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One SSD for my HTPC

A bit more than a month ago, I successfully transferred my dual boot Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 14.04 from two 120Gb Solid State Drives (SSD) to a single 240Gb drive.  I got several problems restoring the bootloaders of the two operating systems, thought many times I would have to reinstall, then figured out a way to make them boot.

But what happened to the two drives I removed from my main computer? Well, they sat still on the top of a shelf. But at least one drive will be repurposed: become part of A.R.D.-NAS, my HTPC. Sunday, October 26 2014, I finally got the time and courage to undertake the transfer operation. This time, the software part was pretty smooth, but the hardware part was a uselessly intricate puzzle. During the process, I wondered myself many times about the purpose of generic hardware if it doesn’t fit well together and pestered about the lack of any viable alternatives.

The sacrifice

Well, my NMedia HTPC case has six 3.5″ drive bays. This is quite nice for an HTPC case. This is possible, because I chose an ATX case, to get a motherboard with rear S/PDIF audio connectors rather than just headers accepting brackets I could get nowhere. This case is a bit bulky; I would build off a MicroATX case if I had to start from scratch.

So installing this SSD seemed obvious at start: just add the drive, transfer the Linux boot partition from the hard drive to SSD, remove the original boot partition, setup GRUB on SSD and tada. No, things are rarely as simple. I thought my motherboard had only 4 SATA ports, and they were all used: one 1Tb hard drive, a second 1.5Tb hard drive, a third 3Tb hard drive, then a blu-ray reader/writer. Why so many hard drives? Well, I am ripping and storing all my video disks, even the huge blu-rays, to avoid the need for searching for them on shelves.

Even if I remembered correctly I had six ports on the motherboard (two are free!), my PSU only had four SATA power connectors, so I would not be able to easily and reliably connect all my drives. I could try to find some splitter cables or molex to SATA adapters, but that would add a factor of failure. I could replace my PSU for one with more SATA power cables, but it would also have more molex cables, PCI Express connectors, etc. Unless I went with a more expensive modular PSU, all these cables would have cluttered my case.

Safest and cheapest solution was to sacrifice one of the hard drives, the 1Tb one of course, the smallest. I thus had to move files around to have less than 120Gb of stuff on the hard drive that would be moved to SSD. That process took a lot longer than I thought. My poor HTPC spent the whole Saturday afternoon copying files around! Fortunately, this is machine time so I had plenty of time to experiment music creation with my still new UltraNova synthesizer combined with Ableton’s Live multri-track ability.

Preparation

On Sunday, I first burned the Ubuntu 14.04 ISO on a DVD. Yes, Ubuntu is now large enough to fit only on a DVD. After that, I shut down my Minecraft server running on my HTPC and moved its files to another old PC. I started the server on the old PC and reconfigured the port mapping on my router. This way, if my friend wanted to kill a bit of zombies and creepers while I was installing my SSD, he would be able to do so and I would not be stressed if something bad made my HTPC out of service (like something stuck in the CPU fan breaking it).

I then removed the cover of my HTPC and spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what was the 1Tb hard drive. Based on the position of the SATA connector on the motherboard, I presumed that was the left-most drive. I thus had to disconnect the drive in the middle bay, and use the freed up power and data connectors to hook up my SSD. I then booted up the machine.

Following picture shows the drive temporarily hooked up.

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Then I remembered about my old 22″ LCD that I stopped using after purchasing my Dell touch screen. I went pick it up in my computer room, put it on my kitchen table and plugged it in. This way, I would be able to have the screen right in front of me, keyboard on the table, rather than in front of my 46″ LCD HDTV with the keyboard on my knees.

The SSD and the LCD hooked up, I booted up my HTPC and quickly sticked the Ubuntu DVD in the blu-ray drive. After an incredible amount of time, the machine finally booted up into Live Ubuntu DVD!

Data transfer

After Ubuntu started, I launched GParted and realized that I chose the wrong hard drive. The 1Tb drive containing my Ubuntu setup was disconnected. Oh no! So that means I will have to turn off the machine, connect the right drive and wait once again for this stupidly long, almost five minute, DVD-based boot? No, not this time! Feeling like a cowboy, I decided to try something: drive hot swapping. This is possible with SATA, so let’s see! I thus disconnected the 1.5Tb hard drive, starting with the SATA data cable, then the power cord, then hooked up the 1Tb drive. Hearing the old hard drive coming back to life was kind of thrilling. Everything went well, no cable stuck into my CPU or rear fans, and the PC didn’t freeze like it would do with IDE. The hot swap worked.

After that, this was relatively straightforward. As with my main PC, I used GParted to transfer my Linux boot partition and reconstruct the layout. I fortunately remembered, before, to reset the partition table. If I didn’t do that, the GPT that was on my SSD would have caused booting issues that would have drove me mad! I would probably have ended up reinstalling everything, angry against Ubuntu, the technology and probably the whole human kind. A single step, recreate the msdos partition table from GParted before the transfer, saved me that!

Following picture shows my LCD on which we can see the progress of the transfer.

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See how bulky was this setup: HTPC on the floor, case opened, SSD hanging on top. Hopefully it was possible to make this setup clean once again after all this.

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The home partition: too big to fit on the SSD

Unfortunately, GParted didn’t want to transfer my home partition to the SSD, because it was obviously too large. I could have shrunk it in order to copy it, but I wanted to avoid altering the hard drive in case something bad happened. I thus instructed GParted to simply create a blank Ext4 partition and used cp to perform the copy. The following terminal session shows how I managed to do it in such a way that all files metadata (timestamps, ownership, permissions) was preserved.

ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ mkdir /media/old-home
mkdir: cannot create directory ‘/media/old-home’: Permission denied
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mkdir /media/old-home
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo fdisk -l /dev/sda

Disk /dev/sda: 1000.2 GB, 1000204886016 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 121601 cylinders, total 1953525168 sectors
Units = sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x000e2c4d

   Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sda1   *          63    40965749    20482843+  83  Linux
/dev/sda2        40965750    81931499    20482875   83  Linux
/dev/sda3        81931500  1953520064   935794282+   5  Extended
/dev/sda5        81931563  1943286659   930677548+  83  Linux
/dev/sda6      1943286723  1953520064     5116671   82  Linux swap / Solaris
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mount -t ext4 /dev/sda5 /media/old-home/
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ ls /media/old-home/
eric  lost+found  mythtv
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo fdisk -l /dev/sdg

Disk /dev/sdg: 120.0 GB, 120034123776 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 14593 cylinders, total 234441648 sectors
Units = sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x000d9a0c

   Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sdg1            2048    40968191    20483072   83  Linux
/dev/sdg2        40968192    81934335    20483072   83  Linux
/dev/sdg3        81934336   234440703    76253184    5  Extended
/dev/sdg5        81936384    92170239     5116928   82  Linux swap / Solaris
/dev/sdg6        92172288   234440703    71134208   83  Linux
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mkdir /media/new-home
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mount -t ext4 /dev/sdg6 /media/new-home/
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo cp -a /media/old-home/* /media/new-home
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ ls -a /media/new-home/ -l
total 36
drwxr-xr-x  5 root root  4096 Oct 26 19:49 .
drwxr-xr-x  1 root root   100 Oct 26 19:44 ..
drwxr-xr-x 69 1000 1000 12288 Oct 25 22:52 eric
drwx------  2 root root 16384 Sep 26  2009 lost+found
drwxr-xr-x  3  122  130  4096 Jan 24  2011 mythtv

The main idea is to mount both the old and new partitions, then use cp with -a option and root access (with sudo) in order to preserve everything. The operation went smoothly.

The boot loader

Even after copying all Ubuntu-related data from my old hard drive, my SSD was still not bootable. To make booting off the SSD possible, I had to install GRUB. Unfortunately, reinstalling GRUB on Ubuntu is not as simple as it should be. If there is a package doing it, why isn’t it built into Ubuntu’s image? Maybe because for most setups, reinstalling from scratch takes 15 minutes. That’s true, but then how about tweaks to fix mouse pointer too small, make XBMC work with S/PDIF sound, reinstall MakeMKV, etc.? Each step is simple, at least when no unexpected difficulty creeps in, but the sum of small things to tweak makes it long.

So let’s avoid this by running the following!

ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mkdir /media/ubuntu
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mount -t ext4 /dev/sdg1 /media/ubuntu/
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mount --rbind /dev /media/ubuntu/dev
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mount --rbind /sys /media/ubuntu/sys
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo mount --rbind /proc /media/ubuntu/proc
ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ sudo chroot /media/ubuntu
root@ubuntu:/# grub-install /dev/sdg
Installing for i386-pc platform.
Installation finished. No error reported.
root@ubuntu:/# update-grub
Generating grub configuration file ...
Warning: Setting GRUB_TIMEOUT to a non-zero value when GRUB_HIDDEN_TIMEOUT is set is no longer supported.
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-3.13.0-37-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-3.13.0-37-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-3.13.0-36-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-3.13.0-36-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-3.13.0-35-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-3.13.0-35-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-3.2.0-61-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-3.2.0-61-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-3.0.0-17-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-3.0.0-17-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.38-12-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-2.6.38-12-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.32-25-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-2.6.32-25-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.31-21-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-2.6.31-21-generic
Found linux image: /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.28-16-generic
Found initrd image: /boot/initrd.img-2.6.28-16-generic
Found memtest86+ image: /boot/memtest86+.elf
Found memtest86+ image: /boot/memtest86+.bin
Found Ubuntu 14.04.1 LTS (14.04) on /dev/sda1
done

The main idea here is to create a chroot environment similar to my regular Ubuntu setup, then install GRUB from here. I ran update-grub to make sure any disk identifier would be updated, pointing to the SSD rather than the old hard drive. Unfortunately, a small glitch happened: update-grub detected the Ubuntu setup on my hard drive. To get rid of this, I had to unmount the old hard drive and unplug it! After rerunning update-grub, I got the correct configuration.

Updating mount points

Since I rebuilt the home partition rather than copying it, its UUID changed so I had to update the mount point in /etc/fstab. I thus had to run the following:

root@ubuntu:/# cd /dev/disk/by-uuid/
root@ubuntu:/dev/disk/by-uuid# ls /dev/disk/by-uuid/ -l | grep sdg6
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 10 Oct 26 15:37 fb543fcb-908a-463d-bc1f-896f1892e3ad -> ../../sdg6
root@ubuntu:/dev/disk/by-uuid# ls /dev/disk/by-uuid/ -l | grep sdg1
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 10 Oct 26 16:11 54f4cbd6-aed0-4b43-91c0-2f8d866f3ee3 -> ../../sdg1

After I figured out the UUIDs, I had to open up /media/ubuntu/etc/fstab with gedit and make sure the mount points were correct. I only had to update the UUID for the /home partition.

Test boot

After all these preparatory steps, it was time for a test! I thus powered off the computer and made sure my old 1Tb hard drive was unplugged and my new SSD was hooked up. I turned on the PC and waited for the forever lasting BIOS POST. Why is it so long to boot a desktop while a laptop almost instantly hands off control to OS? After BIOS handed off control to OS, I got a blank screen with a blinking cursor, nothing else. I tried a second time: same result.

So after all these efforts, do I really have to format and reinstall from scratch? It seems so. Before doing that, I rebooted my machine once again and entered into BIOS setup by hitting the DEL key. Once there, I looked at the hard drives and found that the SSD was hooked up but it was not at SATA port 0.

I turned off the machine and connected the drive into a different port, what seemed to be the first. Looking into the BIOS setup again, my SSD was now at port 0. Ok, let’s try that a last time!

After a blank screen lasting too many seconds for a SSD boot and making me fear for a frustrating reinstall, the Ubuntu logo appeared, and my desktop finally came up! A quick check confirmed me that all the hard drives were present, except of course the disconnected 1Tb one. The SSD was ready to be installed into the machine!

The hardware part

The downside of SSD is that they seem not to fit in any regular desktop cases, only in laptops! This is a very frustrating limitation. Why are these drives all 2.5″ or why cases don’t have 2.5″ bays? When I shopped for my computer case, only high end ones had the 2.5″ bays and that was coming with fancy mechanisms to make the drive removable without plugging any cables, something adding into problem factors. Maybe at the time I am writing this post, some cases with SSD bays are available, but that doesn’t matter; I won’t change my case unless I really need to!

Before installing the SSD, I first removed that old 1Tb drive. I just had to remove four screws from my drive cage and slide the drive out.

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To help me install my SSD into my HTPC case, I had a bunch of screws as well as an OCZ bay bracket. Just screwing the drive into the adapter’s tray took me forever, because I had trouble finding screws that fitted, there was a screw in one of the SSD hole I don’t know exactly why and that took me almost five minutes to realize. I then had trouble aligning the screws with the hole, was getting more and more tired and prone to drop screws, etc. At least, the screw I dropped fell on my table so I didn’t have to search it on the floor forever.

Following picture shows the drive in the bracket.

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Then I had to screw that assembly into the drive cage of my case. Unfortunately, the upper bays of the cage only offer bottom holes while the SSD adapter has only side screws! I thus had to screw the adapter in one of the bottom bays, which are definitely suited for hard drives with their rubber pads to absorb vibration. None of my screws fitted well. It seems that the SSD adapter has holes smaller than normal while the screws for the drive bay are larger than usual! I got it after more than 15 minutes of attempts. I thought many times I would have to postpone this job and wait for my father to come by with a drill and make some new holes into the SSD bracket or the case.

Following picture shows the drive in the cage.

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I don’t know exactly how much time I spent on this installation, but at the end, I was tired and was asking myself if all this would be worth it in the end.

Well after the SSD was screwed and the drive cage back into my HTPC case, I realized I wouldn’t be able to hook up my four SATA drives! No matter what I tried, there was always one drive lacking power. This was because the SATA cable coming out of my power supply unit were too short to accommodate the drive layout I came up with! Ok, I’m at a dead end now.

Before giving up and bringing that beast to a computer store in the hope they would figure out a way to hook the four drives up (maybe with some extension cable I don’t have, or using a new PSU), I remembered that the 1Tb drive I removed was in the middle upper bay which was now empty. My only hope to get the drive powered this day was thus to move one of my hard drives there. Ok, so let’s remove the cage again and play with the screwdriver once more!

I moved my 3Tb drive from the side bay to the upper one and put the drive cage back into my case. I was then able to hook up power. Reaching the SSD drive in the side bay to hook up SATA cables was a bit tricky, but I finally got it. A last check confirmed that all my drives were hooked up, except my blu-ray writer. Ok, just a cable to plug in, and that was it!

Was this all worth it?

After all this hassle, I asked myself this question. When I booted up the machine, it seemed as slow as with the hard drive. What? Maybe the CPU is too slow, after all. But when I reached the desktop and started XBMC, I felt the system was more responsive.

More importantly, the machine became a lot more silent. Since a few weeks, this HTPC was making a lot of noise. I thought it was the CPU fan stressed out by the Minecraft server running on the system, but the 1Tb hard drive was contributing to the noise as well. I suspect it was emitting more and more heat, causing the temperature to raise inside the case and heating up my poor little CPU. The CPU fan was then reacting by spinning like crazy.

Even after I restarted my Minecraft server, the sound didn’t come back. I am still surprised by this effect which I didn’t expect.

This 1Tb hard drive is definitely getting old and emitted some suspect sounds a few times. I am wondering if it would have failed and died if I left it in the machine. This SSD move thus saved me an unexpected reinstall and will help me have a better time with this HTPC.

So yes after all it was worth it!