Computers play a major role in forecasting these days.  At each NWS office, AWIPS computer workstations form the backbone for updated forecasts, watches, and warnings.  I currently employ two desktop workstations and a notebook computer for monitoring and forecasting, along with various software and storage devices.

In the fall 2010, I purchased parts for a new primary desktop computer.  This was my first build, and although I took computer repair courses back in high school, some major changes have occurred since 2003 or so regarding interfaces and overall computer equipment.  Most notably was the replacement of IDE interfaces with SATA connections.

All-in-all, I have about 10 TB worth of storage capacity, mostly in the form of internal hard drives, and I wanted to consolidate most of this storage into one unit, which was my primary objective with a new computer.  I chose the Cooler Master Storm Scout Mid-Tower Case for several reasons.  One, it provided several internal 3.5″ bays to accommodate all my hard drives, as well as four 5.25″ external bays for DVD/CD drives.  Second, it’s a mid-tower ATX case which is just the right size for the motherboard and internal components I had in mind.  Third, the carrying handle is absolutely sturdy as a rock in the unlikely event that I need to grab it and haul it out of the house (either internal hook-up inside my Tahoe or a possible apartment fire).  Lastly, it’s just built tough and has an awesome look to it.  Here is a list of the other components that were included in the build:

Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400
Gigabyte GA-EP43T-USB3 Motherboard
Galaxy Tech 1GB GeForce 210 Graphics Card
XIGMATEK HDT-S963 CPU Cooler
Kingston 4GB DDR3 SDRAM
OCZ 550W Fatal1ty PSU
Intel 320 Series 120GB SATA II MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
WD Caviar Green 1TB HDD x2
WD Caviar Green 750GB HDD
WD Caviar Black 500GB HDD
WD My Book Elite 1TB Ext HDD
WD My Book Essential 750GB Ext HDD
HP L1710 17″ LCD Monitor x2
Lite-On 24x DVD Writer
LG 22x DVD Writer
Kingwin 120mm Side Case Fans x2
Edimax PCI Wireless Card
Logitech EX100 Wireless Keyboard/Mouse

Links are provided above and by clicking on the “Feedback” tab, you can find my thoughts about each product by looking for the comment from “wx4sno.”  Below are some of the pictures of the setup:

Figure 1. Storm Scout outfitted with parts

MB, PSU, etc

Figure 2. Mobo, PSU, etc

CPU cooler and case fans

Figure 3. CPU cooler and case fans

Figure 4.  View of the Storm Scout, external HDDs, and NAS

Figure 4. View of the Storm Scout, external HDDs, and NAS

Figure 5. Front view of the Storm Scout

Figure 5. Front view of the Storm Scout

 

I outfitted the workstation with four HDDs for a total of 3.25 TB of internal storage, mainly for backing up research and weather data.  Several gigabytes of storage are devoted to software storage in which I converted DVD and CD discs into ISO files for quick access with UltraISO.  I currently run the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate in a dual-boot configuration with CentOS 5.5 on this computer with 4GB of DDR3 RAM.  CentOS is a Linux distribution based on RedHat, which the NWS uses to run AWIPS and their Weather Event Simulator.  After several failed attempts to load the WES on my computer, I primarily use Windows 7 right now.  With Windows 7, it’s easy to create system image backups and I have several for this workstation in case of some major problem.  The following link is to a list of the programs and applications installed on this computer.

Computer programs and applications list

The main weather programs I run are:  GRLevel 3, GRLevel 2 Analyst, InterWARN, and StormLab.  The first two are used the most, with GRL3 being a quick, simple program that’s portable and can be used for a quick radar view, especially during storm chases.  GRL2 Analyst is definitively a graphics hog and I use it primarily as a research tool to analyze past weather events.  InterWARN is excellent at providing realtime updates for watches and warnings, as well as various text-based data, while StormLab is another radar-viewing program that I don’t use much (I find GR products superior to StormLab).

NAS

Figure 6. NAS and external drives

With most of my research and documents here at the apartment, I decided to invest in a Network Attached Storage (NAS) from D-Link. Whenever I need to access files from campus, I make them available over the NAS and then I have access to them anywhere. Although it’s a bit tricky to setup, once you understand how Internet Protocol and File Transfer Protocol work, then access is possible anywhere there’s an internet connection. This NAS from D-Link was around $80 with a $20 discount (found here), but didn’t come with any HDDs which I had to purchase separately. Right now I’m running two, 2TB Samsung Spinpoint F4 hard drives in the NAS as RAID 1, meaning one drive mirrors or duplicates the other…providing a second duplicate backup in case something happens to the first drive. The NAS is pictured in Fig. 1 and to the right. With the success I’ve had with this unit, I’d highly recommend one for folks who have DSL or high speed internet and that have lots of documents with the need to access them over FTP.

Current desktop layout

Figure 7. Current desktop layout

No system would be complete without dual monitors. Ever since I first hooked up two monitors to my desktop computer, I’ve been sold on the efficiency they provide and would never go back to a single monitor setup. In today’s market, it’s hard to find the right monitors for a good setup since most are wide-screen in nature. I found that having two wide-screen monitors is awesome if you’re a gamer or want a good encompassing display…but for my general needs of viewing radar programs, documents, and spreadsheets, a standard display works best. Three to four 19″ displays per computer are standard in NWS offices around the country, but I lack the space (let alone the money) for four 19″ monitors plus two separate graphics cards to run them. I currently have two 17″ HP L1710 displays hooked up to a mid-range Ge-Force 1GB graphics card from Galaxy Tech. Like I said, it’s invaluable and I’d never go back to a single monitor ever again.

 

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My second workstation is more of a server-type setup and is primarily a data collection and transfer machine; whereas weather charts, graphics, and numerical models are downloaded periodically, stored on the local drive, then copied over the network to the NAS. Each month I take the time to transfer that month’s collected data (about 8 GB’s worth) to a Dual-Layer DVD, which then goes into storage. This is a recent project, but I hope to build a continuous archive of NWS, HPC, SPC, and NCEP products that I can refer to as needed for research and case studies.

 

Figure 9. Old Gateway internal view

Figure 8. Old Gateway server

The backbone of this system is an old Gateway Nimitz-class µATX motherboard running a 2 GHz Pentium 4 processor. It was given to me by my brother-in-law, Stephen when he updated his computer (Fig. 8). I’ve found it very useful and extremely reliable. Manufactured in mid-2002, its life expectancy is 112,977 hours at 55°C. For the first seven years, it was used about 12 hours each day; thus when I acquired it, it had about 82,000 hours of life expectancy left. It should last until 2018 at the very least, likely even longer since the temperature remains well below 55°C. Since it’s not used much, I use the on-board graphics adapter and the only PCI card installed is an old dial-up router. The hard drive is a Western Digital 80 GB Caviar SE with an IDE interface and the power supply is a generic 250 Watt PSU.

Figure 11. Internal view of PSU, case fan, Mobo, and drives

Figure 10. Mobo and slide-out tray

In early December, I decided to update this computer with a new case and some extra additions. I purchased an extremely small µATX case, the Apevia X-QPack, with the main intent of it being tucked out of the way.  The case provides a slide-out tray for the motherboard (Fig. 10) and provides just enough room to install all the necessary components (Fig. 11). The PSU came with the case and is rated at 450 watts. This concerned me since it was nearly double the power of the old PSU…but from what I heard, that as long as the connections to the Mobo match, then there should be no problems. I haven’t had anything go wrong yet, but I saved the old PSU just in case. Since this computer runs 24/7/365 and the fact that the new case doesn’t provide that much ventilation, I purchased a really powerful case fan from SilverStone. It’s a controllable 120mm fan with up to 110 CFM airflow, and at top speed it sounds like a jet taking off. Right now, it’s mainly ran at low speeds since my CPU temps rarely get above 35°C…it’s there if I need it though.

Figure 12. New Wx_Obs Server

The complete setup takes up about 4 square feet (Fig. 12) and is extremely versatile. I currently run Windows 7 32-bit Professional on this machine with 2GB RAM and minimal graphics settings. It’s connected directly to my LAN and the internet and as mentioned earlier it runs 24/7. A Logitech WebCam Pro 9000 running with Image Salsa software provides 30 second updates to the Live! at Ball State Apartments webcam image seen on each page of my blog in the upper-right corner. Additionally, I run GRLevel3 and allow it to FTP images to my hard drive through GuildFTPd (instructions found here) which are later archived. The SpeedFan application monitors my internal CPU and HDD temperatures, as does the external LCD display on the front of the new case. Here’s the complete setup and equipment list:

Apevia X-QPack µATX Case w/ included PSU
Gateway Nimitz-class Motherboard
Intel Pentium 4 2.0 GHz Processor
2GB RAM
On-board Graphics
WD Caviar SE 80GB HDD
Sony DVD Writer x2
SilverStone 120mm Case Fan
AOC PCI-slot Case Cooler
Generic dial-up PCI card
Hyundai 17″ ImageQuest L70S LCD Monitor
Logitech Internet Navigator Keyboard & Mouse

Update (May 25, 2011):  Although my server setup was functioning okay, I decided to install a better motherboard, faster CPU, and an Intel Solid State Drive (SSD).  These updates radically improved my setup and now I’m able to run just about any program or any size application…the biggest improvement was the addition of the SSD.  Although this wasn’t the first SSD I bought, it vastly improved startup times and absolutely blew away my expectations.  Here’s an additional components list:

ASUS M4A785-M AM3/AM2+/AM2 AMD 785G HDMI Micro ATX AMD Motherboard
Intel X25-M SSDSA2MH120G2K5 2.5″ 120GB SATA II MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
AMD Athlon II X2 255 Regor 3.1GHz 2 x 1MB L2 Cache Socket AM3 65W Dual-Core Desktop Processor
G.SKILL 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory
Acer G235HAbd 23” 5ms 1920×1080 WideScreen LCD monitor 300 cd/m2 1000:1
Acer S211HLbd 21.5” 5ms LED-Backlight LCD Monitor Slim Design 250 cd/m2 12,000,000:1 (ACM)
Rosewill RMS-MS2740 Black 13″ – 27″ Tilt/Swivel Wall Mount

Later on in early July I updated the CPU and graphics card to improve performance with the new WX4SNO weather station which was brought online in late May (see Computers & Equipment>Weather Station drop-down menu). The processor was upgraded from a dual core to a quad core and I installed a dedicated graphics card which replaced the use of the on-board graphics from ASUS. Here are those two items:

AMD Phenom II X4 945 Deneb 3.0GHz 4 x 512KB L2 Cache 6MB L3 Cache Socket AM3 95W Quad-Core Desktop Processor
SAPPHIRE 100293DP Radeon HD 5570 1GB 128-bit DDR3 PCI Express 2.1 x16 HDCP Ready CrossFireX Support Low Profile Ready Video Card w/ Eyefinity

new dual monitor setup

new dual monitor setup

The new wx4sno.com server machine

The new wx4sno.com server machine; the CPU case is on bottom.

The new dual-monitor setup allows me to focus on watching radar on one screen while communicating information on the other, or I have the option of monitoring radar on one, satellite on the other…the possibilities go on and on.  With limited space, I had to come up with a different way to mount the additional monitor, so I went with the Rosewill wall mount.  I was expecting to get some plastic mount from the way the images looked, but when it arrived it was metal!  The mount is extremely sturdy and the best $25 I’ve spent on a computer accessory.  The pics to the right are of the new setup.

The main beauty of this setup is the ability to run multiple batch files and simple command prompt codes to periodically download, save, and transfer weather data. I’ll provide an example of this as it’s very useful and absolutely free!

First, I downloaded a small, command line program called url2disk from here. I also have a mirrored copy of the program through my server here. I un-zipped and placed the program in the root directory of C:\ Next, I opened a blank Notepad document and pasted the following code:

c:\url2disk.exe -i http://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/wwd/day1_psnow_gt_04.gif -o d:\Wx_Obs\images\day1_snow-4in.jpg -1

-Notice that the first part of the code points to the location of the url2disk program, thus it reads “c:\url2disk.exe” since I placed it in the root directory of C:\
-This is followed by a space and then an “-i” followed by another space.
-Next we have the web location of the image or document that needs to be saved, in this instance it was “http://www.hpc.ncep.noaa.gov/wwd/day1_psnow_gt_04.gif” which is the location of the Day 1 probability of 4″+ of snow from the HPC.
-This is then followed by a space, then a “-o” and then another space.
-Then comes the destination you want to save the file to and its final name. For me, I saved it to the “images” folder under “D:\Wx_Obs“. Of course, this will be different for you and can be any drive letter you have available on your machine. I named the file “day1_snow-4in” and saved it with the .jpg extension.
-Finally end the code with a “-1” Each image you want to download will need to be placed on it’s own separate line.

Here is an example file that includes weather charts and images from various websites. You can have as many images as you like, just remember to name them each differently. Also, if the directory you want to save the images to is not present, go ahead and create that directory (make sure to create the folders where you want the images stored).

Next, save the document as a batch file. When you go to File, Save As… within Notepad you will want to give the file a name and include the extension .bat plus you must change the “Save as type” to All Files or it will not work. So, an example would be, on the Save As screen:

File name: images.bat
Save as type: All Files

Now that we have the files we want to download and they are saved as a batch file, all you have to do is click on the file you just saved as .bat and it will call up the command prompt and begin the download of the files to whatever location you chose. Figure 13 is a print screen shot of the cmd prompt running and downloading a couple files from NCEP.

 

Figure 13. Cmd prompt with url2disk running

This works fine if you want to download a bunch of images whenever you want and you manually click on the file…but to automate the process we can use Task Scheduler in Windows. You can have Windows call up the .bat file on a regular schedule and it will download the files automatically. Just go into Task Scheduler and add a new task, assign a schedule to it, and then make sure to run a program and select the batch file you created earlier. You can have Windows download the images every day or every hour if you like…

I have included a set of batch files for various weather charts, forecast models, etc. and they can be found HERE.  Just download them to your computer, then right click on them and select “edit” and you should be able to edit them in Notepad.

You’ll notice that in that directory I have also included files with the name ending in “xcopy.bat“. These batch files automate the process even further. For example, with the images.bat file, suppose that Task Scheduler is set up to run that file every day at 2:00am. I can then create another batch file that will copy those files to another location and rename that folder with the current date/time. This batch file, called images_xcopy.bat can then be set in Task Scheduler to run, at say, 2:15am (after the images.bat file completes its download). You only need one batch file for each set of images you download and the batch file code to copy and rename is:

xcopy /e /y "D:\Wx_Obs\images" "\\D-Link_NAS\Volume_2\Wx_Obs\images\%date:~10,4%-%date:~4,2%-%date:~7,2%_%time:~0,2%%Time:~3,2%\"

You the user only need to change what is in parenthesis’s (” “) For example, the images I wanted copied are located in “D:\Wx_Obs\images” and I want them copied to “\\D-Link_NAS\Volume_2\Wx_Obs\images\” followed by the code to include the current date and time, which you do not need to change. My final destination is on my NAS, which has the directory \\D-Link_NAS. Just remember to change this to some directory on your hard driver, for example: “C:\images\…“. Figure 14 is an example of the xcopy command running in command prompt.

Figure 14. Xcopy running in cmd prompt

 

Hopefully this makes sense, but if you would like to set this up and you’re having trouble, please feel free to contact me by email which is found on my website at http://www.wx4sno.com/.

Update (May 27, 2011):  A new section related to my storm chase vehicle is coming soon.

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