Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Triple-Boot Sony Vaio VGN-AR Notebook - Part I: RAID Uncoupling

I needed a portable development machine that would let me triple-boot XP, Vista, and Ubuntu.

So far, not a problem - but here's the kicker: it also needs a PCMCIA Type II (CardBus) slot. I occasionally code for a dated interface which, for laptops, is only available in PCMCIA. Unfortunately, PCMCIA has almost entirely been replaced by ExpressCard. As far as I can tell, in late 2008 you can get it on a few expensive Dells, a few of Acer's low-end Extensas - and Sony's Vaio VGN-AR series.

These Vaios had a lot of other things I liked, including a nice big 17" screen, and dual SATA drives. Woohoo - different drives for different OS's!

So I got a lightly used VGN-AR290G from eBay, and then found something out...

Those dual hard drives? They're hooked up to an Intel hardware RAID controller, and by default are configured as RAID 1. The upshot?
  • You can install Vista.
  • You can also install the custom, pre-slipstreamed version of XP Media Center Edition that comes with it - but that's not what I need for development
  • You can't install plain old XP Pro, because it doesn't see any disk drives.
  • Ubuntu sees both disk drives, and appears to install, but doesn't boot. That's because Ubuntu attempts to install as non-RAID, and then when you boot, the GRUB bootloader is all confused.
There are instructions online for getting Ubuntu installed onto RAID, and somebody claims to have gotten it to work with the 290G with dual boot, but I didn't have much luck. It would rock to have the speed of RAID0 on this thing, but I decided it would be simpler to uncouple the RAID.

And that, as usual, is easier said than done. But to save you the time I spent figuring it out, here's the recipe:
  1. Reboot the laptop.
  2. When the Sony logo comes on the screen, hold down the F2 key. You can let up when the laptop starts beeping at you. After a few seconds, this will bring you into the BIOS utility.
  3. Go to BIOS utility's Advanced tab and switch RAID Configuration to Show (if it's not set to that already). Then save the BIOS configuration and exit. The laptop should now reboot.
  4. You should now see more boot messages, and eventually get to a screen that shows you the disk configuration. During the few seconds this is up, hold down the Ctrl and I keys at the same time. This should switch the computer into the RAID editor utility.
  5. In the RAID utility, from main menu, choose the option to Reset Disks to Non-RAID. Save the configuration and exit.
The most common sequence for setting up an XP/Vista/Linux triple-boot is to partition the drive(s) with gparted, then install XP, Vista, and Linux in that order. But alas, after all this, XP Pro still didn't recognize the hard drives. So I just installed Ubuntu 8.10, since that was my most pressing need, and it now works fine.

My guess is that I'll have to slipstream the RAID driver onto the XP Pro install CD, but that's a job (and a post) for another day.