During the several years I spent on the phone in tech support, it was common for people to call in with no idea of what kind of computer they had. I remember one conversation with a customer in which he answered “I don’t know” to every questioned I asked about his hardware. Finally, he got so frustrated and said, “Look! Im not a computer person. I just want you to tell me what’s wrong with my system.”
Imagine calling your mechanic to say there is something wrong with your car. He asks you whether the car has four or eight cylinders, whether it has fuel injection, whether it is automatic or manual, and whether it uses unleaded or leaded gas. You finally get frustrated and say, “Look. I’m not a engine person. I just want you to tell me what’s wrong with my car.”
The solution is to drive your car to the mechanic to have it checked. However, you can’t always do that with your computer system. Dozens of people rely on it to do their work. Without it, the business stops. To better track down and diagnose hardware problems, you need to know what to look for.
This section should serve as a background for many issues I’ve covered elsewhere. This chapter is designed to familiarize you with the concepts rather than make you an expert on any aspect of the hardware. If you want to read more about PC hardware, an excellent book is the Winn Rosch Hardware Bible from Brady Books (its more than 1000 pages and, as of this writing (March 2005), it’s in it’s sixth edition).
In the following sections, I will be talking primarily about PC hardware. Many of the concepts are the same as on Alpha machines or Macs, but when I talk about specific interactions with the hardware, they probably only apply to the PC, for two reasons. Despite the fact that Linux runs on several platforms, it was first developed on the PC and only recently successfully ported to the other architectures. The second reason is that my expertise is in PCs. I have several of them myself and have worked with them for years, so I have the experience to know what I am talking about.
In addition, the first commercial port to the Alpha is fairly recent. Therefore, there are not as many people using them. However, keep in mind that although the DEC Alpha is a different processor, the rest of the hardware is usually the same.