Now, about this Cobalt Qube 3 of mine...

Discussion in 'DIY Server and Workstation Builds' started by WANg, Aug 8, 2018.

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What should we do with this Cobalt Qube 3?

  1. Gut the chassis, put new parts in it, turn it into something cool and modern (but what?)

    11 vote(s)
    100.0%
  2. Keep it as-is, contort Linux to make sure it is still working

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  3. Viking burial - fill it with MiniDiscs and Iomega Zip drives, send it to Best Buy as a recyclable

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  1. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    Okay, so I have this Cobalt Qube 3 sitting in my home office for months on end, and as much as I love the little box, I really want to repurpose it (which might/might not include hollowing out the hardware and only retaining the chassis). First, a look at the chassis:

    [​IMG]
    For those youngins' out there who are too young to know, or for those who have short memory retention, a Cobalt Qube 3 is a piece of Microserver hardware that was released back in the old dotcom boom of the early 2000s. Cobalt made a bunch of decent network appliances based on MIPS / PMC-Sierra R5000 chips, then they switched over to AMD K6 (K6-2 Socket 7 Notebook CPUs), and then finally Intel Pentium III Coppermines. In late 2002 they were bought out by Sun Microsystems, who subsequently shut them down and liquidated their assets (another competitor gone). The Qube3 was the last released product in the Qube microserver line, while its 1U small form factor Raq continued until the final product (The Raq XTR) came out back in 2002.

    [​IMG]
    So, what's in the back? A 2 line LCD display, 2 10/100 ethernet ports (NatSemi MacPhyter based) a serial port, an optional SCSI port and a single full-height 32 Bit PCI (not PCIe) slot. The ventilation is via a noisy little 60 mm fan, and the power brick is proprietary.

    [​IMG]

    So what's inside? There is a TOP LOADING chassis holding 2 3.5" EIDE drives (obviously not hot swappable) with its own molex power connectors (note that the original EIDE cable does not run tio the back like that). There is a custom motherboard with a single AMD K-6-2 CPU and 2 PC100/133 RAM slots. You can see on that photo the SileX deep-chord/slow RPM fan with silcone mounting screws that I installed to minimize noise.
    [​IMG]
    So here's a photo of the motherboard - you can see the SCSI connector above the coin battery, which is directly under the CPU/heatsink. The original K6-2 450MHz has been replaced with a K6-3+ 450MHz. You can see the full size PC100 DIMM units - there are 2 sticks of 512MB DIMMs populated on the slots. You can see the ALi M1541 Socket 7 Northbridge on the board along with the LSI SCSI controller next to the slot. On the bottom next to the EIDE port is the ALi M1543 southbridge. The 2 large chips are the NatSemi McPhyter NICs, the NIC magnetics and the PHY. The chip with the sticker is the 1MByte EEPROM chip holding the boot image.

    [​IMG]

    Here's a closer look at that bottom board - the ALi Southbridge is on the lower left, the 2 NatSemi network controllers are arrayed along the middle, the magnetics and PHYs are to its right. The connector above the PHYs is for the LCD panel.
    [​IMG]
    Here's the top board. The CPU, the LSI SCSI controller, the SCSI port, the Northbridge chip, the RAM slots and the CPU/heatsink are visible.
    [​IMG]
    An even closer look at that top board.
    So, here's how it is wired up until the power-down a few months ago - I had a Y-cable split on the power adapter where one of the IDE cables drive the primary disk (was an 80GB Samsung Spinpoint M7 laptop HDD along with a 2.5" to 3.5" HDD adapter, nowadays connecting an 8GB EIDE DOM from an HP gt7725 thin client).
    [​IMG]

    What about the other 2 drives? Well, the power is fed off that molex connector pair, while the disks will be connected via a Promise Ultra133 TX2 PCI adapter (although I might've replaced it with a SATA card not too long ago).
    [​IMG]

    Of course, for those who are wondering what is inside that blue chassis, here's what it looks like after it's all emptied out. You can see the fan mount, the SCSI port connector and the dual green LED lamps on the chassis.
    [​IMG]

    So, that covers the hardware, which consists of:

    1x AMD K6-3+ @ 450MHz
    2 x 512MB PC100/133 DIMM modules
    ALi M1541/1543 Northbridge/Southbridge
    2 IDE ports
    1 8GB EIDE DOM
    1 2x16 segment LCD panels with buttons
    1 LSI SCSI-2 port
    1 Serial port
    2 NatSemi McPhyter 10/100 NICs
    1 USB 1.1 port
    1 32 Bit PCI slot, currently used to house:
    1 Promise Ultra133 TX2 adapter, which is used to connect -
    2 2TB Western Digital EIDE drives (both of which shows serious signs of eminent failure)

    So that covers the hardware. Now in terms of software, the Cobalt Qube/Raq series (except the XTR) all use a Linux kernel based boot ROM and does not have any recognizable BIOS to speak of. The boot ROM image is loaded as a stage1. Then what you have to do is compile a Linux stage2 kernel on its hard drive (which I remember has to be less than 1800k on a bz2, so strip that kernel, please). Userland on my Qube was Debian Wheezy with a custom compiled 3.4.8 kernel (someone broke the touch panel code on the 3.5.x kernels, and I didn't have any free time to kick kernel 4 screaming into my tortured little box). To keep within the spirit of the Cobalt stack with its non-threatening GUI based management, it rent webmin on top of Debian 7.

    So where does that leave you, dear readers?

    Well, It has been 5 years since I bought my MicroServer G7 (which I consider to be the Qube 3's spiritual successor), and even then it has been relegated from my main server to being my iSCSI box (the computing has been offloaded to a more powerful thin client acting as a hypervisor). So it's time to figure out what I should do with this 18 year old box (if it's human it would be allowed to go clubbing).

    So, I can do the following:

    a) Hollow out its guts and replace it with new components...?
    But what? I want to hear from you guys.
    The only rule that I have is that it cannot be something ridiculous like a stack of RaspBerry Pi 3s or some fly-by-night ARM boards with questionable hardware integration support (because lord I learned that one buying the NTC C.H.I.P. - that was not even mainline Debian Linux). I expect it to do native SATA and have ability to do some clever data protection stuff, I mean, the original is 18 years old and support RAID1 natively, dammit. If it's not doing something like zraid2 or btrfs pools, it's gonna get tossed out.

    b) Keep it running as-is.
    One of the funnier things about Linux is how you can run it on a 1024 node GPGPU cluster, and also on a freaking WiFi enabled toaster. Well, the K6-3+ is pretty much going to be outgunned by a Pi2 running a toaster. The question is...how far can you stretch the ridiculousness? Can it run kernel 4.12+ and a modern userland (probably Slackware instead of Debian)? Does it need a Spectre patch? How far can we push it? If we do, what should we torture the little box to do?
    Before you laugh, don't forget that DD-WRT still have modern/up-to-date builds for the original WRT54G, and that thing has, what, 16MB of RAM and 4MB flash...never underestimate the power of a determined IT guy with nearly infinite patience.

    c) Viking burial.
    If we are gonna send the little blue guy off, might as well cram it full of Iomega Zip Drives (itself containing a bunch of Apple ][e disk images and Commodore Basic program listings) and send it off to Best Buy. At least the look on that poor worker there will be worth a laugh or 2.
     
    #1
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
    Patrick and Blinky 42 like this.
  2. Blinky 42

    Blinky 42 Active Member

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    What is the usable inside dimension in the chassis? Could you stick a mini ITX board in there, or need smaller?
     
    #2
  3. cesmith9999

    cesmith9999 Well-Known Member

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  4. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    Eh, no. If you look at that thread, you'll notice that I am in it, and I specifically said above that I want no ARM boards. Frankly, I have had it up to here with dev boards that has a small installer base, and poor manufacturer support on stuff like drivers and accessories. I ran into that one with the Intel Galileos, which made me cringe every time I try to poke its i2c bus for querying sensors - that whole thing was Intel's less-than-half-hearted attempt to do IoT, and it's frankly an embarrassment. The entire NTC CHIP/Sunxi saga also left me with that sour taste in my mouth. Frankly, there are so many other ARM dev boards out there with poor support that I stay away from most of them (I do use RPis for stuff like doing GPS PPS NTP servers or my Beaglebone Black for picking up ADS-B traffic from inbound flights). If I really plan to use an ARM board I would've slapped a Beagleboard X15 in the chassis and called it a day - because it has mainline Debian support, solid vendor documentation and proven mature hardware. This is not about trying to squeeze as small a board as possible in that chassis. It was rather about putting the most compelling solution into a small chassis and getting the most use out of it.
     
    #4
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2018
  5. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    Well, the chassis is a metal cube that is roughly 176mm x 176mm x 176mm, and the existing I/O board is about 150mm x 150mm. Mini-ITX will be a very tight fit (170mm x 170mm, and I'll have to do some Dremel cutting and pop on a blanker plate. I am also open to the idea of only retaining the cobalt blue plastic casing, swapping the green LEDs with an orange set, replacing that 2x16 LCD with a full touchscreen color one, and discarding the metal cage (or build one new at a nearby Hackerspace to fit the needs).

    I actually thinking more in line of using a Mac Mini logic board (maybe like a 2012/Ivy Bridge Quadcore server model with RAID1 setup and Apple SATA support), something PC104 based, or something proprietary (like an Optiplex 7040 USFF/Lenovo M900) that can fit the need. That being said, I was hoping for something that can take 2 to (preferably) 4 DDR3L DIMMs, have at least 2 (4 or 6 will be ideal) SATA ports. Once I figure out what is out there, then the Frankensteinization can begin.
     
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  6. Patrick

    Patrick Administrator
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    I have lusted after one of these for what seems like more than a decade.
     
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  7. Tha_14

    Tha_14 Server Newbie

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    @WANg Please include "Donate it to Patrick" as a voting option xD
    You should repurpose it.
     
    #7
  8. i386

    i386 Well-Known Member

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    It looks great, I wouldn't change it.

    Keep it or donate it as an collector's item.
     
    #8
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  9. billc.cn

    billc.cn Member

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    You should be able to fit a NUC or similar mini-PCs comfortably, and you can use one of those mini-PCIe adapters to mount a PCIe device in the expansion slots. You should be able to pass through all the cabling through the existing holes, so no dremel required :)
     
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  10. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    @Patrick Really? I actually tossed out a pair of Cobalt Raq4s not too long ago (they were my test mules for testing configs on the Qube 3) - both that and its Symantec Velociraptor cousins are not hard to come by on eBay - probably $30 + shipping would do it. If you really want one (and I mean, really, really want one, kinda like my irrational affection for the Pismo PowerBook or the Sapphire Toilet seat iBook), you can still pick one up for about $130.
     
    #10
  11. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    Heh. I kinda want to do both - I want to figure out a cost effective, somewhat easy way to modify the chassis to fit a modern board, and then release the specs so people can mod their own. Of course, there is also the option of keeping a stock chassis just for that oldschool look.

    I mean, Apple ][es and C64s are cool-and-all, but plenty of people hollowed out dead C64s, slap a RPi2/3 in the chassis, install a custom ASIC to interface with the original keyboard, ran everything via emulation and kept the stock look out of respect and love. I want to do that...of course, whatever I do has to be a step forward and not a major feature regression.
     
    #11
  12. Patrick

    Patrick Administrator
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    Yea this is a project I want to do, but have not had the time. I wish I was less time-constrained these days.
     
    #12
  13. Dawg10

    Dawg10 Active Member

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    179mm cube, about 7".

    Random thoughts:
    1. Real cute sub woofer.
    2. An auto opening garbage can. See how fast you can get it to sense, open and close. Bonus points for sound effects.
    3. Motorize it. Have it randomly pick a new location. Mess with the cat.
     
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  14. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    Yeah...but then this will likely run down to a very dark place. My dream target machine should have 2 to 4 RAM slots, at least 2 SATA ports, USB3/TB3, Intel VPro (or its AMD equivalent), the ability to take a 10 or 40GbE dual port adapter, and the ability to keep it cool and quiet inside the Qube 3 Pro chassis. I would like to keep it MIPS or AMD if possible. COM Express Type 6 modules might work, but the carrier boards are almost always Mini-ITX in size already.
     
    #14
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
  15. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    1) No. For all the JBL/Audyssey speakers in my house and the sanity of my neighbors, I don't need another sub-woofer. Plus those subwoofers require holes to be punched out on the chassis to work.
    2) A 21 cubic meter garbage can? Eeeh. No.
    3) They already have plenty of things to be terrorized with.
     
    #15
  16. SDLeary

    SDLeary New Member

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    Have you looked at anything on embedded side of things? mini-STX, 3.5", nano-ITX, NUC. Some options out there with i5's. Depending on the board, you might be able to retain the LCD status display.
     
    #16
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
  17. Dawg10

    Dawg10 Active Member

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    In your first post you said "Okay, so I have this Cobalt Qube 3 sitting in my home office for months on end, and as much as I love the little box, I really want to repurpose it".

    It seems you want to upgrade the internals, not repurpose the chassis...

    Ho hum, carry on.
     
    #17
  18. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    *Rolls Eyes*. yeah, okay. Back to the adults.

    Well, I was thinking more in line of COM Express, but the typical Type 6 carrier boards are Mini-ATX, and are not exactly friendly on the wallet. I might be better off getting rid of the 176mm x 176mm metallic enclosure and use the ABS enclosure, something like so:
    [​IMG]

    To make it work with the metallic chassis enclosure means dealing with the metallic frame on the left ->

    [​IMG]

    Then there's the original drive cage, which looks like this:

    [​IMG]
    You can imagine the original components going into the machine like this:

    [​IMG]
    The first thing I'll probably need to do is find a dead/broken standard Mini-ITX board for checking clearances, both with or without the metallic frame. If Mini-ITX works, then that's a good start. I want to avoid going to NUC, since I'll need something that can handle RAID on-board and preferably with 4 DIMM slots.
     
    #18
  19. WANg

    WANg Active Member

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    Okay, so I did some serious deep digging on the PCPartsPicker for a MiniITX board that might fit the needs (fits inside a 176mmx176mm area, 2 to 4 RAM slots, supports at least 4 SATA devices, IPMI if possible), and I got back these results. So it looks like a bunch of Xeon-Ds, a bunch of Avotons, a Xeon E5-x600v3/4 board, and a Skylake-X board. The Xeon E5s starts at 65w TDP, and the Skylake-X are around 140. Even if the PSU holds I'll still have a massive headache wicking that much heat off the original Qube chassis. So that leaves the Avotons and Xeon-Ds. The Avotons I am not too thrilled about due to their past history of hardware failures (and also because their i210/217 Gbit chips can't do SR-IOV, which can be useful later), and the Xeon-D had that weird SRIOV issue on their 10Gbit ports (The Intel X552/557)...which I heard was fixed in a later BIOS/firmware update (Intel supposedly disabled it on the D-1540s and then quietly fixed the issue back in late 2016). I am thinking more in terms of a D-1521 (which is good enough) based Supermicro board, the X10SDV-4C-TLN2F - the only problem is that it's still rather expensive. Anyone here familiar with that particular board? I am also inclined to hold off until the Embedded Eypcs and Ryzens hit the market in Q3. The concern here is that the AMD stuff will be expensive and not commonly available, while the Xeon-Ds will stay artificially expensive.
     
    #19
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2018
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  20. Blinky 42

    Blinky 42 Active Member

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    The Xeon-D boards are nice, I have several version with diff NIC and CPU combos and will let you do a lot of actual work on the box if you get one with enough cores. If you are not in a hurry, may be worth going for the the AMD based boards once available just to be that much more cool in a cool case like that :)
     
    #20

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