SheevaPlug: a Tiny Computer for $99

This computer introduced by Marvell is very tiny, and very interesting.  Despite the fact that Marvell’s wireless chipset has been closed to open source developers, it appears that the Sheeva Plug computer is being released as an open product: running Linux on an ARM processor, it is now available for $99 as a pre-release developer’s edition. There is already a place for developers to congregate and for documentation and so forth.

LinuxDevices had a delightful article on the technical aspects of the SheevaPlug, and it is very enlightening.

What would I use such a computer for?  I would quite possibly make it into a NAS solution with OpenFiler or FreeNAS; make it serve IP addresses via DHCP; make it into a web cache like squid; or make it serve music with subsonic.

This is one beautiful box.  One drawback I see is that with the way it is configured, there is no way to get it off the wall and out of the way.  Too many boxes plug right into the wall, which means there is no place for another box to plug in.

Another deficiency, which is silently ignored in a lot of applications shown: there is only one network connection. For the system to be a router of any type, it needs to have multiple network connections. If a SheevaPlug is to be a wireless router – or a cellular router – or other similar configurations, it needs to have more than one network connection. With the USB connection available, this is possible – but only if the USB isn’t taken with something else.

One nuisance to note, like others of its ilk: it requires added peripherals, so the “tiny” box could expand to include an external hard drive, and external USB hub with its own AC plug, a bluetooth USB plug, a USB cellular modem, a USB network port, and two network cables. This is the curse of tiny electronics today: one day, all of these extras will be included in a box the same size, and the cabling will be history.

One disadvantage that no one seems to have mentioned yet: the box is not grounded.  That’s right: only two prongs – no grounding plug.  This is totally baffling to me: no ground?

Still, these are really minor disadvantages: I want one – or even two!

It would be interesting to consider the use of these in the enterprise (although they are specifically designed for the home). The biggest places I could see these used in the enterprise would be for testing purposes, and for disaster recovery. If you had one of these ready as a DHCP server and DNS server, one as a NIS server – perhaps a medium-sized enterprise could run off of these until the real servers are built and ready to go.

They could also be used to support people in the field: preconfigured, ready to run: demonstration systems, VPN end points, presentation systems, security test launching points… What else can you think of?

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Laptop “Disaster Recovery”

Over at the Productivity501 blog, there is a good article about laptop contigency planning. It is a must read. Go read it!

I’d like to take this one step further. Here in Wisconsin, we are having one back-breaker of a snowstorm (one and a half days so far). Closings everywhere – and people are looking to use the corporate VPN to work from home.

Here are some things to do to prepare for this ahead of time:

  • Make sure your certificate is current. You don’t want to find out your certificate is expired when you are desperately trying to get in.
  • Have you tried the VPN already? Does it work? When you are buried in snow and can’t reach the help desk is not the time to find out your software doesn’t work.
  • Try accessing everything you need to use. Is it responsive? Does it work? What are the quirks? If it’s slow, you can plan a backup strategy; if it’s not slow, you’ll know it’s not your machine when the VPN slows to a crawl.
  • Try accessing the VPN from where you would be when the snow flies (or wherever you would be when disaster strikes). Some ISPs have restrictive policies that will prevent your laptop from working if you are visiting someone. Try it first and find out how to solve any problems ahead of time.
  • Do you have your laptop with you? It won’t do you any good if you are caught without it when you need it. Do you have charging cords? Network cables? Wireless cards? Cellular phone modems? And test the connections!
  • Create backup plans. For all your careful planning, your laptop and Internet connection have gone south. Now what? Most likely, you’ll need phone numbers of your boss and coworkers, pager numbers, and other such things.

With this wintery weather upon us, it will be very important to be ready if you have to do your admin work from home (or on the road).

Choosing the Right Mobile Phone (or a review of the LG UX830)

Here in the United States, Qualcomm was able to get the Broadcom chipset locked out as they fight in court over patents. This means that all phones available for sale in the U.S. until very recently were operating Qualcomm chipsets. I’ll describe why this is important.

The LG UX830 (or LG Glimmer) is a good example. Since it is a Qualcomm-chipset based phone, it uses BREW and has no support for J2ME. With BREW, any third party developer must get an application certified to run on BREW and must pay a large sum of money just to be able to release the application to the public. Thus, virtually all open source applications are locked out of a BREW phone. Since Qualcomm controls BREW, it is no surprise then that this lockdown on the market has locked open source applications out of the current United States phone market.

For system administration, applications like SSH and one-time key pads are important – and unavailable on BREW phones.

Durability is not often mentioned in reviews of phones. The UX830, for example, has very flimsy plastic covers that feel as if they could break at any time. The cover for the charging port (microUSB port) gets in the way of the plug, so it sticks out from the phone when you open the port to use it.

Another thing to worry about is the usability of the phone itself. The LG phones I’ve seen have atrocious usability problems. Take the (apparently) multimedia menu. What is the difference between: Music, Shuffle, Audio, and Record Voice? Music is the music player. Audio is where you can work with your audio files: move, copy, set as ring tones, etc. (but not play with the player!). Shuffle actually has nothing to do with any music: it is the ability to randomly select a ringtone or alarm tone.

The application Record Voice is another perfect example: recording as soon as the application starts, and there is no way for you to listen to the recording without hunting down another application – and you don’t even have the option of not saving the recording. You start the application, then it will record and save – without giving you choice on whether to save, where to save, or what name to use.

The normal panel display is somewhat confusing as well: who knew that “four dots” meant “Main Menu”?

A phone (or computer system, or microwave, or VCR, or whatever) should not require hours of study to operate correctly – and without causing unexpected problems.

For me, the Nokia 6165i and 6265i that I’ve owned in the past were (mostly) good examples of usability. For one thing, there was the “gallery” (which contained pictures, sounds, applications, alarms, whatever) – which LG has separated out unnecessarily.

When looking for a phone – especially if for a team – I would recommend the following:

  • Check usability: how hard is it to start using all features without the manual? Does everything work as expected? Or are there surprises for whoever uses it?
  • Check for J2ME: a phone that uses BREW has a complete lockdown on the applications you can use; for instance, Opera Mini will not work. J2ME, however, is much more open: anyone can develop and release applications for J2ME.
  • Durability. Will it hold up? Check buttons, hole coverings, and any moving parts. A phone gets beat on; make sure it will stand up to it.
  • Check for memory cards – and which ones. Memory card expansion can be important, especially for saving data and external applications. However, are the memory cards commonly available? Are they cheap or expensive?

It may not be easy to get some of these specs; in particular, cellular carriers either don’t know what they are or don’t want to advertize. Asking your local salesperson for a phone that supports J2ME is likely to get you a blank stare, so do the research online yourself first. PhoneScoop is one such site; the PhoneScoop page on the LG UX830 has a lot of very useful information. PhoneArena is another site; their page on the LG UX830 is also very useful.

Expanding and Protecting Your Wireless LAN

There was a great article over at ComputerWorld about making sure that you get the most from your wireless setup. Besides just being able to get reception in that far bedroom, isn’t it also nice to know you have knowledge that you can utilize in your workplace?

Most of the stuff is rather straightforward and perhaps evident to you already: but this article puts it all in one place, and shows you some ways to improve your recieption that you may not have thought of (such as Flatwire!).

If you go ahead and enhance your wireless signal range, you’ll have to deal with the possibility that nefarious people don’t find your network and go for a ride at your expense. Rob Flickenger has a short piece on the O’Reilly Network about how easy it is to break into a wireless network that isn’t properly secured. George Ou wrote over at ZDNet clear back in 2005 about the Six Dumbest Ways to Secure a Wireless LAN – and followed it up two years later with Wireless LAN Security Myths that Won’t Die. He also collected some of the best wireless LAN security articles into a free ebook called the Ultimate Guide to Enterprise Wireless LAN Security.

It may have been now three (almost four!) years since that article George wrote came out, but I still hear some of these myths even today.

Putting Linux on a Compaq nc4010

The HP/Compaq nc4010 is a business-class laptop with no CDROM, no DVD, and no floppy – but with network, modem, USB ports, SD slot, and PCMCIA slot. The system has a 1.7GHz Pentium M – snappier than a Pentium II for sure. It will also boot from the network with PXE or from the USB ports.

Booting this platform is the most difficult part. I didn’t try using PXE, because although I was once set up for PXE on my home network, I don’t have the distributions (Kubuntu and Fedora) set up for installing from PXE and it seemed like a bigger headache than try to make it boot through USB. USB booting is not (apparently) enabled by default; it requires setting USB to use Legacy in the BIOS settings – and in my case, it also required playing with the setting for Quickboot: I had turned it off, but upon re-enabling it the system booted from a USB key.

I tried using Fedora 9, but the Live USB version come up in a lower resolution and crashed upon exiting. I tried also Kubuntu Hardy (8.04.1) and it worked beautifully.

Loading Kubuntu was a breeze – and recognized all of the capabilities of the laptop (amazing!). USB works, network works (albeit with proprietary drivers), PCMCIA works – it just works. Even hibernate works (although suspend may not).

I’ve never quite liked Ubuntu, and I mostly chalked that up to its standard themes (brown and orange) and its use of Gnome and so on – never fully experiencing Ubuntu and always wanting to get a better feel for it. I’ve tried running Kubuntu (which uses KDE) before, but never as an “active” desktop.

Kubuntu made a believer out of me. Everything works in the laptop. Even MP3s, Adobe Flash, Java – it all installed cleanly (upon demand) and works out of the box. Installation was extremely simple. The available packages are quite extensive, and include Debian’s packages.

I attribute some of this ease of support (specifically, MP3 support, Flash, Java, proprietary drivers) to the fact that the company behind Ubuntu (Canonical) is not an American company, but a South African company – which has different laws. So they can make it easy to get proprietary “parts” that they could not sell or support otherwise.

I’m switching from my FreeBSD laptop to this one for the most part: this system is smaller, lighter, faster, and has more memory. It was good to build a FreeBSD desktop though – and took more doing than I thought. I wonder what PC-BSD would be like….. Hmm….

Living in the Internet Cloud

When we are on-the-go professionals, and are potentially required to work from home or from other locations on the road, isn’t it good to be able to reach your data no matter where you are?

Thus is the interest in being able to “live in the cloud”, keeping data and information on Internet computers out there somewhere.  Unfortunately, it also means that instead of making our own backups, we must rely on someone else’s backups.  Suppose the company goes out of business?  This has already happened for several photo sites – and in one case, it took the customer’s photos with them.

There are many sites that can provide a safe harbour for data or for information of various kinds.  My favorites are these:

The online desktops Goowy and eyeOS deserve special mention.  Not only do they provide a desktop, but also all the standard applications you might need.  It is possible to run within one of these desktops and save your data entirely with one of these setups.  This makes for a fantastic central location for everything – and a larger-than-normal risk.

EyeOS has one more feature that most of these do not: it is open source.  If you want to run your own version of EyeOS, there’s no problem doing so.  This is incredibly useful if you have your own server to run this on.  Then you can centralize your information and retain control at the same time.

I also find the mail clients in Goowy and eyeOS to be quite useful for sending mail from anywhere with a browser.

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FreeBSD 6.3 running on the Armada E500

Things are working well with the combination of the new FreeBSD 6.3 and the Compaq Armada E500. The machine has a great feel to it, and despite the huge applications of today, 128M can still be used for a KDE environment.

There are a number of nice features, including a ton of connectors (10BaseT, WinModem, USB, serial, parallel, PS/2, PCMCIA). The machine just keeps going, though I have had a few (few!) lockups (normally with Amarok and something else running). With the appropriate tweaks, the KDE desktop can be as polished as any from Red Hat or Novell.

Some of the things I did:

  • Replace the shutdown picture with something else; the picture of the dragon was too smarmy.
  • Replace the background (of course!) – personalization to the max.
  • Switch to the “Macintosh” version of menu layout; it’s the most user-friendly.
  • Load KDM from ports, then activate and theme it.
  • Load a splash screen for the boot loader
  • Switch the boot loader to grub then use a splash screen to start it off.
  • Configure the special buttons to work.
  • Change the KDE menu for something easier to use (such as TastyMenu or KBFX).

When all of these are combined, the environment is very slick and professional. It still wants more than 128M though.

One pet peeve of mine I might mention with regards to menus (such as KMenu or KBFX): menus should respond instantly!! I absolutely despise hiccups and watch cursors because the menu is loading its stuff. It should just pop! into place, not thrash the hard disk. Maybe one day…

What was the best part of this? I learned a ton about themes, X keys, configuring KDM, configuring the boot loader, and using grub. And learning is the best part, right?

FreeBSD 6.3 DesktopFreeBSD 6.3 Desktop

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