Category: Building Maintenance

The family mainframe (by )

I'm in the process of consolidation the home fileserver and the public Internet server - currently two separate bits of hardware - into a single physical device, virtualised to support multiple indepedent machine images. Having a single family mainframe will simplify the management of the complex web of computers and services that support our digital life.

For various reasons, the best place to build such a thing is at the office end of my workshop. Even though it's at the "clean" end, this is still a room that is prone to having fine conductive dust in the air, varying humidity and temperature, and (heaven forbid) a leaking roof. Also, I want a case with extensive room for upgrades, and which makes it easy to replace parts. Having used 1U rack-mounting servers for quite some time, I am sick of highly compact servers that are difficult to work with, requiring extensive dismantling to get to parts.

Clearly, I needed a rather special chassis for this new family mainframe, so I bought a load of steel, picked up my tools, and got to work. I've been working on this for months; I initially cut up the metal at home, then visited a friend's workshop to borrow his pneumatic rivet gun and his MIG welder. Since obtaining my own TIG welder, I've been able to continue at home.

The chassis is nearly structurally complete; this weekend, I've been attaching mounting brackets inside it for everything to attach. All that remains is to finish welding the upper panel on, then the whole thing can be cleaned and galvanised, and the exterior painted. Then I can fix it to the wall and start fitting the electronics and electrical systems!

The first thing I did this weekend was to fit mounting brackets for the processor frame. This is taken from a standard ATX case, and is the base plate with standoffs to mount the motherboard, the frame to attach expansion cards to, and the frame to hold the PSU. This is screwed into the chassis, so that I can use an existing frame (rather than having to make one myself), and so I can replace it if needed. The frame is held in place by two locating pins that fit into holes in it, and then two screws through the upper-left corner (I drilled and tapped holes in the top left bracket), and a little spacer at the top right to stop it from flexing:

Processor frame mounting brackets

With the frame in place, it looks like this:

Processor frame in place

Next came the expansion frames. I may need to add additional hardware inside the chassis in future, but once it's holding a running server and painted and bolted to the wall, I can't really take it down to weld additional brackets into. So I cut off one-inch lengths of square tube, drilled and tapped a hole in the centre of one side, and welded them to the inside of the chassis. I drilled holes in the ends of strips of steel, so they screw into the pairs of brackets, creating a metal strap that can be removed, things mounted onto (via welding etc), and then screwed back into place, without causing major disruption. There are two - one beneath the process frame, above where the UPS will go; and another right at the top, above the environment management system.

Here's the upper one:

Upper expansion frame

And here's the lower one:

Lower expansion frame

The welds were quite difficult, as I had to reach right down into a corner of the chassis. As such, they were either OK or awful, depending on whether I had to use my right (dominant) or left hand:

Lower expansion frame (left hand bracket)Lower expansion frame (right hand bracket)

I also cut and drilled some mounting flanges, which will be what are used to bolt it to the wall:

Mounting flanges

When I made the sides of the chassis, I welded angle iron onto them, in order to attach said flanges:

Tabs where the mounting flanges will attach

(Note the plasma-cut hole, which will be where a removable plate with sockets for Ethernet, VGA, and USB will go).

The mounting flanges are quite thick (the wall is rough and bumpy, so the chassis needs to be spaced slightly from it), so it was good fun welding them to the much thinner angle iron. I think I did an OK job:

Mounting flange attached

Then I mounted the internal frame for mass storage devices, which goes above the processor frame, below the environment management system. It's a metal plate drilled for lots and lots of 3.5" disk drives, which attaches (with screws) to brackets I welded into place:

Mass storage frame

With all the internal stuff done, I started to weld the top panel in place, which I'd avoided in order to enable me to get access into the top:

Top panel

Annoyingly, I ran out of argon while doing the tack welds. A TIG welder without shielding gas is a lot like a plasma cutter, and I burnt a nice hole in a shower of sparks. It's only a small hole, so I'll be able to weld over it when I finish the job off.

Unable to do the final welding, I drilled a hole in the eaves, where clean outside air will be drawn in through a duct into the environment management system:

Air inlet

I also hefted the entire thing up to the wall where it will be mounted, propped it in position, leveled it, and drilled through the holes in the flanges to make the holes that will be used to anchor-bolt it in position:

Wall prepare for mounting

Workshop progress (by )

Setting up my workshop has been a long battle, thanks to the roof leaking (and everything getting covered in slime mold because of the damp, and ivy growing in through the holes in the roof and shedding sticky sap and dead leaves on everything, and a cat getting in there and pooing on the floor...). Things got rusty, everything got grimy, and stuff was moved around willy-nilly to get it out of the water; and then because everything was in the wrong places, stuff couldn't be put away properly, and so things ended up piled wherever they could go. This was quite distressing for me; by nature, I'm a person who makes things, but I've not been able to do anywhere near as much making as I'd like for years, because I didn't have a nice place to work and didn't have easy access to my equipment.

Door with sign

But, now the roof is fixed, and everything's had about a year to dry out. I've had time to continue painting the floor (it's all now covered in paint, but some parts need a second coat); I've cleaned and tidied;0 and thrown away wood and metal that was too rusted to be of any use, and scraped up the remains of cardboard boxes that had dissolved into fungus, and found and removed all the cat turds and scrubbed the floor with disinfectant; thrown away computer parts that were covered in disturbing fungal blooms; and cleaned and tidied the computer desk. I've made racks to store the wood and metal stocks that are still usable, and put down linoleum under the computer desk so the chair can roll around freely (it didn't do too well on the rough concrete) and I have a nice surface to rest my feet on.

I put up a bracket with hooks for my boiler suit and lab coats, by the door, as the place they used to hang now interferes with the material racks:

Protective clothing hanging by the door

I've got the compressor installed under the workbench, rather than kicking around the floor:

Compressor installed under workbench

And my computer desk is all set up nicely; you can't really see it here, but there's a desktop PC, with a nice set of speakers and an amplifier so I can listen to music - or the audio from my wide-band scanner, seen to the right of the monitor, which picks up the FM broadcast band nicely:

Desk

What's next? I still need to assemble some shelving, as there's still stacks of flimsy plastic crates holding a lot of stuff. And put a second coat of paint on some bits of the floor (which will be easy to get to when the crates are gone). And I've got a metal garden waste incinerator I was going to turn into a furnace (but which is far too large, and now I've helped somebody else build a furnace that he lets me use), which I need to find a new home for. And I need to find a place to store the festival trolley, which currently kicks around on the workshop floor (getting in the way and offering plenty of shin-scraping opportunity). And I need to finish the meter-and-a-quarter-high heavy steel server chassis standing in the middle of the room (which will be fixed to the wall next to my computer desk when it's finished).

I want to make a new welding bench, too - my current one is curved, as (in the wildness of youth) I tried to put far more welds between the top surface and the frame than was needed, causing it to warp. This means it's very hard to make flat things, as they don't lie flat when I'm lining them up to weld. And, as it stands on four rather thin angle-steel legs, on a rough concrete floor, it wobbles, so isn't much use to mount a vice on. Speaking of vices, while clearing up in the workshop, I came across this beast:

Old leg vice

It's a "leg vice"; the long metal leg should be embedded into the ground to steady it. It's a blacksmith's tool, intended to hold something while it's battered with a hammer; thus the exceptionally sturdy construction. If I bolted it to my current bench, then the bench would fall over if I tried to use it in earnest. We found it in the stable where we lived before, which is the ancestral home of one side of my family; I was given it as I thought I could try and get it working, although I was expecting a long task ahead of me to rebuild seized parts. Thankfully, the screw thread was in perfect condition, and penetrating oil and elbow grease got the joint un-seized, and it's now working nicely. It still needs some rust removal to make it more pleasant to touch and to avoid contaminating everything I clamp with rust, but that won't take long.

I costed up materials to make one with a more rigid frame, bolted to the wall at the back and with two legs at the front so that it wouldn't wobble (and, with the wisdom of experience, only stitch-welding it to the frame, as that'll provide more than enough strength without curving it into a bow); making that will cost a little over sixty pounds (plus welding consumables and electricity). The design includes a mounting point for the leg vice, so that it protrudes out into the room (with the top of the vice level with the top of the bench, so it's not in the way of large things going on the bench), and converting the old bench into a shelf under the new bench to provide much-needed handy storage for grinding tools and welding clamps.

However, having just spent a bunch of money on welding gear I'm not going to be in a position to splash out sixty quid on a welding bench for another month or so (let alone buying metal for other metalwork projects needed around the house, such as a set of railings for the front of the house...). Thankfully, we've found a local scrap metal merchant who are willing to let us rummage around for cheap metal! When we get a chance, I'm going to head over there and see if they have any steel plate for the top and box/angle section for the frame and legs... It'll be nice to have a good welding project to focus on with my new TIG welder!

Cabling my workshop (by )

As a child, I read a novel called Triplanetary, which featured a character called Gray Roger. Roger was the evil master of a space-born flying citadel, and usually sat in an office, at a massive control desk. Through this desk, he controlled the massive machinery driving the citadel and its tremendous weapons.

This image (and many others like it) meant a lot to me; for as long as I remember, I have wanted a Secret Lair with Control Panels.

When we bought our house, one of the big selling points for me was a small building at the end of the garden, which I turned into my workshop. The far end has my computer desk and my electronics desk, and the end by the doors is a messy area for metalworking.

However, the years since have been blighted by problems with the roof leaking, which has damaged furniture and tools, and caused horrible mold to grow on everything. Last summer, with the help of a friend, I properly felted the roof, which seems to have solved the leaking. There is still work to be done cleaning the interior and re-painting stained floors, but the inside has now dried out.

However, even aside from the roof problems, I had no Internet connection to the workshop. Wifi couldn't reach from the house, and wouldn't be sufficient for my needs. So even with the place drying out, I've not had a place I can sit and work with a computer at home; everything was done with laptop on lap on the sofa, or sat at the kitchen table, or similar - hardly comfortable, while I have a proper desk and office chair sitting out there!

So I have long wanted to run Ethernet cables down to the workshop, and haven't had a chance to organise it while I'm focused on trying to fix the roof.

But the colocation deal I use to host my Internet server is coming to an end, and rather than moving to a new one, I'm going to run the server from home. We have reliable, low latency, high-speed fibre broadband from Andrews and Arnold, and a server hosted at home will be one I can attend to for maintenance, upgrades and emergencies; having the current one based in London is somewhat inconvenient!

As there's nowhere good in the house to keep servers, they need to go in the workshop - so I now have a deadline to get Ethernet out there. And over the past few weekends, I have done just that, with much help from Jean (a lot of cabling work cannot be done single-handed; long bits of trunking need to be held up at both ends before being stuck down, and pulling cable through conduit requires somebody pulling at one end while somebody else feeds the cable in carefully at the other).

We had to use no less than three different cabling techniques, as the cables pass through several different regions.

It all starts in the cupboard under the stairs, where the PPPoE termination of the fibre broadband from the phone network is. I've since mounted the patch panel onto the wall and tidied up the cabling, but here's how it looked earlier:

Cupboard under the stairs

The cables go through the wall (which was once the external wall of the house before it was extended, so required drilling with a massive diamond core drill) into the library, where I've put a neat white box over the hole:

Library trunking

The trunking goes off to the kitchen wall. The hole through that wall is smaller, so can be hidden behind the trunking at the left. In the kitchen I used smaller trunking that can't cover the hole, so another white box covers the hole on this side:

Kitchen trunking

Across the garden, we had to switch from trunking to waterproof conduit, all sealed together with funky glue, and access boxes with waterproof gaskets:

Garden conduit

Then inside the workshop, I used suspended cable trays. I love suspended cable trays - I can just lay extra cables up there whenever I need, which is of course a great feature for a Lair full of Controls:

Workshop cable trays

Finally, the cables come down from the tray system into the comms cabinet:

Workshop comms cabinet

Last night, I tested all four cables with a cable tester, and all pairs are OK. I've put the desktop PC I built (but never got to use) in the workshop and hooked it up to one of them, and it's working fine at Ethernet frequencies, too!

Having a desktop machine is a great boon, even if I'm sat in the house on my laptop - I bought a cheap, light, laptop with a view to using it as a remote terminal to the much beefier desktop machine where possible.

And, of course, no Lair is complete without a way of disposing of enemies. Having had enough of water around the place already, I opted against the traditional shark pits, and instead went for a cage full of dinosaurs instead.

Cage full of dinosaurs

And so now, I can sit in my bed with my laptop, and make the computer do things in the cold, dark, workshop at the end of the garden. Muhahah.

Finishing Projects (by )

Ok so sometimes we have problems finishing projects, sometimes we have problems starting the projects we've got the bits for/need to be done. This has been a combo of things including house moves, sickness, changes of work or work regimes and of course the dreaded ADHD.

So to combat this I used to set myself weekly and mounthly goals but it had kind of stopped working so it was time to find a new way. And that way was a Finish Projects Month - I had done these before for writing and drawings but normally they focus on one or two main projects and what we wanted was something to get our A into G on all the small almost finished stuff.

Well my aim was to end up with one finished project a day, Al's was to mainly get the niggling DIY stuff sorted.

We failed but as always with these challenges it is not really a fail. So Alaric has done much metal work and drilling. Preparing our house for structured cabling and server housing in the workshop. These count as two projects that are now much much further a head than they would have been and they need doing URGENTLY. To make our lives easier with DIY he made a contraption so that he could carry part of the compressor into the house but leave the noisy bit in the workshop. That is one FINISHED PROJECT.

So:

1) Compressor mount and pipe carrier = FINISHED

2) Server case = getting there

3) Structured cabling = getting there

Jean now has a bit of trunking for her room and is very excited about the whole process. We also had to sort out craft areas and workshop etc... to make this work well.

4) Attic organised and craft's sorted = FINISHED (though still boxes of paper work to go through)

5) Workshop = one end SORTED

Then there was some paper work/bank bits which we will count as

6)

7)

On top of that we now have a nice rodent proof feed storage box for the chickens which needs to be put in place but is in the garden. This will allow me to sort out the shed and to shore it up a bit more so we can get a bit more life out of it :/ We also dealt with the flooring in the chicken run, which is now all nice though next time I need to dig down further and put gravel in but we are getting there with it!

8) Fed Bin = GOT

9) Chicken Run Flooring = SORTED

We also uped the exercise stuff, so Alaric is doing his runs and though I am not running I will be as soon as we can get me some shoes and me and Jeany are going climbing together once a week.

10) Climbing and running = OWNED!

Writing wise I've been being a bit lame and only managed to finish one flash fiction - which I remember coming up with the concept for in 2007 in Costa's in Cheltenham during the whole flood debacle. I'd typed the intro of it onto Magenta Monster in 2010 combining it with a story starter I'd picked up off of twitter - which had sparked the idea back to life :/ It is at least now finished!

11) Story The Tragedy of Love = FINISHED!!!

Oh and this prompted a bit of a blog clean up/updating session.

12) Blog sorting = SORTED

I made the girls dig out all their library books and we took them back and did all the niggly bits of shopping for the house (ie not just food).

13) Household admin/maintain = GOOD (never ever gets completely sorted EVER)

This then leads on to crafts and the like - so basically I was like arg!!! I have a crate of half finished kids craft project and like 3 of me craft project - this needs to be sorted NOW!!!

For a start there was the sock I had attempted for Al - it has it's problems but it is a nice sock, but fits Jean, has wholes in it and more importantly there is just one of it as I started in in what 2013? And did most of it and it had just been sitting there almost finished for the whole of last year - attic became a no go zone with building works a happening. Basically I've forgotten what I did so there is little hope of knitting another. But it is finished and now a base for something else - Jeany wants to turn it into a new purse/wallet for Alaric.

14) Al's Sock = Done by awaiting full incarnation

Having taken up crotchet and attempting to desperately learn the different stitches at the beginning of the year, I had ended up with lots of half finished squares - I now have 15 finished squares (still need to thread the ends away). They will either be flannels or squares for blankets depending on how square and what size they have come up!).

15) 15 crotchet squares = almost done

I'd sorted out all the knitting and sewing into project bundles and found I had some random pieces that I had no clue about. Fortunately whilst I was finishing off something else I remembered what one of them was, found the pattern, found my place in the pattern once more and finished it off - sadly it is only one side of a duck but I will be knitting the other half shortly - I needed the white wool to finish knitting Mary's Elsa dolly. This was supposed to be her main Christmas present :/ I still need to make some shoes and she needs sewing up and stuffing but I think she is getting there!

16) Duck toy = so not done yet but progress made!

17) Elsa Dolly = all knitted but sewing up, stuffing, hair and face needed

Alaric managed to finish two creeper faces on stuff I'd knitted ages ago.

18) Creeper faces = half done

However I have been creating more work for him in this area - I finally sewed together and stuffed the baby creeper plushy that I knitted for Jean ages ago - it was another stuck due to roof fix project! I should have gone with instinct and used foam except I hate foam so it has wadding in.

19) Baby Creeper sans face = OWNED!!!!

I wanted to finish Mary's fairy outfit that I have crotchet in giant chunky wool but it took me all month to get to the shop to pick up the last ball I need to finish the second shoe!

20) Fairy outfit = not done but materials got

And though I started them during the month there are also crotchet Easter Eggs - six of them 2 giants and 4 little ones. Jean wants more but as that is for the weekend I think she maybe whistling!

21) Giant Crotchet Easter Eggs = DONE

22) Mini Crotchet Easter Eggs = Done

There are also the epic Easter Egg Spoons we made at the weekend and the planter/seed markers.

23) Ester Egg Garden Ornament Spoons = FINISHED

24) Painted knife seed markers = FINISHED

And one dug over bed and allotment tidying (I have many other beds to dig), I also potted up half the seeds I want to grow in pots and fixed the sumps on the wormeries which I'd needed to do for a while.

25) Wormery sorting = DONE

26) Allotment = BEGUN!!!

27) Seeds = STARTED

Within this there was stuff like plant pots that had been painted by me as a teen and never used and grass heads that had been made and never used etc... so it was a job well done I think.

We also had Mother's Day Cake making with the girls which I'm counting as a finished project 🙂

28) Mushroom butterfly cake = BAKED and EATEN

And that leads on nicely to the girls... Jean has made bead eggs, finished off lots of the exercise books she has and been colouring in the felt pictures she had. Mary has been painting plant pots and making books, bits that had been pulled down/never gone up yet in their room have been sorted and THE GREAT CLOTHS SORT and some buying of the new happened. They finished Easter mobiles and we've put up the chinese lanterns that Jean had half made before the flood and have been sitting at the bottom of a crate ever since. We also did crayon rubbings and eater cards for their egg hunt.

29) Bead Eggs = FINISHED

30) Mary's Easter book about Elsa a.k.a birthday pressy for Al = ALmost there

31) Easter Mobiles = FINISHED (except that there is a chick missing but hopefully it will turn up at some point!)

There is still plenty left for them to do as there are half coloured in Easter bags and papier mache eggs and so on and obviously some of this is new kits they got for the Easter Hols. Of course Jean did the huge candle make which over lapped the beginning of this month and was quiet frankly EPIC!!!

32) Easter kids projects = in progress

33) Candle Making = DONE, FINISHED, EPIC NOOODLES!!!!

Alaric also set up opportunistic SMTP encryption for the server cluster, and renewed our self-signed SSL certs - which is for email stuff so I am hoping my email will once again be usable which it hasn't been :/

34) Emails = sorted (hopefully)

I also finished sewing together 2 bags knitted out of fluffy and in one case sparkly wool. One of these I started BEFORE I started going out with Alaric and it was supposed to be a shoulder wrap but I couldn't knit so it was lumpy and bumpy and I ran out of wool and tried to use the same type but different colours and... it works much better as a bag and can now (finally) be sent to the person it is for!

35) Fluffy rainbow record bag = COMPLETED

36) Purple fluffy purse/bag = COMPLETED

Oh and I finished Alaric's new scarf which I did on day one and Alaric has proudly been wearing it for most of the month 🙂

37) Accidental West Ham Scarf = HAMMERED

Ok so maybe that isn't so much of a fail as I had thought! And I now know exactly how many project there are which always helps 🙂

I also drew a portrait of Sir Terry Pratchett and think I now have most of my note books sorted.

38) Drawing of Terry Pratchett = sadly done

Within March I also organised and ran workshops on: mothers day card making, kids comedy night including slapstick and improv, Easter egg hunts including life sized Alaric Bunny - for which I had to make a tail!

Plus a writing meet.

39) Giant Bunny Tail = OWNED

And I almost forgot that Jeany made soaps! And asked for and earnt herself £10 worth of more soap making supplies (the original kit being from a couple of birthdays ago).

40) Jean's Soaps = LOVELY

Eeep! There's more! At the beginning of March it was Downes Syndrome Awareness Day and Mary's pre-school had an event celebrating one of the little ones with them and requested an odd sock day. So I made a mooky - a sock monster like I used to make with nan and uncle (for those of you who met me after I was married Benny was Downes and died a couple of months after our wedding), it seemed appropriate to me, though I've had to explain to several people who were concerned that I was making an "odd monster" for the awareness day. Basically I made a cuddle toy for Mary out of odd socks.

41) Mooky for Moo the Mooky = DONEDID

Ooo also we settled in the new chickens 🙂

42) Chickens!!!! = settled and laying

So what of this coming month April?

I'm doing two writing challenges - one is Camp Nanowrimo which is linked to the novel writing madness I do in November. Script Frenzy is no more so I am doing it for Camp but always I am working on my comic books which are based in my Punk Universe. But also in general I will be catching up on all things comic related stuff including the pending blog posts and stuff about the Wiggly Pets, but obviously main focus is getting the 100 page script written.

The second is NaPoWriMo which is a Poem a Day writing challenge and will be the thrid one for this year - I tend to go with the "I am going to spend 30 hrs on poetry this month" approach which as I am running workshops at the wonderful Poetry Festival as well, should not be a hard one to complete 🙂

Better get one with some of the work I suppose!

Of Chickens and Candles and Holes (by )

This weekend has been absurdly busy, for a start I have finally been putting the attic back together after the whole roof fixing of last year! Then there were chickens! It was time to fetch our new rescue chooks - these ones are slightly less rescued than the previous lot as they came from a free range farm and so are a lot perkier than the first lot were initially. They also look better with already red combs and wattles.

Rescue chickens galore!

It was getting dark by the time we got back with them so photos are not brilliant I'm afraid. Felix who is one of the original four, is not impressed as she is in the rabbit run whilst they settle in.

Chickens exploring their new home

She was always quiet pecky so we shall have to see how introductions go!

We had planned on getting four hens but when we got there they had spares, so we ended up with 6. Their names are:

1) Squwashy - apparently this is something minecraft related that Jeany has picked.

2) Rose - named by Mary, she didn't give a reason

3) Chris - a chicken scheme programmer as picked by Alaric

4) Pete - another chicken scheme programmer

5) Tardis - this is my chicken 🙂

6) Firefly - this is my dad's chicken and apparently the most intellegent of all the dinosaurs.

They laid an egg on the way home and have since laid 3 more - we had fried eggs for dinner. The run looks so much better with chickens in it 🙂

1st egg from new batch of hens laid on the journey home!

The weekend also saw Alaric drilling holes in the walls.

Whole in the wall

Apparently I didn't want this part of the house! No he isn't just randomly destroying the house - he is network cabling so that we can have proper internet in all the rooms in the house etc...

Preparing for newtwork cabling!

Also the compressor was the best buy EVER! It now unsurprisingly has a hole saw attachment.

Alaric and the Nuematic hole saw

Last but certainly not least - Jeany has been wanting to do some more of her candle making for ages, in sorting the attic I discovered just how many candle ends we had accumulated - to be fair friends do post her candle ends to melt down.

Jean and Alaric making candles

This is her main craft activity that she does with Alaric, and it is also her little business which she started years ago now 🙂

Candles in the moulds

Infact the square moulds that came with the starter kit that... erm... started it all broke, so this is the last batch of square candles until she sells some candles and buys a square mould with the money.

It was a pretty epic weekend to be honest.

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