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Is mcelog a daemon, a cron job, or what? How do I force a check? What other ways are there to scan for hardware errors on linux?

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Well, the mcelog website lays it out for you:

The mcelog daemon accounts memory and some other errors errors in various ways. mcelog --client can be used to query a running daemon.

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I use the following command to decode an mcelog log file on SLES 11 SP2:

sudo mcelog --dmi --ascii < /var/log/mcelog

Keep this in mind per the mcelog man page:

With the −−dmi option mcelog will look up the addresses reported in machine checks in the SMBIOS/DMI tables of the BIOS. This can sometimes tell you which DIMM or memory controller has developed a problem. More often the information reported by the BIOS is either subtly or obviously wrong or useless. This option requires that mcelog has read access to /dev/mem (normally requires root) and runs on the same machine in the same hardware configuration as when the machine check event happened.

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