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Linux hardware stability guide, Part 1


1.  CPU troubleshooting

Many of us in the Linux world have been bitten by nasty hardware problems. How many of us have set up a Linux box, installed our favorite distribution, compiled and installed some additional apps, and gotten everything working perfectly only to find that our new system has an (argh!) fatal hardware bug? Whether the symptoms are random segmentation faults, data corruption, hard locks, or lost data is irrelevant -- the hardware glitch effectively makes our normally reliable Linux operating system barely able to stay afloat. In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at how to detect flaky CPUs and RAM -- allowing you to replace the defective parts before they do some serious damage.

If you're experiencing instability problems and suspect they are hardware related, I encourage you to test both your CPU and memory to ensure that they're working OK. However, even if you haven't experienced these problems, it's still a good idea to perform these CPU and memory tests. In doing so, you may detect a hardware problem that could have bitten you at an inopportune time, something that could have caused data loss or hours of frustration in a frantic search for the source of the problem. The proper, proactive application of these techniques can help you to avoid a lot of headaches, and if your system passes the tests, you'll have the peace of mind that your system is up to spec.

CPU issues

If you have a horribly defective CPU, your machine may be unable to boot Linux or may only run for a few minutes before locking up. CPUs in this ragged state are easy to diagnose as defective because the symptoms are so obvious. But there are more subtle CPU defects that aren't so easy to detect; generally, the less obvious errors are the ones that cause machines to either lock up every now and then for no apparent reason, or cause certain processes to die unexpectedly. Most CPU instabilities can be triggered by "exercising" the CPU -- giving it a bunch of work to do, causing it to heat up and possibly flake out. Let's look at some ways to stress-test the CPU.

You may be surprised to hear that one of the best tests of CPU stability is built in to Linux -- the kernel compile. The gcc compiler is a great tool for testing general CPU stability, and a kernel build uses gcc a whole lot. By creating and running the following script from your /usr/src/linux directory, you can give your machine an industrial-strength kernel compile stress test:

Code Listing 1.1: The cpubuild script

make dep
while [ "foo" = "foo" ]
  make clean
  make -j2 bzImage
  if [ $? -ne 0 ]
    exit 1

You'll notice that this script repeatedly compiles the kernel. The reason for this is simple -- some CPUs have intermittent glitches, allowing them to compile the kernel perfectly 95% of the time, but causing the kernel compile to bomb out every now and then. Normally, this is because it may take five or more kernel compiles before the processor heats up to the point where it becomes unstable.

In the above script, make sure to adjust the -j option so that the number following it is one greater than the number of CPUs in your system; in other words, use "2" for uniprocessors, "3" for dual-processors, etc. The -j option tells make to build the kernel in parallel, ensuring that there's always at least one gcc process on deck after each source file is compiled -- ensuring that the stress on your CPU is maximized. If your Linux box is going to be unused for the afternoon, go ahead and run this script, and let the machine recompile the kernel for a few hours.

Possible CPU problems

If the script runs perfectly for several hours, congratulations! Your CPU has passed the first test. However, it's possible that the above script dies unexpectedly. How do you know you're having a CPU problem as opposed to something else? Well, if gcc spat out an error like this, then there's a very good possibility that your CPU is defective:

Code Listing 1.2: GCC error

gcc: Internal compiler error: program cc1 got fatal signal 11

At this point, you have about three possibilities as to the state of your CPU:

  • If you type make bzImage to resume the kernel compilation, and the compiler dies on the exact same file, keep typing make bzImage over and over again. If after about ten tries the build process continues to die on this particular file, then the problem is most likely caused by a (rare) gcc compiler bug that's being triggered by this particular source file, rather than a flaky CPU. However, these days, gcc is quite stable, so this isn't likely to happen.
  • If you type make bzImage to resume kernel compilation, and you get another signal 11 a little bit later, then your CPU is most likely on its last legs.
  • If you type make bzImage to resume kernel compilation and the kernel compiles successfully, this doesn't mean that your CPU is OK. Normally, this means that your CPU glitch only shows up every now and then, normally only when the CPU rises above a certain temperature (a CPU will get hotter when it is being used for an extended period of time, and may take several kernel compiles to get to that critical point).

Rescuing your CPU

If your CPU is experiencing random intermittent errors when placed under heavy load, it's possible that your CPU isn't defective at all -- maybe it simply isn't being cooled properly. Here are some things that you can check:

  • Is your CPU fan plugged in?
  • Is it relatively dust-free?
  • Does the fan actually spin (and spin at the proper speed) when the power is on?
  • Is the heat sink seated properly on the CPU?
  • Is there thermal grease between the CPU and the heat sink?
  • Does your case have adequate ventilation?

If everything seems fine, then you may want to rerun the kernel compile tests with an open case. Let the kernel compile go for about five minutes and then put your hand inside the running machine and touch the outside metal casing of the power supply to ground yourself. Then, carefully test the temperature of the heat sink with the tip of your finger. If it's unusually hot, then it's very possible that your heatsink/fan combo just isn't adequate for your particular CPU. In that case, upgrade your system's cooling hardware -- hopefully, your CPU hasn't sustained any permanent damage and is still functional.

The ultimate CPU test

The kernel compile test is a great way to test for CPU stability, but there's an even more extreme CPU test available that you might want to use. I saved this one for last, because if your CPU is grossly undercooled, this particular test could really overheat it and could theoretically cause permanent damage to your CPU. This test is intended for systems that pass the kernel compile test with no problem -- systems that you want to ensure can handle even the most challenging CPU loads with ease. If your CPU is properly cooled, it will pass this test, and if it doesn't pass, you need more cooling.

To perform my "ultimate" CPU test, the first thing I do is head over to the lm_sensors page (see Resources) and download the lm_sensors package. This source tarball contains various kernel modules that interface with the health monitoring features that are built in to nearly all modern motherboards. Once this package is properly installed and the proper modules are loaded (use the prog/detect/sensors-detect script to figure out which ones), you'll see some new files and directories appear at /proc/sys/dev/sensors. These files contain handy information like the speed of your CPU fans, CPU and mainboard temperature readings, and motherboard voltage readings, all updated in real time. I recommend you configure this package to compile as modules and use the sensors-detect script to figure out what modules to load at boot time, since I've had better results with this configuration.

Once you have the lm_sensors modules loaded, I recommend that you install a graphical CPU/sensors monitor, which will allow you to watch your CPU load and temperatures in real time without having to repeatedly cat files in /proc/sys/dev/sensors. For this purpose, I use a great little program called gkrellm (see Resources). Here's a snapshot of my gkrellm app, monitoring my CPU usage, motherboard temperature settings and a bunch of other things:

Figure 1.1: gkrellm is up and running

Fig. 1

There are other graphical monitoring packages available that are compatible with lm_sensors; you'll find a bunch of them listed over at the lm_sensors home page, under the "links" section.

The last preparatory step is to download the cpuburn program (see Resources). This handy little program uses hand-crafted combinations of machine instructions to put maximum stress on your particular CPU -- even a little bit more than a repetitive kernel compile. Included in the archive are various little programs customized to set P5- and P6-class processors, as well as a special version for the AMD K6. Once you've unpacked the cpuburn tarball, read the README file; it explains how to compile the included assembly source files. After you've done this, you'll have your own little cpuburn program.

Now, for the test. I normally fire up my graphical sensors monitor, and then start the cpuburn program as root. Then, I watch the CPU temperature reading rise and stabilize, and then I leave cpuburn running for an hour or so. If you repeat these steps and your CPU temperature continues to rise to an unusually high temperature (160 degrees Farenheit or so would be considered "unusually high"), then your CPU cooling system needs major work. And, if your machine crashes or locks up, or the cpuburn process dies, your CPU cooling needs improvement -- or maybe your particular CPU simply isn't up to "spec". You can use the CPU temperature readings to make that judgment. But if all goes well, then your system should be able to tackle any challenge thrown at it. After an hour or so, you can go ahead and kill the cpuburn program and resume normal operations.

2.  Memory troubleshooting

Memory testing

It's really important to have a completely reliable CPU, and it's just as important to have rock-solid RAM chips. Some people think that SIMMS and DIMMS never fail and never need to be tested. Unfortunately, this isn't true -- bad memory is very common, and is something that all of us need to watch out for. Other people believe that while there may be bad RAM out there, any RAM errors will be detected by the boot-time BIOS memory check. This is also false; the BIOS memory check won't detect the vast majority of bad RAM, so don't let the BIOS check give you a false sense of security.

Bad memory symptoms

OK, so there's bad RAM out there, and some may be sitting in your machine right now. Here are some warning signs that may indicate that your computer contains bad RAM:

  • When you load a bunch of programs at once, every now and then a particular program will die for no apparent reason.
  • Every now and then, when you open a file, it appears corrupted. If you open it later, it looks fine.
  • When you extract tarballs (tar -xzvf), tar frequently reports that the tarball is corrupted. You try extracting the tarball again at a later date and tar doesn't report any errors. Similar problems can occur with gzip and bzip2.
  • If you're experiencing problems like these, it's likely that your system RAM is defective. You'll definitely want to test your RAM using the following method. And even if you haven't experienced any of these problems, it's a good idea to give the RAM in your system a good workout to help ensure that you won't be bitten by unexpected RAM quirks in the future. Here's how.


Fortunately for us, there's an excellent Linux-based memory testing program that installs onto a bootable floppy disk. It's called memtest86 (see Resources to get it). Creating a memtest floppy is simple. First, download the tarball. Then, unpack the archive and build the binary disk image:

Code Listing 2.1: Building memtest86

# tar -xzvf memtest86-2.5.tar.gz
# cd memtest86-2.5
# make

Then, insert a blank 3.5" disk into your floppy drive, and type:

Code Listing 2.2: Installing memtest86

# make install

After just a few seconds, your 3.5" disk will have a wonderful little memory tester sitting on it, ready to be booted. The best way to perform this test is to find some time when your machine can sit idle for at least six hours -- starting the test right before you go to bed (or leave work) is a good idea. To start the test, reboot your machine with the 3.5" disk in the drive. When your system boots, the memtest86 program will immediately start:

Figure 2.1: memtest86 testing the RAM on my development machine

Fig. 1

Major memory quirks (such as "dead" bits) will be detected within seconds. Failures triggered by specific bit patterns (which are unfortunately quite common) may not be detected for several hours, but should eventually be detected. As soon as memtest86 detects a defective bit, a message will appear at the bottom of the screen -- and the tests will continue. When you turn on your monitor in the morning, find that the tests have completed, and see no warnings on the screen, then in all probability your RAM is fine. However, if you continue to experience the problems listed in the Bad memory symptoms section, then it is possible that your RAM has an infrequently occurring quirk and may still need to be replaced.

Solving RAM problems

I hope that all your RAM is working just fine. However, if you're one of the unfortunate ones, all may not be lost -- there are still some things you can do to "fix" your bad RAM. The first thing I suggest doing is to visit your BIOS setup program and look at your memory settings. Some BIOS setup programs have a memory option called "Turbo Mode" -- obviously, if you have something like this enabled, then you should disable it. It's also possible that your BIOS memory timings are set incorrectly -- you can try adjusting them (increasing the refresh rate, lowering the CAS setting) and rerunning memtest86 to see if the problem goes away.

If memtest still finds errors, then it's time to locate the faulty SIMM or DIMM and remove it from your machine. If you have more than one memory module installed, then you'll want to install only a single module (or two modules if you have SIMMS), and run memtest86. Cycle through all your modules and you'll be able to determine which ones are defective -- there's no need to throw a good memory module in the trash.

That's all for now; in the second and final installment in this series, we'll take a look at how to fix problems related to hardware configuration, including IRQ and PCI latency issues. In the mean time, you may want to check out the following resources.


About the author

Daniel Robbins lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was the President/CEO of Gentoo Technologies Inc., the Chief Architect of the Gentoo Project and is a contributing author of several books published by MacMillan: Caldera OpenLinux Unleashed, SuSE Linux Unleashed, and Samba Unleashed. Daniel has been involved with computers in some fashion since the second grade when he was first exposed to the Logo programming language and a potentially lethal dose of Pac Man. This probably explains why he has since served as a Lead Graphic Artist at SONY Electronic Publishing/Psygnosis. Daniel enjoys spending time with his wife Mary and his new baby daughter, Hadassah. You can contact Daniel at


Page updated October 9, 2005

Summary: In this article, Daniel Robbins shows you how to diagnose and fix CPU flakiness, as well as how to test your RAM for defects. By the end of this article, you'll have the skills to ensure that your Linux system is as stable as it possibly can be.

Daniel Robbins

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