Using a Compact Flash card as a hard drive on a Dell Latitude D430

December 5th, 2013 @ // No Comments

We got our hands on the Dell 430, a great sysadmin tool from a not so distant past. Nice proportions, tough magnesium chassis and wide range of connectivity options.
That said, we now must address the elephant in the room. Since the machine is old the maximum amount of RAM is 2 GB and the CPU is a little bit slow even in its top spec. However that is nothing in compare to how slow the hard drive is.

Although there are factory SSD models most units are shipped with a 1.8 inch 4200RPM PATA ZIF drive. Since it is almost impossible to find a modern SSD working on the PATA ZIF interface, we have decided to bump the performance with an unusual mod. Compact flash card with a CF to PATA ZIF adapter. Compact flash cards for years have been fully IDE compatible and are used in industrial environments where having fewer moving parts that can break is vitally important. Latest CF specifications support UDMA 6 and TRIM command so they are practically fully functional SSD drives (well in terms of having a solid state memory they have always been).

Before you start thou there are couple of things you should know.

Microsoft Windows, even in its newer versions, require (for no obvious reason) a non removable drive to be installed on (excluding Windows To Go functionality). The onboard controller on the CF card is reporting the media state with a bit set to 1 for removable and 0 for fixed. Windows detects this and you are not allowed to install the OS on the media. Even if you have a conventional drive you are unable to place a swap file, use drive caching or create multiple partitions on a removable drive.
There are software hacks based on an old micro drive driver that allows you to experiment but this is usable only if you want to relieve you primary hard drive by putting the swap files on a removable media only.

The solution is to find a hardware modified CF to SATA/PATA adapter that changes the state of the removable bit, find an industrial CF card which has a default state set to non removable drive but they are slower or you could contact certain compact flash card manufacturers and purchase a large amount 1000+ in which case they can set the removable bit to a non-removable state.
Fortunately, there are no such issues with Linux. You are allowed to partition and install the OS as if it was a normal hard drive. After installing you should either enable TRIM or schedule a script for optimizing the FS for an SSD once a week.

There are some pictures of the process as well a performance screenshot of the old toy under Debian 7.






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