What's inside the box? Building computers from scratch

Author: Iain Bethune
Posted: 28 Sep 2015 | 13:28

Last weekend, a team of us attended Bang Goes The Borders, a regional science festival hosted by St Mary's school in Melrose.

This was the fourth year we've been there, and as usual there were around 1000 school kids and their families keen to get their hands on all kinds of science- and technology-based activities.

Although our "dinoracer" has been a big favourite for the last few years, this time we took along two completely new activities: the Supercomputing App and the Build-a-PC Junkyard Challenge - which I'd like to tell you about...

Quite often on school visits and at science festivals we take along a range of old HPC hardware including blades from the Cray T3E and XT4 services we have had in the past at EPCC.  People seem to love handling the hardware, but I have often been struck by the fact that many of them have never even seen inside any computer - let alone an HPC machine - and so they have no idea that many of the components are the same, it's just how they are connected together than makes a Supercomputer super! I thought it would be great to get some old computer kit together and let people have a go at building it up, learning along the way what each part of a computer is for and how they fit together.

With that idea in mind I was lucky enough to get a delivery of ten old PCs which were being decommissioned from one of the School of Physics' computing labs during the summer (thank you!), and set about turning these into an activity that could be used at a science festival. After breaking down one of the machines into individual components I found that you could strip down the whole machine to just the case and system board, only needing 5 screws to put it back together!

After installing Ubuntu Linux with a "Congratulations" banner (to be displayed when the machine booted) and putting together an illustrated instruction booklet, it was time to pack all the kit into my car and head off to Melrose to try it out for the first time.

We ran the Junkyard challenge four times during the day, with kids working in pairs (sometimes with a parent's help) on their own machine. After a brief introduction and safety talk the kids donned their anti-static wrist bands, grabbed a screwdriver and got stuck in. It took about 30-40 mins for each group to successfully build and boot up their machine, which gave us plenty of time to disassemble them again ready for the next group.

In total we managed 22 successful builds during the day, and all of the people I spoke to said they really enjoyed it! For many it was the first time they had ever taken the lid off a computer to see what was inside it, let alone handling all the components and piecing them together.  Amazingly, almost all of the machines booted up first time!

After the first outing of the Junkyard Challenge, we have a few minor tweaks planned for the next time we use it. The instructions we gave to the kids could be better - if you give them the option of connecting something back-to-front you can be sure someone will try it!  But overall it was a great success.

One idea is to take the activity a bit further by having the machines connected together over a simple network so they can carry out some parallel processing once they are constructed.

We hope to be running the challenge again at other events during the year, so if you fancy a shot at building your own PC - let me know!

Author

Iain Bethune,  EPCC