and the copper from the network cable, generating electricity, which can then be used to set up an ethernet link by humming at the correct frequencies.

Once slice of lemon will provide approximately 8 to 10 minutes of power for this - be careful not to slice the lemon too thick or thin - too thin and you'll run out of power too soon, and too thick and you'll be wasting the juice in the center (This is why lemon juice is suboptimal - it washes away too quickly, so you'll be needing to "recharge" every 20-30 seconds.)

Re:Serial console (2, Funny)

NotBornYesterday (1093817) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332363)

Well, helpdesk personnel are often expected to be psychic in order to diagnose problems where the end user has no clue, so if he's been in Tech Support, I really don't see a problem with the clairvoyance part.

Re:Serial console (4, Informative)

1s44c (552956) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332393)

Did you even read the summary? He specifically mentioned that he knows about serial console and many of these machines might not have serial ports.

Some machines don't have serial ports. The easy solution is to buy a serial card for these machines.

Everything else is more expensive and more complex.

Re:Serial console (5, Informative)

value_added (719364) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332129)

A serial console. As far as I know, this is what serial ports were actually put into computers for in the first place.

Sigh. I wish more people (the home user Slashdot types) would just go buy a serial cable (and/or serial+USB adapter) and see for themselves how trivial it is to set up, and how valuable that setup can be. There's plenty of reasons why one would *want* to rely on serial, aside from the usual "What if the network is down?" scenario.

For added fun (when there's more than one computer involved), consider something like this [kd85.com]

The question about bios settings is a good one though, and I don't know.

For the OP and most of us, that's a noop. What I would have suggested instead of a powerhungry P4 (or even PIII), is a soekris box [soekris.com]. There's no VGA at all, so the BIOS (and everything else) is accessible via serial only. My "headless" VIA boxes are a PIA by comparison.

Granted, Soekris boxes are typically used to perform networking functions, but setting one up with a hard drive (laptop or SSD ideally) and running a web, IMAP, NFS, Samba, etc. server is common enough and performance is perfectly adequate. A few bucks more, but hey, they're rackmountable so you can impress your friends and neighbours. :-)

Re:Serial console (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332175)

And they don't draw nearly the power of an old P4: Yikes-o-rama, the power costs alone suggest that the P4 should go into the recycle bin.

Re:Serial console (1)

SQLGuru (980662) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332317)

I'm curious if those small USB 'monitors' would work for this. You'd only need to plug it in as needed and could use it on your main machine when not being used on the server. Or, he could always get a USB video card.

Re:Serial console (4, Interesting)

merreborn (853723) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332173)

I actually worked on a small project that involved deploying headless desktop-based Debian servers to locations all over the continental US.

We'd fed-ex the boxes, and most of the time, they'd show up with a hard drive detached, or worse (one fedex ground shipment from CA to FL knocked the RAM right out of the slots on one box). What was worse, we didn't have any technical expertise on site to speak of, so even simple problems were hard to diagnose.

The ASUS motherboards we were using happened to have serial ports, and the BIOS also happened to natively support pumping text-mode input/output over said serial interface -- so you could edit BIOS settings, tweak bootloader settings, put the machine in single user mode and fsck the whole disk, etc. etc. all over serial.

We experimented with plugging these things into serial-over-ip devices; specifically, one like this one [digi.com] -- although I think we paid about $60 each. Results were mixed. For one, it was pretty painful getting things operating at a reasonable serial bitrate (especially for curses-esque interfaces like the BIOS settings interface -- characters were getting lost), and making them reliably accessible over IP wasn't easy either. You could configure these things to "phone home" when they were powered on, but the configuration interface and documentation was pretty bad.

If I recall correctly, KVM over IP devices were a bit more pricey.

So, long story short, when it comes to low-cost remote server management, in my experience, there's something of a lack of quality offerings.

Re:Serial console (1)

Sociable Scientician (1606685) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332281)

This is generally a good suggestion, but note this caveat from the HOWTO you linked to [tldp.org]:

"Unlike minicomputer systems, the IBM PC was not designed to use a serial console. This has two consequences. Firstly, Power On Self-Test messages and Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) messages are sent to the screen and received from the keyboard. This makes it difficult to use the serial port to reconfigure the BIOS and impossible to see Power On Self-Test errors."

Just put the vid card back? (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331735)

Maybe I'm way off base here, but putting in an old low memory (2-32MB) APG card isn't going to draw that much power. I totally understand your issues with wanting to run a headless machine, I have a few myself. But honestly I've found it's just a LOT easier to leave a cheapo card in the rig so that if something comes up I don't have to crack open a case.

Re:Just put the vid card back? (1)

mikael_j (106439) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331755)

Exactly, it seems like the OP should just stick a weak video card in the box. It's a lot less troublesome than setting up a serial console or something along those lines (serial console on a machine designed to work with a serial console is a lot easier than doing it on some random $500 desktop).


Re:Just put the vid card back? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332091)

It's tempting to use an old P4, but I don't think it's worth it in the long run based on the extra power consumption from the CPU. My old P4 used around 80 watts, that's almost $6 a month (assuming 10 cents a kwh). I decided to get an MSI wind PC which uses an Atom core ($135 from newegg). This still uses around 30 watts of power, most of it in the chipset. I'm hoping at some that they will sell equivalent devices that use under 10 watts. Once that happens it will be a no brainer to use these devices as fileservers, the power savings alone will make it worth it.

Re:Just put the vid card back? (2, Informative)

AmiMoJo (196126) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332137)

The Rage Pro 8MB is the ultimate low power card, and comes in PCI format. Less than 1W power use at idle, and supported by Linux and Windows with built-in drivers. Until 2007 many Intel servers had them on the motherboard, before ATI introduced a new line and Intel moved to their own chips.

Re:Just put the vid card back? (1)

DaveAtFraud (460127) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332449)

Even better... I have an ancient S3 2MB PCI video card I use when I just want to see if an old MB will boot. It is passively cooled and, obviously for something of this age, requires no additional power beyond what's available from the PCI bus..

My suggestion to the original poster is to try to find such an old card and realize that it draws so little additional power that the convenience is worth it. As with your suggested Rage Pro 8MB, most servers come with similar embedded graphics because the incremental cost of both including the graphics and running it is so minimal.


Re:Just put the vid card back? (1)

dov_0 (1438253) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332279)

I've just set up a headless linux box myself for file/print serving and as a remote music player (using Xforwarding over SSH so the music player shows up on my laptop desktop, but the files, process and more importantly the speaker setup are all on the server). Only way to get into the BIOS that I could figure was to slap a monitor back on the box. Unfortunately I just found that the @#$%@#$%@$%@$% PS2 socket is busted so I can't enable WOL and I WANT MY WAKE ON LAN! What's the use of a headless box if you have to walk over to turn in on? Seriously. Just put in an old VGA card from somewhere.

Control Card? (4, Insightful)

malevolentjelly (1057140) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331743)

I know there's a type of card that will push the serial interface through the network, if having a serial console (like running HyperTerminal in windows with a Null Modem cable plugged in) is not sufficient. That should allow you to get to the bios without having the monitor plugged in-- that's the theory, at least.

Also, if you're using this system as the lowest wrung sort of server, you might want to look into simply buying some Via Nano or Intel Atom hardware and just creating an ultra low-wattage server. Older desks were not renowned for their power efficiency, so over a few months, if its running 24/7, more efficient hardware might actually pay for itself in terms of energy costs, especially if you're somewhere with expensive power like California. It might be clever to cannibalize your old systems for hard disks and such and use them in this low power system, since the power usage of the hard disk will be largely a software problem, etc.

Re:Control Card? (1)

Joce640k (829181) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332027)

Another good idea...

There's brand new intel-Atom based machines for $200 and they only consume about 10 watts - probably less than losses due to inefficiency in the old 486's power supply.

Re:Control Card? (3, Insightful)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332161)

That's a reasonable suggestion.

If he truly needs a light weight, always on server then a new mini is a good idea. Modern, low power with a built in console. He can get just as much technical fun from setup and tweaking. If he is so impoverished he can't afford the $200-$300 then he probably does not need to be upgrading the old box and running it around the clock.

Personally, I've lost fascination with dinking around with old hardware. If I have a specific solution to implement or new skill to learn, I prefer a more forward looking approach with things that are new.

Re:Control Card? (1)

Idiot with a gun (1081749) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332431)

I agree whole heartedly. Plus with a system like that, you'll actually have a decent video card you can use for BIOS settings changes, upgrades, etc.

Although I'd like to point out, that if you set it up well, you shouldn't have to need to change any settings like that. Most modern Linux distros allow for updates through the console (Ubuntu, Debian, etc.), so I'm a bit baffled why you're so concerned about it. And I can't really think of many reasons to change BIOS settings that often.

Don't break it (1)

nOw2 (1531357) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331751)

The obvious answer is to not get it into a state where the network fails.

You mention servers which are designed to run headless, but that isn't really true. Many servers are just basic machines with or without video output but are hosted too far away to easily see the screen. Remote access systems like Dell RAC/HP ILO are still fairly rare, in my experience.

Its been a few years since I broke a server badly enough to need to see the screen. Silly iptables.

Or shut it down. (2, Funny)

AndGodSed (968378) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331921)

True story - I was working late one night and was busy shutting down everything in my office before going home. One by one I closed terminals on my laptop until typing 'shutdown now' in the last one.

I was still packing stuff and reached over to put my laptop in my bag and blinked at the terminal message 'connection to servername lost.'

With horror I realised that I had shut down our main mailserver! I had forgotten that I was still in an SSH session after reading through exim logfiles trying to find a missing e-mail that a client had insisted was stuck in our server.

This machine is an hour's drive from the office, and the support techs at the IDC took almost 30minutes to get up from their desks and walk down the corridor to push the power button. Talk about service. It is literally a five minute job!

When I phoned my colleague who was responsible for the server I said "Guess what I just did!?"

He laughed and joked "Probably shut down the mailserver?"

When I confirmed he responded "*groan* I forgot to alias that command! Sure I aliased poweroff, but not shutdown!"

Good Times.

serial tty (2, Informative)

SgtChaireBourne (457691) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331761)

If that box and another both have serial connections, then use the serial console: Get a null-modem cable. Connect that to another box. Make sure the you add console=ttyS0,19200n8 [tldp.org] or some variation to the append line in your grub entries. On the client side use cu [die.net] aka tip, minicom [tldp.org] or PuTTY [ubuntu.com] to make the serial connection, making sure that bps, parity and stop bits match.

Try this (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331769)

Make a script like this (pseudocode FTW):

If (hasBootedButWithoutFunctionalNetworkng()){
              removeTheGRUB(); //so that it'll boot via PXE (takes a functional OS image from the network, with a sane SSH implementation)

BTW, you need to have a PXE (DHCP + TFTP) server on the network, and to configure the BIOS to boot from netwok if it can't find a bootable HDD. Also, a CDROM as first-boot-priority helps... a lot (you can make/read backups, boot from a LiveCD with a SSH daemon)

Re:Try this (1)

Tokerat (150341) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331857)

If (hasBootedButWithoutFunctionalNetworkng()){ diaf(); //Network booting won't work without the network }


Re:Try this (1)

s4m7 (519684) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331993)

pxe network functionality is independent of OS drivers - it's bios level. So if your linux kernel module for your card isn't loading for some reason, a pxe boot will still be able to fetch the "sane" image provided that the cabling or card itself isn't physically malfunctioning.

Re:Try this (1)

rootofevil (188401) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332107)

say, for example, the cable is bad, or the card needs to be powercycled for some reason. where is your PXE god now? also, youve just ruined a perfectly good grub boot sector (not that its terribly hard to replace, but youve done it without needing to).

Re:Try this (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332101)

Uh... you wanna read that again?

USB device card (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331773)

You can try to get a USB device card, configure kernel to act as serial-over-USB, and set mingetty or something to allow login on this tty port. But it won't display anything until kernel boots.

Also you could get a usb-rs232 converter and attach it to server's COM port. It perhaps has one or two...

Serial header on the motherboard (5, Interesting)

blakeyez (827270) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331785)

As many others have mentioned, the serial console is the way to go. Even if there's no DB9/DB25 serial port out the back, there's likely at least one serial port header on the motherboard. The header/pinout is generally standard, so go digging in that 'really old parts' box that we all have and see if you can dig up a DB9 port mounted on a plate to mount where a card would normally go. It will have a ribbon cable to attach it to the motherboard...

Re:Serial header on the motherboard (3, Informative)

SgtChaireBourne (457691) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331841)

As many others have mentioned, the serial console is the way to go. Even if there's no DB9/DB25 serial port out the back, there's likely at least one serial port header on the motherboard. The header/pinout is generally standard, so go digging in that 'really old parts' box that we all have and see if you can dig up a DB9 port mounted on a plate to mount where a card would normally go. It will have a ribbon cable to attach it to the motherboard...

Very good point. The cables are easy to find, too: e.g. http://www.pccables.com/07120.htm [pccables.com] (That's a random cable picture and not an endorsement of the company. YMMV, Caveat Emptor, etc.)

Real Weasel (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331805)

Intro [realweasel.com]

PCI version exists, idea is that it emulates a VGA card and passes it via the serial.
Keyboard & Video supported through the card.
They have a demo to play with (or at least they did at one point).

The only major thing I can see against it: $350 for the PCI version. ($250 for ISA) on their order page (and the cert @ the order page seems to have expired)

Re:Real Weasel (1)

orangesquid (79734) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332237)

I have a weasel. It rocks and does what you would expect. Anything you can do with a keyboard and monitor (unless the BIOS puts the machine into non-text mode on startup with no option for non-graphics all just to print a bullshit logo, which some do...) can be done via serial connection. Just get an old 25mhz sparc sun box or something to connect to the serial port, and you instantly have another network node that lets you screw with the bios.

(The question is, how did PCs become servers without this kind of functionality already??? ... I'm sure you've seen the datacenters where people walk around with fancy tablets to plug into PC 'servers' just to reboot them .... efficient?!?!?!)

PCWeasel ordering problems (1)

Futurepower(R) (558542) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332285)

As you said, when you try to order one, it says, "The security certificate presented by this website has expired or is not yet valid. "

Very interesting, if it were $30.

You can still buy SP add-in cards (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331813)

They ARE still available, and for as little as $15. USB/serial port adapters do work for outgoing connections from a laptop or PC, but you will probably need an adapter card for the 'server' if it does not have a serial port.

USB Monitors (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331821)

There are a variety of 7" size USB monitors available now, can't remember the company who makes them...Would be perfect for running shell only.

Serial or custom hardware only, I'm afraid (1)

Enleth (947766) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331823)

Either you use a serial console or buy special, expensive hardware that emulates the video card and keyboard. Well, if you're lucky, you can get some used remote administration cards relatively cheap off eBay, but they might require at least some cooperation from the mainboard, or be designed for some particular type of server hardware and might not work with what you have.

As for PCs without a serial port, you could try a USB to serial converter. I'm almost certain it won't work with the builtin kernel-level serial console mode, but should be fine with mingetty spawned from inittab (there should be a commented out example entry in your inittab, take a look), as long as the relevant kernel modules get loaded early enough - so just compile them in to be sure. When looking for the converter itself, try to get one based on an FT232 or Prolific PL2303 chip.

KVM over IP (3, Interesting)

fishthegeek (943099) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331831)

KVM over IP might be what you're looking for.

KVM over IP Network Card [startech.com]

I've never done business with this company. I just googled and took the first link.

Re:KVM over IP (1)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332073)

That card is also $500, which is (most likely) more than the value of the computer. Kind of important if you plan on building a "cheap" headless server.

Re:KVM over IP (1)

fishthegeek (943099) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332455)

I agree it's expensive but there's no reason to think one (or one like it) couldn't be found on ebay or other place.

Re:KVM over IP (1)

antifoidulus (807088) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332453)

Um, wouldn't you still need a video card for that? After all, the KVM isn't acting as a video card, is it? From the site:

WAN LAN Multifunction breakout cable port (connects to system Video, USB, Keyboard, Mouse & Video) External Power Adapter

Video card may be the least of your power worries (3, Interesting)

CSMatt (1175471) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331843)

I have no idea how much power your AGP card used, but unless it was a gaming rig in its glory days, the CPU probably absorbs most of the power, especially since you mentioned that it is a Pentium 4. I would see if there are any power-saving features in your BIOS and enable them, undervolt your processor to just the speed that you need, and get a cheap PCI video card for when problems occur. I've never used the serial port for diagnostics, but I don't think it will help much if you ever run into a situation where your system won't boot.

There is a very simple solution ... (1)

Zero__Kelvin (151819) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331851)

Put the card back in, get everything working and set up to boot to runlevel3 (networking, no GUI), and then remove the card. After that you can SSH in to your hearts content. Why jump through a hoop of fire when you can more easily walk around it?

Re:There is a very simple solution ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332005)

I think the OP is looking for a solution in the case where networking has failed...

Re:There is a very simple solution ... (1)

Zero__Kelvin (151819) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332089)

"I think the OP is looking for a solution in the case where networking has failed..."

Well then, it's a damn good thing that I offered up the simplest solution then ! (What part of my advice requires a network to work?)

Re:There is a very simple solution ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332245)

"I think the OP is looking for a solution in the case where networking has failed..."

Well then, it's a damn good thing that I offered up the simplest solution then ! (What part of my advice requires a network to work?)

How does your advice solve the problem? You told the questioner to setup the computer the way that he was going to set it up in the first place.

Re:There is a very simple solution ...indeed (1)

quist (72831) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332287)

If his intent is to 'just make it work', this is the way to go. I've built LTSP [ltsp.org] style rigs going back to the days of KDE 1.x and 486's/Pentiums; good initial set-up and ssh have served. Once the BIOS settings are solid, there is little reason to go mucking there again.

Live CD? (1)

Zocalo (252965) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331861)

How about having a tested Live CD or other recovery disk that will boot the machine and get it on the network? If the machine ever fails to boot due to a local config problem, then you can boot off the CD, log in remotely and then manually mount the local partitions in order to fix problems.

Re:Live CD? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332309)

If you're insisting on no video card, this is probably the best idea. Since the machine is most likely to not come up when you've done something to screw up the boot loader, or a power failure occurs and fdisk fails to run automagically, booting from CD will bypass the immediate problem and let you check the logs to figure out what is wrong.

However, as others have said, put a cheap pci video card in the thing. Video cards don't draw that much power when they are displaying a static text-mode only screen, and the convenience of having a card when you need it will outweigh any savings in power that it brings. (Because, as also has been said, if your that power conscious, then you should be getting a new atom based machine instead of using the old P4)

serial connection (1)

fermion (181285) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331875)

If you had rs-232 ports on both machines, a calbee and a null modem will establish a physical connection that can be read by any number of programs. I wonder if the same could be done with bluetooth if an adaptor canb be f found for the older machine.

iLO (2)

Crudely_Indecent (739699) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331885)

Have a look on ebay for a compaq iLo PCI card. This is a network-attached video card (also providing keyboard and mouse) allowing an administrator to get an actual screen (like VNC) over a network connection.

You'll have access to bios as well!

Serial (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331887)

Aeons ago I built myself a small ISA card with just a 2K EPROM on it that redirected video BIOS calls to an ANSI terminal over serial port. It also stuffed received keys in the BIOS ring buffer. A speed of 38400 allowed a smooth transition BIOS -> LILO (no GRUB at that time) -> Linux console.

These days it may be possible to use a network card with a boot ROM socket.

Some mobos worked with this card to change CMOS settings because they used BIOS calls to display the menus. Newer ones seem too colorful and flashy to not require direct video memory access and some also have mouse support that would be difficult and slow to support over BIOS calls.

Didn't find a good solution (3, Interesting)

gweihir (88907) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331891)

I have been doing something similar for half a decade now, in a firewall/storage/NAT server running Debian stable. I found that the only really critical operation is changing the kernel, and for that I have a vido card handy (by now I use a low-power board with integrated graphics). For other things, including updates, I just cross my fingers.

The options that are there to do without the spare video card are basically IPMI (expensive, needs special mainboard), virtualisation and a serial console + remote reset capability. A serial console needs for your kernel to come up, and in fairness, also needs remote reset capability. It also needs a second computer to connect the serial line to. I used that for a test machine in a computer cluster with good results for several years.

PXE (1)

ei4anb (625481) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331901)

If the headless box fails to boot due to a problem with the filesystem then it often helps to have a PXE boot image ready on your DHCP server http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preboot_Execution_Environment [wikipedia.org] that you can use to boot the box. Some BIOS try a PXE boot if they fail to boot from disk or disc but you may have to press some key to start the PXE boot so try it once before you pull the video card (recursive advice, sorry).

Use a live CD distro (I use Damn Small Linux) as a starting point for building the boot image but most do not allow you to SSH in so you will have to customise the image a little to ensure that sshd is running and that you have an account that you can ssh login to that has sudo/su access.

You should be able to figure out where your BIOS parameters are stored in the battery backed CMOS RAM and make a backup that you can later restore via the PXE booted image if your BIOS settings get lost.

Wow, serial console kiddos. (1)

jsimon12 (207119) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331915)

I have to say I am surprised that the whole concept of serial consoles, serial cards and what not are completely lost on the Windows generation.

Here are the kernel configs [faqs.org] for using a serial dongle (costs around 5 bucks) on a USB port for as a serial console.

If you don't want to do that buy a serial port on a PCI card (costs around 10 bucks) or just buy a cheap watchdog card (most expensive least work since it emulates vga over serial).

Useless (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29331965)

There is little point in using USB since it requires that at least the kernel has started and the USB devices can be detected.

Usually if you get to that point the system is OK.

Re:Wow, serial console kiddos. (1)

rainmaestro (996549) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332355)

Doesn't surprise me too much. I'd never used a serial port (I'm 25) until my current job as a network admin and had to deal with some Sun servers with no vid cards (and a stuffed switch that wouldn't accept connections through the web console).

Hell, between the 6 machines in my home office and the 5 in my work office (not counting all the gear in the server room, of course), there is not a *single* serial port to be found. Unless you're managing "real" servers or networking gear, serial ports are seldom seen anymore.

Have you considered an old, low power vga card? (1)

popo (107611) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331919)

Tossing your AGP card makes sense, but have you considered throwing in an absolutely minimal ISA VGA card?

e.g: http://www.cablesonline.net/25isavgavidc.html [cablesonline.net]

The power requirements would be minimal, and you could run a few similar boxes through a monitor-switch so you wouldn't even need a dedicated monitor....

Re:Have you considered an old, low power vga card? (1)

larien (5608) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332119)

Urm, ISA hasn't been provided on PCs for ages - it would need to be a PCI card, surely? That said, the effect is largely the same, find the most minimal graphics card you can and slot it in.

USB video card? (1)

Lockblade (1367083) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331941)

There are some new external video cards that don't require anything but drivers and a USB port, such as the EVGA UV Plus [evga.com]. AFAIK, all USB video cards use a DisplayLink chipset, and there are rudimentary drivers here. [freedesktop.org] It's not a very elegant solution, but if you want to use any sort of GUI, this should work.

Boot loaders support serial comsole (1)

pcjunky (517872) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331961)

I used to do this in lilo I tink grib supports it also. Don't know if this works with usb serial adapters.

Dell servers have a usfull feature. Redirect bios to serial. This gives you the bios until the kernel loads. After this the kernal must do it. For serail console after boot look for the line in /etc/initab thats looks like this:

#s1:12345:respawn:/sbin/agetty -L ttyS0 9600 vt100

remove the #

Re:Boot loaders support serial comsole (1)

coryking (104614) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332075)

Use the VGA. It doesn't eat power. Your CPU is what is going to eat power.

The problem is the cost to maintain old hardware is usually higher than just buying new hardware. For starters, my guess is you've got antique IDE drives in there that have seen better days. Those things draw a bit of power, but worse they are nosy. Then you've got the old power hungry CPU and all the loud fans needed to cool it. On top of that, your case is probably old enough that it too has loud fans.

What I'm trying to say is you are better buying a new motherboard that fits into the case. Maybe get one that will take your old ram and has a legacy IDE port on it. Every one of these budget boards will have a vga port on it you can use. Better, the new CPU's and their bios will manage your fans so they are whisper quiet. I know you didn't say "has to be quiet", but for me personally, unless they are going into a data center I try to build all my machines to make zero noise.

No matter how you slice it RS232 is a pain in the ass for an application like yours anyway. You always have to fool with the baud, the XON/XOFF crap, the parity, all that. If you get one of those never-working USB->RS232 adapters you will just add a pile of complexity. I've never had one of those work right--ever.

Do you remember what you had that serial port to? I dont. I'd love to hear how people smarter than me manage to remember what the damn baud rate is on their gear instead of having to fool with minicom for 10 minutes to get to the console on my sun box.

Re:Boot loaders support serial comsole (1)

coryking (104614) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332085)

(and wow, I guess I replied to a comment instead of to the story... not trying to hijack you, just need my tea)

Two suggestions (1)

ctrl-alt-canc (977108) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331977)

Some years ago I added a device like this [bobblick.com] to a BSD box that I used as a NFS server in my home network. There are several projects like this available in internet using different microcontrollers. Simply map the terminal push buttons to perform some useful commands (like starting a safe reboot script), and you have an emergency exit for your box. You might also try this: start a VNC server on your box at boot time, and set up as well a network connection using either the serial port or better a USB port (using usbnet). This should allow you to access the system X display through USB/serial. I am afraid however that there is not an easy solution for accessing remotely the BIOS screen before the OS starts.

I've got better advice for ya (1)

dvh.tosomja (1235032) | more than 4 years ago | (#29331979)

1. Throw it to trashbin
2. Buy any NAS
3. Save fortune on power consumption
4. When it fail, you wouldn't need graphic card either

Coreboot (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332001)

http://www.coreboot.org if your motherboard is supported

Get a newer PC (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332029)

I'm all for green stuff, recycling, etc, but P4's were incredibly power hungry processors. A new low power dual core will be faster while drawing draw 50% or less power than that old P4, and pay itself in less than one year thanks to lower bills. Especially if it stays up 24/7 since you wrote it would be used as a server.

Recycle your computer (2, Interesting)

Bob Esponja (1416343) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332041)

And buy one Sheeva Plug Computer http://www.marvell.com/featured/plugcomputing.jsp [marvell.com]. I bought one and now I save about 245 W per hour. I love this wonderful machine. I have an apache/mysql/webcam, mldonkey, bittorrent, ssh, samba, print server and nfs services and run fine!

Re:Recycle your computer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332533)

245 W per hour

That's like saying "50mph per day". (1W is 1 Joule per second.)

remote head (1)

TheSHAD0W (258774) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332077)

A related question... How much in the way of resources does it take to run a GUI app on a box when the X-server is running on another machine? I'm sure it largely depends on the app; a web browser? An IRC client? The gimp is probably right out. :-P

PC Weasel (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332087)


Love the landing page- product is kinda pricey though..

There's even an online demo, though, it's a little touch and go sometimes.

serial is your friend (1)

OrangeTide (124937) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332121)

PCI RS232 card is highly compatible with software and inexpensive, but what P4 doesn't have at least one serial port on it?
A cheap low-power video card could be an option (get one used, since it's an old machine).
As for accessing BIOS, if you had a server motherboard then you'd just flip the option on in BIOS to access it over serial port(you pick the port, bitrate and the emulation mode). But given that you are asking and just pulled out some old system I'm going to guess that this option was not available to you.
For around $350 you can get a card that has serial console output, but appears to the PC as a simple VGA card (Real Weasel), although for that price you could buy any number of other things to replace your P4.

hardware switch the gfx card off (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332155)

build a hardware switch mounted outside the case to disable the video card.
in case of network or other error turn off machine flick switch to re-enable and power on, after maintenance repeat to disable.

If you video card is something like a GeForce 6800 (1)

gukin (14148) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332159)

then sell it on e-bay and get an atom mobo. There are quite a few older, decent systems that need AGP video cards. nVidia has stopped supporting the older TNT and some GeForce 2 cards and the best AGP card that can be purchased is a 7300. The P4 processors were energy hungry beasts, sure you can clock a 3Ghz P4 down to 375 Mhz but it will still use more power and be slower than an Atom.

Of course once you've got your Atom mobo then you might consider a green power supply, and a smaller case and . . . .

P4 != "old" (1)

foldingstock (945985) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332207)

Since when did people start considering P4 machines "old?" I can do almost everything on my P4 desktop that I can do on my Core2Duo laptop, save for some higher-end graphics rendering. The P4 chip is not slow, by any means. P3, sure. but P4? Please. Kids today are incredibly spoiled. Get off my lawn, etc etc.

Related to the topic, it would be trivial to configure console login via the serial port. Since this P4 is so "old," it should have a serial port. OpenBSD provides an option for serial login during the install. Many linux distributions do as well.

My ideas (1)

Eravnrekaree (467752) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332223)

I have often felt the need for this kind of feature. Not because i removed the video card. But because I didnt always have a monitor connected as i installed the system in a cabinet, and for purposes of remote diagnosis. There is the serial port idea but you need to plug it into another computer. Another option might be to see if any serial to ethernet solution exists, then you can login to the serial port through an ethernet connection. Some network cards have a netboot feature but i dont think this is what we are looking for. I couldnt really find any simple solution for the problem. The serial to ethernet seems interesting but i dont know if that exists. Most boot problems seem to originate with the Linux boot up process and filesystem scans but these may be rectified with the new filesystems. Once control has been passed to Linux from the BIOS, it really should be possible for linux to run some sort of ssh service to allow access even while the kernel is still booting. Maybe a solution that would require a hardware level addition is to allow BIOS settings to be modified from the OS after boot.

Re:My ideas (1)

Eravnrekaree (467752) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332305)

Probably having the SSH run while the kernel boots (at least in the very early phases, but perhaps not in later phases) may not be realistic, but filesystem mounting, where most boot time problems seem to occur, can be delayed until after the kernel is booted, as long as the system files can be accessed from the filesystem. This probably would require some kernel level features to be added and so on. So certainly at that point Linux could start an SSH to debug the filesystem problems. But, with newer filesystems, you probably shouldnt have the bootup stalled with a demand for an fsck, and with ext2 you may be able to have fsck run automatically. I have had Linux bootups stop because of demands to run fsck on the ext2 filesystems.

With linux bootups becoming more reliable due to better filesystems, maybe it will become rarer that there are regular problems with Linux booting. Accessing the BIOS settings from Linux is a neat idea but I am sure does not probably exist.

You won't like the options (1)

kencoe (1474539) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332229)

You could use any of the various server-based out-of-band management solutions, but only if your MB supports them. The trick here is that they will use more power than your AGP card, or a PCI FIFO card, and will cost FAR more than either of these other solutions. Is that really what you want?

Serial, even if by USB (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332269)

Attaching a terminal to a serial port is the way to go, it's easy and effective. If your computer doesn't have a conventional serial port on it, there are USB-to-serial dongles which will create a serial port for you - I'd imagine modern Linux supports this (BSD did ~5 years ago when I used this solution for embedded installations).

AMI MegaRAC or similar PCI card (1)

yoshac (603689) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332277)

Get an AMI MegaRAC, Dell DRAC or similar. They plug into the PCI bus and provide a java console over separate ethernet. Also have hooks to power/reset the system remotely. Servers use IPMI for similar, but these PCI cards are as close as you'll get for a desktop.

Use the video card (1)

Seth Leichter (28163) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332375)

Just put the video card back in. If you're not doing 3D you won't draw much power. 2D requires a lot less juice than the 3D modes, and I expect the console mode to use a lot less than an X session.

And there's no other way to manage the BIOS. Servers made to run headless have extra hardware to redirect BIOS access over the serial port. An old desktop can not do it.

Er... (1)

ucblockhead (63650) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332447)

Why not just put the AGP card in a box next to the machine and put it back in if you ever get in a situation where it doesn't respond to SSH?

But how much power do you really think you are saving, here? If the original card was some ass-kicker power hungry thing aimed at gamers, your best bet might be to just go spend $15 on some low-end crappy (and low power consuming) graphics card. Hell...most self respecting geeks I know have ten of those in their garage.

KISS (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#29332481)

PCI Video card.

If your kernal stops booting/working. Serial/USB/potatoes/onions, or anything else you want isn't going to work. (Short of expensive and useless additional hardware that you don't want).

Put in a floppy drive, make a boot floppy with network card driver that will allow you to terminal into the machine mount your drive and fix whatever you messed up. Push the floppy in all the way and reboot to recover.

Depending on the bios, you could also use a bootable cdrom that had you 'hit space' while the computer is booting etc (write it down on a post-it note! what to hit and when).

No other solution will replace a local video card/keyboard.

If your network card stops working? Well being able to shell in via TTY on a serial port won't fix it anyhow.

PCI = 15 insertions only!!! (1)

GPLHost-Thomas (1330431) | more than 4 years ago | (#29332507)


I just wanted you to take care that, with the PCI standard, the average slot (AGP, PCI, etc.) is designed to withstand only 15 insertions minimym. That means that if you constantly plug and unplug your video board to save a bit of power, sooner or later, your connector will die.

As for the USB, there are very inexpensive USB to serial adapters. As much as I know, these are in the very standard that was out when the first USB 1 went out, and almost (if not all) USB serial adapter will work smoothly in Linux. The only issue is that, to run this, you will need a kernel driver. So I don't think you will be able to actually see anything with it when at the grub prompt. Your only hope here might be a modified BIOS. Maybe you could look at open source BIOS replacement to do this trick, I don't know if there's even a solution here. What I know is that getty (or mingetty, depending on your distribution) WILL work with any serial adapter, including USB ones, by simply tweaking /etc/inittab. Just make sure that the USB to serial adapter module is loaded BEFORE init runs. The most easy way could be to have the driver included NOT as a module, but directly in the kernel.

I hope that helps.
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