[Beowulf] Geriatric computer does not stay up

David Mathog mathog at caltech.edu
Wed Dec 16 17:27:29 EST 2009


So we have a cluster of Tyan S2466 nodes and one of them has failed in
an odd way. (Yes, these are very old, and they would be gone if we had a
replacment.)  On applying power the system boots normally and gets far
into the boot sequence, sometimes to the login prompt, then it locks up.
 If booted failsafe it will stay up for tens of minutes before locking.
 It locked once on "man smartctl" and once on "service network start". 
However, on the next reboot, it didn't lock with another "man smartctl",
so it isn't like it hit a bad part of the disk and died.  Smartctl test
has not been run, but "smartctl -a /dev/hda" on the one disk shows it as
healthy with no blocks swapped out.  Power stays on when it locks, and
the display remains as it was just before the lock.  When it locks it
will not respond to either the keyboard or the network.  (The network
interface light still flashes.)  There is nothing in any of the logs to
indicate the nature of the problem.

The odd thing is that the system is remarkably stable in some ways.  For
instance, the PS tests good and heat isn't the issue: after running
sensors in a tight loop to a log file, waiting for it to lock up, then
looking at the log on the next failsafe boot, there were negligible
fluctuation on any of the voltages, fan speeds, or temperatures.  It
will happily sit for 30 minutes in the BIOS, or hours running memtest86
(without errors).  The motherboard battery is good, and the inside of
the case is very clean, with no dust visible at all.  Reset the BIOS but
it didn't change anything.

Here are my current hypotheses for what's wrong with this beast:

1. The drive is failing electrically, puts voltage spikes out on some
operations, and these crash the system.
2. The motherboard capacitors are failing and letting too much noise in.
 The noise which is fatal is only seen on an active system, so sitting
in the BIOS or in Memtest86 does not do it. (But the caps all look good,
no swelling, no leaks.)  It will run memtest86 overnight though, just in
case.
3. The PS capacitors are failing, so that when loaded there is enough
voltage fluctuation to crash the system.  (Does not agree very well with
the sensors measurements, but it could be really high frequency noise
superimposed on a steady base voltage.)
4. Evil Djinn ;-(

Any thoughts on what else this might be? 

Thanks. 

David Mathog
mathog at caltech.edu
Manager, Sequence Analysis Facility, Biology Division, Caltech
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