The Internet holds the key

I've been working this weekend on getting the various old Laptops etc we use for the Lark-in-the-Park registration system back up and running. They've been sitting on shelves for a year, and prior to that did their two weeks in Sidcup and two weeks in Ramsgate under a combined attack from damp and dust. For what follows to make sense you need to know that, for historical reasons, we are using Fedora core 6 un-updated for these machines. Yesterday I pulled out the first of 12 Acer travel mate laptops, wiped the hard drive and started a "kick start" installation. After about 40 minutes the screen filled with garbage, and the machine died. Odd! I tried again - this time the installation worked, however when I ran the "litp-install" script which does a collection of "yum" installs and custom edits, a number of the larger RPM files failed to download properly. A second attempt threw hard disk errors, and then the system "oops"ed. "Oh well" I thought - that's one less machine this year. I then tried the next one and had the exact same problems, ditto the third and the fourth. Something odd but consistent was going on.  I tried everything I could think of to solve the problem.
  • Maybe the hub I was using was faulty - tried a cross-over cable instead. No better.
  • Maybe a corrupted CD - burnt another - no joy.
  • Maybe a file was corrupt on kickstart server - rebuilt the repos - no change.
  • Maybe the year on the shelf had restored an old bad cmos setting - checking - but nothing relevant could be modified.
  • I tried doing a download loop on the "kdebase" RPM (one of the ones that was failing). Every time it was downloaded it had a different check sum, and after 3 or 4 attempts the machine would report HDU errors then crash.
  • I tried one of the Dells - that worked file.
  • I tried using a PCMCIA card in the Acers - that worked too.
After many hours of frustration the thought occurred to me that should have occurred much earlier -- I wonder whether there was anything about this on the web. So after 5 minutes of trying a variety of searches, I discovered a few reports of the B44 driver for the Acer's network card having problems under load, which resulted in data loss kernel memory corrupt (breaking other drivers in the process). The threads suggested various patches. We were getting closer. The best solution seemed to me to be to use the latest Linux kernel. Thank you web for your help! So - I found the sources for version 2.6.34, untarred into my Fedora Core 6 development machine, compiled using the original "config" file, copied it to the laptop with a sense of expectancy. But horrors -- it wouldn't boot. Huh? On investigation it seemed that the required hard disk drivers were not included in the initrd. I tried to add them by hand - but for some reason, the linux configuration had chosen to leave them out. So - back to the kernel source tree, and try to get them added in. Several tries later I found the names of the new drivers required, and generated an kernel that booted on the laptops. Yay! Relief! Now with hope rising, I turned to check the network loading issue. But -- nothing doing! The system hadn't recognised the NIC. My heart sank. Here we go again - it seems the kernel was missing the required network drivers. So returning to my earlier levels of frustration, I ran "make menuconfig", found the driver option, turned it on, ran "make all" and all that stuff - another hour. This time it worked. And what is more - no hard disk faults, and no data corruption. I was home and dry. One last check before heading for bed -- does the wifi still work? Arrrgh! No! Another set of missing drivers and dependencies. I was repeatedly hitting the same problem -- the 2.6.34 build was ignoring options from the original 2.6.18 configuration file. Lots of them appeared to have been renamed somewhat. I spent ages try to match up the needed options with the missing ones, trying various builds until finally I got it working. By now I was getting seriously hard to live with. My poor patient wife was in "just leave him alone to let him get on with it" mode. Even the dog knew to keep out of the way. All of this had taken about 2 days - and I still didn't have a single laptop running for the 2010 registration system. Panic was setting in. Then it dawned on me -- was *this* problem already known about, and discussed on the web? Blow me! Yes! And what's more there was a copy of the configuration file free to down load that would give me all the 2.6.18 features in a 2.6.34 kernel. I would have saved my self hours if I had found this earlier. Now I have 12 working Acer laptops waiting for the opening "Lark" sessions in three weeks time. But it took me nearly three days, when it should have taken a couple of hours. Now peace that has returned and I look back without the sense of panic, I realise I *should* have searched the net the minute I hit the problem rather than trying to fix it myself. It's true: there is nothing new under the sun. Particularly with an old version of a software system. But pride and common sense where at war with each other - and common sense was the looser. Next time - I'll do it the right way - at least: that's my plan! Graham Cooke - you are right; quieting the soul is the first step in finding wisdom. So help me God!

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