Workstations: the refresh

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Workstations can be fragile machines, so what can you do to help ease the pain if you have to rebuild an entire system? Rob Jamieson reports.

Recently I have been rebuilding some workstations for a series of events. I was told that there was a pile of bits to use and I managed to get two out of three systems fully working. The owners were impressed and asked me how I did this.

IÝm not going to go into detail about repairing specific workstations but after a few email requests from readers on the things you can do to rebuild a system after a hard disk failure or damaged OS, I thought IÝd share a few thoughts. However, neither I nor my company can accept any responsibility for loss of data, damage or expenses for use of this advice. This is targeted for Windows XP but the process applies to Windows 2000 and Vista.

There is a lot to think about before you start, but the first step to rebuilding a system is making sure you have an operating system CD or the install files available. Most systems come with an install CD, a lot come bundled with the required drivers (but not all). A few systems come ýpre-installed¯, which means you have an i386 directory on your hard disk. If you donÝt have a OS CD at all stop reading this and burn a copy of the i386 directory now!

" Doing maintenance on your workstation is just like doing DIY – we normally only do it when we have to and then only when water is leaking through the ceiling! "

An install CD will be bootable by changing the boot options in your system. It can then load the boot sector off the CD and give you options for installing itself. Sometimes you need to go into the bios to do this and change the boot loading options or pressing F12 on boot up is often available. If you only have a copy of the i386 folder on CD you will need to boot off a floppy disk or USB key. You can make a bootable floppy disk from a working Windows system or use sites like to find something usable. Check on the legality before you use it.

If you have a HP workstation and no floppy disk you can use the ýHP Drive Key Boot Utility¯ to create a bootable USB key, this may work on other systems but check the EULA (End User License Agreement) that comes with the download off the HP site.


The ability to boot off the USB port via a memory key is also useful if you need to flash the BIOS or firmware of the system. If I have a very early version of a workstation, itÝs likely to have an early BIOS, so I often update this as a precaution. The hardware option is to have a USB floppy drive which works very well and costs less than ú20. When you have an old BIOS you might need to step through earlier ones before you can put the latest one on.

LetÝs assume you have a way to boot and install the OS but before you start you will need to download the latest ÙnetworkÝ drivers from the Internet because if you do a fresh install you might not have them built in to your install CD and you wonÝt be able to get online. From the device manager (or your workstation supplier) find the correct network driver or wireless network driver and download it before you start. I generally download all the drivers before I do a reinstall but if I miss something I always have the option of using another system – you might not.


If your workstation is over a year or two old you might not have the latest service pack built in. Windows XP Service Pack 2 was very big so I would suggest downloading the ýWindows XP Service Pack 2 Network Installation Package for IT Professionals¯ at 270MB! If you really want to go the whole hog you can apply this service pack to your install CD and make a new one with SP2 built in. Just search the web for ýSlipstreaming Windows XP with Service Pack 2¯. There are many sites detailing the process.

So now we are nearly ready to start the process. If you have an existing drive or have booted off a USB memory key I would suggest that you reassign it to something else than the C: drive. You really want the ýSystem¯ drive to be the C as lots of software assumes this. IÝve had issues installing major software packages as the installer wants to write temp files to C:\temp, for example. Once Windows XP is installed itÝs impossible to change the system drive. I will not detail the actual steps of the OS install except to say that I partition one NTFS partition per drive. Once the system restarts and you have network access, you need to enable the Windows firewall that comes with SP2 of Windows XP (if this is what you have installed). Next install the Anti Virus software and run an update to protect you. After this run Windows update, which you can find in the tools pull down in Internet Explorer. This applies to all the latest patches and protection. It will need several restarts and expect it to take an hour or so with a good connection.

When you are fully up to date you can install the chipset and graphics drivers and any special drivers your hardware vendor recommends. Before you install your applications I would set your swap file to 2 or 3 GB max and min settings the same. This is dependant on your RAM you have installed. By setting the max and min to the same it stops the swap file growing which can cause fragmentation to the hard disk. You also want this file near the front of the disk as itÝs the fastest part of the hard drive.

I normally rebuild a system once a year as I install a lot of software, IÝm not suggesting you need to do this as long as you follow the routine maintenance for cleaning out temp files, defragmenting etc. The thing is itÝs just like doing DIY – we normally only do it when we have to and then only when water is leaking through the ceiling!

N.B. IÝve had a lot of emails about my Sky + discussions in March/AprilÝs ýWhen do we adopt new technology¯ article so I thought IÝd set the record straight. American dramas, such as ER and Desperate Housewives, are not classed as ýsoaps¯, according to my wife. I would like to apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused and also thank you for your concerns regarding my wifeÝs viewing habits.

Robert Jamieson works for the hardware manufacturer AMD. The opinions in the article are not necessary the opinions of AMD as a company.


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