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document is an updated version of the original article, and contains
various improvements made by the Gentoo Linux Documentation team.
This document is not actively maintained.
Linux hardware stability guide, Part 1
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
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
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
Code Listing 1.1: The cpubuild script
while [ "foo" = "foo" ]
make -j2 bzImage
if [ $? -ne 0 ]
echo OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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