Android tablet vs iPad

The rise of the Tablet PC has been remarkable over the last few years.  It has seen PC and Laptop sales decline due to the move towards the “touching the screen” interface that was first introduced on the mobile phone (cell phone for US readers).

The shrinking of hardware has, of course, allowed this to happen (check out our blog on Moore’s Law on how and why this has happened).

In our household we have an Android tablet in an Archos Arnova 7 G2 as well as an Apple iPad 2.  Comparing the 2 is a little pointless in direct comparison (the Apple iPad 2 costs £300+ and the Archos Arnova 7 G2 cost only £79).  The Arnova Android tablet has a much smaller screen than the Apple iPad 2.

Here’s the thing – in my opinion – they do exactly the same thing – they access the web using a browser so when you are sitting on the loo and a keyboard, mouse is not available, you can check out stuff, play the odd silly game, check Facebook, Twitter etc etc.

Sure the iPad has “better” Apps – In fact the Archos Arnova 7 g2 has no actual app store – or a very small one at that (which was very confusing when I first got it)  – I don’t believe this is available anymore anyway – The Archos 10 Tablet has superseded it.

Buy Archos 10 Tablet – 8GB


Buy Apple iPad 2 Tablet

I like Linux as an OS and the Android Operating System is a great version of it.  Allowing a techy to modify it gives flexibility and control should you want it.

The only way to do that with Apple tech is to jailbreak it.  Locking your device down and restricting you to iTunes for Apps gives them too much control and power and I don’t like it.

There are ways around it. There are Linux Apps that allow you to copy files to and from your Apple device (Ubuntu One and libimobiledevice options) – it’s Linux so it’s not so easy – but Google is your friend here (check out http://askubuntu.com/questions/151584/how-to-copy-existing-movie-files-on-ipad-to-watch).

Android tablet vs iPad – Conclusion

For the best value for money – go for the cheapest option.  Unless you can really see yourself using the device as your only interface to the web (unlikely) you will only use it when travelling, or for a quick look.  You wouldn’t use it to Blog or write any lengthy documents.

Android tablet is not locked down and you can do what you like with it.

Apple iPad 2 tries to tie you to iTunes and your app choice is from one source. Also it costs a lot more!

Raspberry Pi Doorbell (Python)

 

To start I will explain the problem we have at home with our doorbell.  We live in a 3 storey townhouse (bedrooms on the top floor, living area on the middle floor, sound proofed recording studio/office on the ground).  If we shut the doors to the living area on the 1st floor we can’t hear the door if it’s being knocked or a ground-only located doorbell.  If I am in the studio/office and shut the door I also can’t hear it.  If we open the door and are on the top floor we also can’t hear it.

We tried a cheap wireless doorbell solution (Byron SX20) – this kind of worked for about a year – but it started not even ringing at all.  I changed the wireless channel and it worked for a week then stopped working.  This repeated for a couple of months – I even bought a new receiver – but it still didn’t work.  I switched to a wired battery powered doorbell and also ran another cable upstairs to the 1st floor though this 2nd ringer never worked well and was not loud enough to hear it on the top floor.  There was also no chance of hearing it while in the studio with the door shut and music playing.

I hate wireless anything (Wifi) as it never works 100% of the time.  When we moved into the house I put in CAT5E all over the house and wanted to use this to solve my doorbell issue.

Raspberry Pi

Along came the Raspberry Pi and I noticed that it had a GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) interface.  Ok I have to admit – I didn’t really know what that was until I read up on the Raspberry Pi and reports were saying it was designed for the novice to connect to and programme.  I’m not really a novice (can program in PHP, VBscript/VBA) I thought, how hard can it be?

I’ve played with Linux for the last 12 years or so – so armed with that knowledge I joined the queue for my Raspberry Pi.

After the 6 weeks wait it arrived and after a few months (waiting for a spare moment) I set about solving my doorbell issue.

EEEEK!  I thought it would be simple – just Google

Raspberry PI doorbell

and do what it says – I hit a brick wall – there are a few sites I found where people had done it but there was no code – no instructions.  I joined a couple of forums and asked people how to do it – They just said “keep reading the forums”.

Anyway – I finally worked it out through butchering other project’s code that I found on the web.

Here I want to share that info so that you, the reader can do it too.

Here’s an overview of how it’s connected

Raspberry Pi Hardware

To start with you need some extra bits of hardware:

Breadboard – this is a piece of plastic with holes in it where you can connect wires together to form circuits – the rows are connected, so where you want to connect wires together, you just plug them into the same row.

you can get them from http://www.fastestpc.co.uk/product.php?p=158057511  for £3.69

Jump Wire kit – You also need some wires.  These kits come with various lengths of wire – you can of course cut them down if you want (though I didn’t bother).

http://www.fastestpc.co.uk/product.php?p=692127523

 

10k Pull Up Resistors – I got these from Ebay – but Maplin or RS Components do them.

 

Adafruit Pi Cobbler Breakout Kit for Raspberry Pi – I got this from Ebay too

http://adafruit.com/products/914

Note: You don’t actually need this – you could just connect to the breadboard directly from the GPIO Pins – but you will need cables with the small sleeves on them.

e.g.

(Source: http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/tag/gpio)

This Youtube clip does touch on this a little

Soldering the Adafruit Cobbler Kit does require a small ended Solerding Iron – I bought a new one to do the job on Ebay for only £7.95 as my old iron had a chisel end and would never have done the job.

Follow the instructions on how to do it at http://learn.adafruit.com/adafruit-pi-cobbler-kit/solder-it

 

Building the Breadboard to connect to the Raspberry Pi

I’ve never done any electronics before but I do have a multi-meter and know roughly how to use it.

Click for larger version

 

This breadboard came from Maplin and has the handy screw top connectors in Black, Yellow, Blue, Green and Red.  Of course you can use any of them – I chose the Green and Red to connect to the actual doorbell using the bell wire that I was using for my rubbish wired battery doorbell.

Now expert electronics people may laugh at my wiring – but it literally takes 10 minutes to connect together.

This connects to a bog standard doorbell

Adafruit Pi Cobbler Starter Kit

I’ll start with the Ribbon cable connected Adafruit connector.

(Source: http://learn.adafruit.com/adafruit-pi-cobbler-kit/solder-it)

Here you can see The GND pin along the bottom row

(Source: http://learn.adafruit.com/adafruit-pi-cobbler-kit/solder-it)

 

The 3.3v power is on the other side of the connecter (far right) – is hidden in the top of the 3 pictures by the black connector wall.

Once this has been soldered together with the supplied pins as per http://learn.adafruit.com/adafruit-pi-cobbler-kit/solder-it which explains the process very simply, you pop that onto the breadboard.  Remember that the rows of the breadboard are connected except where there is a channel between them – so in my image above the pins actually sit in columns V1 C and H and there is a channelled groove between F and G.  If you were to put the board in A and F then it wouldn’t work as the 2 rows of pins would connect.  Also you need some space to connect wires to it.

You connect the board as described above.  It’s not important where you connect it as long as the points that you place the pins are in the correct rows corresponding to GND, 3.3v and the GPIO Pin you choose (I chose GPIO 23).

You can just connect the earth to one of the connectors of the door bell button and solder a resistor to the other side of the bell button pusher cable and the other end of it connected to 3.3v as well as GPIO23 – theoretically that should work but don’t hold me to it.

This is a simplified version of the one described at http://learn.adafruit.com/playing-sounds-and-using-buttons-with-raspberry-pi/bread-board-setup-for-input-buttons

As I only needed 1 button and didn’t bother with the momentary push-button switches (though I did buy these to test it).

 

So that’s the Breadboard setup and connected to the Raspberry Pi. Now the tricky bit.

Raspberry Pi PYTHON GPIO

I’ve never used Python – and to be honest I don’t really have a big desire to learn it.  I’m not sure what I’d use that skills for, in any other project – but a lot of programming is cut and pasted from the web these days.  So I followed the instructions at http://learn.adafruit.com/playing-sounds-and-using-buttons-with-raspberry-pi/overview and it all seemed to work.  I could play an MP3 file if I pressed the button,  BUT it was terrible – it would behave as if I pressed it 100 times.

I also had terrible trouble with it even accepting the button and just played the MP3 without pressing the button.  In fact it even played the MP3 as soon as I ran the script, without the ribbon cable connected between the breadboard and Raspberry Pi.

The code listed below just did not work as it is

#This does not work

#!/usr/bin/env python

from time import sleep
import os
import RPi.GPIO as GPIO

GPIO.setmode(GPIO.BCM)
GPIO.setup(23, GPIO.IN)
GPIO.setup(24, GPIO.IN)
GPIO.setup(25, GPIO.IN)

while True:
        if ( GPIO.input(23) == False ):
                os.system('mpg321 binary-language-moisture-evaporators.mp3 &')
        if ( GPIO.input(24) == False ):
                os.system('mpg321 power-converters.mp3 &')
        if ( GPIO.input(25)== False ):
                os.system('mpg321 vader.mp3 &')
        sleep(1);

The problem seems to be called debouncing.  This is where you press the button and 
the voltage changes gradually.  The above code uses a While Loop and detects for the 
input to change state to False.  I put a multi-meter on the switching and while not
 switched the multi-meter showed .001, press the button and it goes from .001 to .010 (from memory)
 and to .000 while it is pressed. So it’s not a straight on off action as the code suggests.
It turned out I needed some extra modifications to the code:
# This code works
#!/usr/bin/env python

from time import sleep
import os
import RPi.GPIO as GPIO

GPIO.setmode(GPIO.BCM)
GPIO.setup(23, GPIO.IN, pull_up_down=GPIO.PUD_UP)
test = 0

while True:
        inputchk = GPIO.input(23)
        if  inputchk == 0:
         test = 1   
         os.system("python /home/pi/doorbell/audio.py")
         sleep(1)
       else:
        test = 0

 

So the pull_up_down=GPIO.PUD_UP section of line 7 was crucial.  To stop the multiple button issue I call another script I called audio.py (both scripts stored in /home/pi/doorbell folder).

To run it you use

sudo python doorbell.py
at the command prompt.
The contents of audio.py contains the playing of the mp3 through the program mpg321 (I used the Imperial tune from Star Wars), 
an output to the screen “button pressed” as well as a snippet from Pushover.net which sends a message to our mobile phones….
found at https://pushover.net/faq#technical-python
The contents of audio.py
# coding=utf-8
import os, sys
import time
import httplib, urllib
conn = httplib.HTTPSConnection("api.pushover.net:443")
conn.request("POST", "/1/messages.json",
  urllib.urlencode({
     "token": "APP_TOKEN",
     "user": "USER_KEY",
    "message": "There is someone at the front door",
  }), { "Content-type": "application/x-www-form-urlencoded" })
conn.getresponse()
os.system('mpg321 imperial.mp3 &')
print("Button Pressed")
time.sleep(3)
So that’s it – the 2 Python files I use to send me a Pushover Notification on mine 
and the wife’s mobile phone

 

Running as a Service

I explored how to run the script 24/7 and as a service or at boot (in case the wife turns it off when I’m not at home) – I had issues with it running the MP3 correctly (it played the MP3 twice over the top of itself) and wasn’t ideal.

In the end I found the best way is to use “screen” to run the script

sudo apt-get install screen

Then run screen – which creates another session – run the script and hit Ctrl – A and d to exit the session – to go back to the session type:

session -r

This way you can log out of the SSH session and the doorbell.py script continues to run.

This doesn’t run automatically though – so if anyone has another solution – I’d like to hear it.

The Raspberry Pi is also plugged into an old powered speaker I had lying around

Sure we have to leave it plugged in to hear the Star Wars Imperial track when someone presses the button – The wife really loves it BTW (hahaha NOT!), and our 3.5 year old daughter keeps turning the volume up really loud when the wife is not looking.  So it’s not very green with the Raspberry PI and speaker are both plugged in 24/7.

Raspberry Pi problems

The pull_up_pull_down issue (or lack of using it caused me lots of problems) it was very hard to find good documentation on the GPIO command set.  Of course I am diving in at the deep end of programming Python – I didn’t want to go through learning the whole thing just to do this.

Make sure you don’t connect the push button up to your battery powered door bell – thinking you can just chain it all together.  The batteries give off a voltage and it will damage your RPi.

The thing works perfectly in that it plays the MP3 and send you the message to your phone.  But if the doorbell is pressed again before the MP3 has finished then instead of them queuing up the 2 play at the same time.  A little annoying, as well as you receive 2 messages.

In fact while testing – I managed to use up all of my 7500 monthly allocations from Pushover.net – so best not to implement the Pushover API function until you are certain it works.

The only other thing – it does seem to randomly do it all itself.  So maybe twice a day we get the “doorbell” ringing (MP3 plays and a message sent to our phones) only to find nobody there.  I expect it’s due to dampness in the air causing the small gap between the contacts in the push button to connect the circuit and so triggers the MP3 and message – but I don’t really know – the button is shielded from rain and the elements.

I’ll be happy to help anyone who is trying this – in the end it’s just 2 python files – and an easy electronics build.

Raspberry Pi Doorbell Specs

Specs of the Pi:

Python 2.7.3rc2 (default, May  6 2012, 20:02:25)

[GCC 4.6.3] on linux2

Linux raspberrypi 3.2.27+ #250 PREEMPT Thu Oct 18 19:03:02 BST 2012 armv6l GNU/Linux

Model B with 512MB RAM

Windows To Go™ (BYOD) Supertalent RC8

 

Have you ever wished that you could just use your own laptop at work?  It would make your life a lot easier as you have your own preferred setup with all of the apps and email that you need while you work, as your social life often blend with your professional one.

Large companies looking to save money, would like you to use your own laptop too, but there are a few issues around this.  The first one being security.  How can the company protect itself from virus spread and attack if they were to allow their staff to bring in their own laptop to use?  They could just buy each employee the relevant software and ask them to keep it up to date.  This really would not work for obvious reasons.

All companies  that run a network of PCs and servers need to ensure that anti virus software is kept up to date as well as having policies for access by only those they choose to access the system.  They do this by locking down the access through policy choices including Operating system choice and software.  Opening that up to the employee’s choice just doesn’t work.  Or does it?

Windows To Go ™ allows PC’s running Windows 7 or Windows 8 to boot using a USB device into a controlled environment, specified by the company, but using the hardware supplied by the employee.  The processes involved are simple:

  • create a bootable image and load it onto the USB device
  • Insert this USB device into the Windows 7 or 8 PC or laptop
  • Set the PC to boot from USB

The PC will then load the Operating System specified by the company and have all of the software and settings load ready for use on the company’s network.

The host PC is not changed at all as the local hard disk is not used.

Windows To GO ™ – Supertalent RC8

WOW! You may well say!  Can I still access all of my data and apps while running this?  The answer is, yes and no. If you remove the device and boot as normal, you will have access to your PC as you use it at home.  This may be inconvenient, but is necessary to ensure the security of the company’s network.

This is good for the company as they get to use your PC for your work.  You can login to your own PC during your lunch break to check your own email etc.

Are there any other reasons to use this?  Actually there are quite a few:

User Acceptance and Application Testing.

Imagine a new piece of software has been introduced that needs testing on the company’s network.  Installing it on an employee’s PC may be intrusive, it may involve uninstalling the current software used by the employee and installing the new title, but may not be fully integrated or be ready yet to use.  By booting into the Windows To Go ™ environment the software can be tested and developed without interfering with the current version on the tester/developer’s PC.

Temporary/Contract Employees

For scenarios where providing a new PC to a temporary or contract worker is not practical.  An unused PC can be used using a Windows To Go ™ solution therefore protecting the PC’s contents from being disrupted.  So PC’s can easily be loaned out without security being breached.

Disaster Contingency Planning

Windows To Go ™ devices can be held off site with prebuilt, ready to go images, allowing efficient disaster recovery solutions where a PC can be booted quickly to the company’s recognised image.

Windows to Go ™ and Education

Schools and Universities who do not want to invest in expensive and vulnerable Remote Access systems, can supply students with Custom Applications, available on any Windows 7 or Windows 8 device without connecting to the campus.

Supertalent RC8 Windows To Go ™

Supertalent have introduced the RC8 – a USB drive (USB 3.0 and 2.0 compatible).  This incredible device reaches speeds of 270 MB/s which is 5 or 6 times faster than an internal spinning disk and rivals the latest in internal SATA  II based SSD drives.  It even responds to SMART Hard Drive commands.

The Supertalent RC8 uses 8 channels of flash, virtual caching and an SSD Controller.

Available in 50GB and 100GB sizes.

Dimensions: 92.7 mm x 25.0 mm x 8.0 mm

SandForce™ SSD Controller
– Read Speed: Up to 270MB/s – Write Speed: up to 240MB/s
– Fully backward Compatible to USB 2.0
– 10 years data retention
– Slim and sleek Aluminum Enclosure
– 5 year Limited Warranty

Get in touch for volume pricing!

With an SSD, It’s still important to backup

Most long term computer users have experienced the dreaded hard drive crash – did you lose everything?  How much that can hurt depends on whether you backed up your data or not.

Do you record your daily running data recorded on your Smartphone?  If you lost that data and have to start again – how much would that hurt?

Do you store your family photos on your PC?  Priceless in an age where we don’t need to process film anymore.

Are you a graphic designer, musician, blogger, artist and store your work on your PC?  What would happen if you lost it all.

Prices of Solid State Disks are falling and therefore the acceptable size of drive (>100GB) for most users is now under £100.  Failure is not the only factor in needing to backup.  Theft, fire and flood, accidental error (where you mistakenly delete something) or virus threat, are all valid reasons for backing up.

Cloud Storage for backups

With faster broadband speeds now available to almost everyone, it makes sense to store your data online.  This data is stored away from your computer and so theft of your PC, fire and flood as well as virus threat are all covered.  You would just replace your PC in the event it is stolen, your house is hit by fire or flood.  Once you are back online and your PC is all running – you just connect to your Cloud Storage  host and restore the files to your PC.

These cloud systems use multiple paths to multiple disks held across separate sites.  If they get a fire in one, the data is held at the other.

 

So to put your data into the cloud makes it safe!  Does it you say?  Well the answer is Yes – a lot more safe than just leaving it on your 1 PC or a couple of PCs in your home. 

What if people can hack into it and access my data?  Well, my answer would be that nothing is 100% secure 100% of the time, but these companies have security models that have been thoroughly tested and they have spent a lot of money putting this into place – It’s a lot more secure than just storing it on your PC.

JustCloud Unlimited Backup Service

JustCloud offer an amazing unlimited service where you can store as much data as you like.  The thing about backups is you never really know how much you will need.  If you pick the amount of storage you need today, it will not allow you to grow – you need to be selective w- all this is time consuming.  Better to set it and leave it.

JustCloud installs a small client to your Windows or Mac PC (Linux coming soon). You choose the folders to backup and any changes to these folders are automatically backed up on the next schedule (once daily) or manually triggered if you prefer.

The data is sent up to their server automatically.   What if you delete a file on your PC?  If it was backed up before you deleted it, you can go and restore it very easily, using their online file manager.  Check out  JustCloud for your online backups – we highly recommend it!

Runcore Invincible SSD is completely flawed

Runcore have developed an Invincible range of Solid State Drives.  The story has been published on various websites on how the drive can be wiped using a green button or physically destroyed using a red button.

Thanks to www.xbitlabs.com for the images

http://www.xbitlabs.com/news/storage/display/20120517230601_RunCore_Develops_Self_Destructive_Solid_State_Drive.html

Xbitlabs is one press release on the drive’s abilities.

The above image shows the 2x buttons as well as a SATA and power connector.

The green button uses an overwrite deletion method to wipe the data so that no data can be recovered.

The red button applies an over voltage so that the actual NAND flash gets so hot that it destroys itself in a puff of smoke.

Above is a demonstration by a Runcore employee pressing the red button.

In a previous post I wrote about truly secure drives (check it out Secure Solid State Drives) where Secure Drives have created a drive where even if the drive is lost or stolen, the owner can still destroy the drive and keep their data secure.

Runcore’s drive has no obvious use in the real world.  If the green button wipes the data by overwriting the entire contents with garbage, then why do you need the red button?  Does that mean that the green button operation doesn’t really work?

If you hit the red button then of course the drive is destroyed and can never be used again.  How many instances can you think of where you would want to do that?  The military will have procedures to destroy their equipment rather than let it fall into enemy hands, they won’t be bothered to go around and press the red button on single drives – they’ll just blow it all up.  Also – for the green and red button operations, the drive needs to be plugged in and power applied to it.  Indeed in the image above, the side case of the PC is removed to gain access.  Sure you can mount the buttons somehow to the outside of the case, but that would involve some engineering to do it.

At the end of a PC’s life and the equipment is to be disposed of, there is a need to destroy data, but to have a red button to do it for you seems a little excessive.

The Mission Impossible storylines where “This message will self destruct in 30 seconds” is the only scenario I can see this working, which again, is a little overkill, to say the least.

The only other instance I can think of, where this kind of functionality can be of benefit is a criminal one – where a knock on the door by the Rozzers can be solved by a press of either the green or red buttons, which will remove any trace of guilt to the owner of the equipment (maybe the criminal can even wire it up to the front door bell when they go out).  I guess there is a market for Paedophiles,Hackers, illegal file sharers and even kinky cross dressers who record their daily tricks and who are hiding the facts from their spouses.

If you are in need of one of these drives in a professional application and can prove me wrong – please get in touch!

One small step to going Green Computing

Being a bit of a nerd – and couple it with not wanting to pay for software.  Linux fitted into to my world quite nicely.  At the beginning, I tried downloading versions of RedHat which took an age (usually had multiple CDs to download), then to run through the installation instructions line by line to be met with often obscure discrepancy errors which spiralled exponentially.  Missing packages which were required to install the OS would need to be downloaded and installed before the OS would install.


Early Linux installation nightmare

It would take hours and hours of downloading extra packages – often I had no idea what they were.

I learnt the process of Linux installations using VMWare running on a laptop – over the years, Linux has got better and better.  I settled on Ubuntu about 6 years ago and have never looked back.

I purchased a Dell Poweredge 2500 from Ebay for £100


Dell Poweredge 2500

It came with an 18GB SCSI Hard drive and 1GB of RAM.  I popped a PCI SATA host card into it and installed an old 500GB Hard drive which I wanted to use as a network storage device (a home made NAS).  I ran with this for a number of years running Ubuntu Server Edition (no GUI).  Here’s a list of what I use it for:

  VTiger CRM Open Source CRM system

 VirtualBox Open Source virtualisation

  Fuppes – Open Source UPnP Entertainment Service

 MySQL – Open Source Database

 Apache Web Server

 Samba File and Print Sharing Service

 Open SSH – Secure Shell

 

What do I need it for?

Well as a nerdy type of guy I like to have gadgets around the house, as well as being able to access data easily from any of them.  I have an office with a desktop, have a laptop sitting on the arm of my sofa – so I can surf and work while with my family, I have a tablet and an iPhone for use in bed or anywhere else in the house.  We have a PS3, a Wii and a Internet connected Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray player.

The goal is to have access to the web from anywhere in the house – the house got wired with CAT5E in all of the main rooms when we moved in.  I have ADSL2 coming into the house in the cupboard under the stairs where I also located the Dell Server.  Connection is made with a Draytek Vigor 2820 router – I also still have the Draytek Vigor 2600+ ADSL Router which I have located in our bedroom.  This extends the wireless signal using Draytek’s WDS Mode using the Repeater function.

I run the business from home and so have customers making enquiries and I am not tied to any device.  I use the VTiger CRM system to create invoices and add customer lead details.

VirtualBox hosts 1x Windows 2003 Server to give me access to an IIS hosted system so that I can work on Classic ASP based web sites and Web apps.

Fuppes hosts all MP3, AVI, MP4, JPG files and allows playback through the PS3, iPhone, Tablet, Desktop and laptops.  The Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray stated that it supported uPNP and despite various updates still does not find the server.  WinAmp is my chosen media player for the desktop – which I play the music through a Mapped drive rather than using the uPNP (sometimes called DLNA) service.

MySQL is great for creating databases for websites – VTiger CRM actually uses it.  It’s very easy to create locally and then transfer the database to your web host once it is ready.  I use HeidiSQL  as a local Windows client software which is so easy to use.

The Ubuntu server also runs Apache with PHP 5 which hosts the VTiger CRM web site as well as allowing me to work on PHP and WordPress based sites locally before uploading them to the web.

OpenSSD is just used to connect to the Ubuntu Server through Putty so that I don’t have to get up to go look at the server.

Samba enables Ubuntu to share folders so that you can map drives on your Windows PCs or Places on your other Ubuntu PCs.  I use Windows 7 Ultimate in the office as it runs Pro-Tools (Digital Audio Workstation), as well as MS Office (I use Access to keep track of all of the Future Storage products, prices etc).  Ubuntu sits on my laptop in the living room as well as the wife’s Samsung NC10 (did run XP but it got too damn slow and crashed a lot) – I suggested Ubuntu and she has never looked back – she surfs the web, uses GMail for email and SKYPE to talk to her parents back in Taipei.  It all works perfectly and has never ever crashed.

We store all of our kids photos, video clips on the network as well as our own PCs.

Enhancements

The Dell Poweredge 2500 Server was great – but the noise and heat it kicked out was staggering.  I never even looked at how much power it used.  I ran it 24/7 for over 2 years – never even rebooted it.  I think we had a power cut once and it came back up without any issues when power was resolved.

According to Dell it uses a 300W PSU – to calculate the cost of running this 24/7 I found http://www.dslreports.com/faq/2404 so

“The average PSU in a computer will operate at
about 80% efficiency due to the nature of the circuits employed. This means that for
the PSU to deliver 300W (va) as rated then it will actually draw about 375W (375va)”

P = 300W

V = 240V

In = P / V = 1.25A draw

Power used at maximum (Pmax) = 375va
So now calculate the total power used in 24 hours,
P(max) * 24hrs = 375 * 24 = 9000va or 9000W (9Kva or 9Kw)

I switched to Eon who are now charging me 24.381p per Kwh then 12.348p after I have used 900Kwh (100 days of the Poweredge 2500 running – before the 2nd tarrif applies) £219.43 for 100 days + £111.13 for the remaining 265 days Total = £330.56 for the year.

The 500GB drive inside was getting a bit full, and I decided that the heat and noise as well as power consumption was just too much – it was expensive and wasteful, even though I did not calculate the extent of this (I will hopefully see the difference when my electricity bills come through). 

I purchased a Patriot Valkyrie

as well as 2x 2TB SATA 3.5inch HDDs – I removed the 500GB drive from the Dell Poweredge 2500 Server and put it into a USB caddy – plugged it into the USB port on the front of the Patriot device.

This NAS group of disks are setup from the browser – and I have 2 devices available for mapping.  I duplicated the priceless photos, music collection (not priceless but would be a pain if I lost it), video clips from the now USB drive to the Patriot NAS.  The USB drive is now effectively a backup drive and can be switched off – I can manually go and turn it back on and backup new data to it each week or month.  It does have a uPNP (DLNA) Server built in – but in my opinion it just doesn’t work very well.  The artists appear in a deep folder structure that you can’t really control very well.  If you add a new artist or album, it’s tricky to get it to update and you can only have either MP3s or Videos or Photos at a time – Fuppes accommodates them all at once, the folders are as they are on the drive.

The Patriot makes virtually no noise and I expect it to use a lot less power than the 2500.

We have an MSI Wind laptop.  It’s very light and small – it has a Chinese layout on the keyboard, but I can still use it (it also has UK keys)

 

The Green Bit

I built this with a dual boot Ubuntu Workstation and Windows XP (I still may use this for music making) – I turned the Ubuntu OS (with GUI) into a server by installing all of the above software onto it, therefore replacing the Dell Poweredge 2500 server.

Not only does this little laptop use a lot less power, generates virtually no heat or sound (certainly in comparison to the Dell Poweredge 2500) it also allowed me to set the MSI Laptop to hibernate off every 2 hours.  Therefore using a lot less power and becoming a bit more green.

Of course the Patriot is left on 24/7 as well as the USB drive (which also has it’s own power). 

Both the MSI Wind and USB Drive’s power supplies state 20V output – and 2Amps – volts x amps = watts so they draw 40 Watts each when running.

The Patriot idles at 17 Watts and climbs to 20 Watts when copying files.

So I have reduced the power from a 300 Watt PSU to around 100 Watts and turning the USB drive off and hibernating the MSI Wind, reduces this further to around an average of 70Watts per hour.  I would therefore expect a £200 saving over a year on electricity charges, as well as doing my bit for the environment.

Tweaks

The thing about hibernating – Ubuntu does this easily – from the GUI – System – Preferences – Power Management – WOL is fully supported.  I set the Ubuntu hibernate option to 1 hour (max is 2 hours) and set it at exactly 4pm. It’s fine to have it do that but a little inconvenient when I am working and every 1 hour of inactivity I have to send a Wake On Lan packet to wake it up.

I expect I can setup a Cron job in Ubuntu to wake it up every xx:01 minutes during the day – but what I’d rather do is have my Windows PC send it a wake up every 1:01 minutes.

Here’s the thing about Wake On LAN.  Send it a packet when it is not asleep, and nothing happens.  The system does not realise that you don’t want it to sleep on it’s next closure – it does not reset the clock – the Wake On Lan only responds if it is asleep.

I have created a Batch file in Windows and placed wol.exe into c:\batch folder – the batch file is called WOL.bat and it’s contents are

WOL 0223769C261D  ‘*see note’
echo "Packet Sent"

*Note suggests my MAC Address of my MSI Wind Network card – I have changed it on here through web paranoia

Wake On Lan Windows Executable

I’ve added the echo “Packet Sent” line so that when the batch file runs each hour in my Windows Scheduled task – I add the option >wol.txt – this writes the output of the command to the text file so that I can see if it worked. 

Here’s the problem – if I logon to the Ubuntu box and use it – the time of 1 hour is reset.  If I logon at 16:56 – and the WOL.bat then runs at 17:01 – it will have no effect.  The Ubuntu laptop will then hibernate at 17:56 and wont get a new WOL.bat packet to awaken it till 18:01 (at which point it will awaken the Ubuntu server).

In reality – this potential 5 minute downtime – should not really cause me much of an issue.  My mapped drives to it’s Samba shares will go offline for these 5 minutes.

There may well be better ways – If I can find out how to have the Ubuntu server detect traffic and automatically wake itself – that would be the holy grail of Wake On Lan.

iPhone Wake On LAN

Here’s the cool bit – If I go to bed and decide to listen to the latest Bon Iver album which I have already put onto my NAS Music folder and updated Fuppes – I need to send a Wake On Lan packet from bed.  There are a few free WOL apps in Apple’s Store that you enter the MAC address and hit send (the app I use is called iWol)

 iWol iphone App

I send the packet – the server wakes up and I get an hour of use before it hibernates.

I’d welcome any advise on how to stop the hibernation should Fuppes be active, or a drive is mapped in Samba, etc etc.

 Plug Player iPhone App – uPNP (DLNA) media player connects to Fuppes

Extending life of your company’s PCs with Solid State Disks

 

As an IT purchase decision maker, you may be looking at replacing your PC’s – it’s been 3 to 5 years since your last refresh.  Your PCs run Windows XP Pro and are all looking a bit long in the tooth.  You are faced with hardware and software upgrade costs, as well as the personnel, logistics costs and downtime.

Upgrade with a Solid State Disk


Future Storage 60GB SSD

At a hardware cost of only £72 +VAT each (discount available for volume orders) – using Clonezilla open source software (requires a CD boot) you can clone your current systems onto Solid State Disks for small change.

In these tough times where budgets are cut – this will give you a quick fix – fast performance from your current hardware.

Solid State Disks use a lot less power as well so this upgrade will cut your power consumption, as well as go a little easier on your PC’s power supply.

If your employees leave their PCs on 24/7 then I would advise changing the Power Supply at the same time (a standard PC PSU is not going to last more than about 3 years running 24/7) which will give a better chance for your hardware to last that extra few years.

Complete upgrade service

Future Storage in partnership with http://www.easywayitservices.co.uk/ can do the whole job for you for a lot less than you think.  We can collect all of your systems, take it to our fantastic facility in Farnham – clone your system and deliver it back on your employee’s desk.

Contact us on 08452990793 to discuss.

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Whiptail XLR8r Solid State Enterprise Storage

Whiptail have created an all flash-based storage array, in a cost-effective package.  The device uses MLC based Solid State Disks and has it’s own Racerunner OS which cleverly maximises the performance of the device as well as minimising the number of writes to the disks, which increases the device’s endurance.


Whiptail XLR8r

The device has impressive performance, with 250,000 write IOPS and 200,000 Read IOPS with 0.1 Ms of latency.  It doesn’t use a cache to achieve this, instead the Racerunner OS controls the reading and writing of data to the all Solid State Disks.

The Whiptail XLR8r sends 1.5 GB/s of data per second through it’s jaws!

How does it do it?

Log Structured Block Translation Layer

The Racerunner OS introduces a Log Structured Block Translation Layer which intercepts all IO and then arranges it so that the writes to the Solid State Disks are done in neat block sizes.  This minimizes the number of writes and removes the need for Garbage Collection processing and TRIM (See How does an SSD write? and Writing to an SSD? Part 2).


Log Structured Block Translation Layer

All data coming into the Whiptail XLR8r is sorted and organised into neat blocks and written across the RAID array within the device.  The XL8r8 never does write amplify as it only writes and erases in neat blocks within the SSD.

By eliminating the unnecessary writes, associated with Solid State Disks (Garbage Collection processing and TRIM) , Whiptail are able to achieve such impressive performance results as well as guarantee the lifespan of their devices using cheaper MLC SSDs.

Get in touch if you are interested in the Whiptail XLR8r SAN in 1.5TB, 3TB, 6TB or 12TB sizes.  Contact Us or call on 08452990793

Writing to an SSD? Part 2

We discussed the method of writing data to an SSD in How does an SSD write? Part 1. We explored writing data in pages within blocks.  Whole blocks must be erased at a time, therefore data needs to be shuffled around in order to free up whole blocks of data.  This means that the cells storing the data has to be written to more often the what is ideally required (NAND Flash Cells only have a limited number of times that they can be written to (or have voltage applied to them)).  Data that fill partial blocks have to be moved around before the rest of the block can be erased.

Over Provisioning on an SSD allows the drive to be more efficient by ensuring that there is an unusable area of storage allocated on the SSD to shuffle data – it’s unusable to the user, and used internally by the SSD’s controller.


Spare SSD Space

The latest SATA III SSDs come in sizes that are short (60GB instead of 64GB, 120GB instead of 128GB and 240GB instead of 256GB) in traditional disk drive sizes.  This is due to the over provisioning storage allocated to allow efficient garbage collection processing.

The consequence of this over provisioned area gives an increase in overall write IOPS as well as better reliability due to the fact that this area can also be used to replace bad memory blocks.

Bad Blocks!  This may send alarm bells – but the facts are that between 2 and 10% of blocks may be prone to error or be unusable when the device is new.  During the drive’s lifetime, good blocks can also become corrupted by charge leakage.  Due to the fact that MLC (Multi Layer Cell) devices have 4 states per cell – there is a chance that slight disturbances in the cell’s structure become unreliable, and reading accurate voltage levels fails.  This is less likely in Single Layer (SLC) drives as the cells either store a voltage or not, so the tolerance for failure is higher. 

This does not mean that the MLC drive is unreliable.  The controller maps any dead or unusable cells in a dead pool.  SSD design accepts that cells die and the software within the controller compensates for it.

SSD designers have to calculate the average number of bad blocks that the SSD will encounter over it’s lifetime and ensure that there are enough spare blocks to cover this number.  If the bad blocks number exceeds the number of spare blocks set aside – the SSD fails.

Some Enterprise based Solid State Disks also have a built in RAID configuration, where the data is striped across numbers of NAND Flash chips.  In the event of a bad block occurring, data is not lost, instead recovered from an alternative chip.

Some SSD models also have an InDrive UPS function which guarantees no data loss during any unexpected power dips, spikes or failures.

SSD Anatomy

A Solid State Disk comprises of a circuit board with a series of chips mounted on it.


Basic SSD Anatomy

The above image shows a series of NAND Flash chips – the actual number of them is determined by design, and depends on the GB size of the SSD.  In the example there are 8x NAND Flash chips – so let’s assume it’s a 128GB disk, where each chip is  16GB in size or 120GB available where 1GB per chip is assigned as SPARE.  In actual fact the chips could be stacked so there may be two or four dies per NAND FLASH IC (e.g. 16x 8GB stacked in pairs).

Some SSD have an additional Cache or Buffer of DRAM.  This stores the directory of block placement and wear levelling DATA.  Other’s store this information differently.  For this article we’ll try and keep this simple.

The controller can have between 4 and 10 channels, where data flows to and from the NAND storage area, Cache is used as a buffer to shuffle data around.


SSD Anatomy with channels

Each NAND Flash IC has a read/write speed up to about 40 MB/s, therefore if the controller read and writes to more than one NAND Flash Chip at a time, then the SSD can achieve high read and write speeds.  A traditional spinning disk has only a single head which moves back and forth as the disk spins to read and write the data.

An SSD controller places data across different NAND Flash IC so that it can achieve fast read and write performance.  In Part 1 of this article we showed the data written sequentially across adjacent blocks, in actual fact data is written in blocks – but the blocks can be spread across the different Chips to give more bandwidth to the controller. Without this functionality the controller would get bogged down reading or writing to a single chip through a single channel.

Some Solid State Disks have a Battery/Capacitor which allows the disk to complete the writing to a disk should power fail or a spike is detected, allowing too reliably complete the outstanding transaction and prevent data loss.

The Downsides

Ok – so we have explored very roughly how an SSD works.  We’ve looked at the fact that the drive read and writes in 4KB pages, stored in blocks of 64 pages or 256KB in size.  Actually the latest SSDs are using 128 paged block sizes of 512KB.  Data is written in pages of 4KB but only deleted in blocks of 256KB (or later 512KB).  This cuts down on the number of writes (which has a finite number).

What happens when I overwrite or update a file?  It actually just marks the pages storing the old file as available, writes the new version to another location, if there is space – if not the SSD has to clean itself up before writing the updated file – the original version of the file gets wiped when the SSD cleans itself up.  This process is virtually the same for a spinning disk, except for overwriting, where the HDD does actually overwrite the data.

Here’s one downside of Solid State Disk technology – due to the above scenario, they will get slower as they get used.  The data has to be shuffled around before erasing, then writing occurs.  Anand Lal Shimpi has a great blog about this at http://www.anandtech.com/show/2738/8

SSD TRIM

Modern Operating Systems (see table below), have a function called TRIM built into the OS.  This function forces the SSD to clean blocks before the the data is finally written to a page.  This does cause an additional overhead, but keeps the SSD in a clean state as it goes along.

Operating System
Supported since
Notes
Windows 7
Final release – October 2009
Windows Server 2008 R2
Final release – October 2009
Linux 2.6.33
Feb-10
Not all filesystems make use of TRIM. Ext4 and Btrfs are known to support it
OpenSolaris
Jul-10
FreeBSD 8.1
Jul-10
Only for low-level device erase (zeroing all LBAs).
FreeBSD 8.2
29-Jan-11
Full support in UFS, no support in ZFS.
Mac OS X Snow Leopard v10.6.6 (Build 10J3210)
24 February 2011 (With 3rd party)*
*TRIM can be unofficially enabled on Mac OS X Snow Leopard by modifying extensions. Since February 2011 MacBook Pro models that ship with Intel SSDs are supported by Apple and feature TRIM support. Reinstalling the OS disables TRIM by default. It can be re-enabled by 3rd party software. By modifying extensions TRIM feature can be patched to support third-party SSDs and installed on other Macs. Version 10.6.8, build 10K540, released 23 June 2011, enabled TRIM support for solid state hard drives shipped in Apple-produced configurations.
Mac OS X Lion v10.7 (Build 11A444d)
24 February 2011

Testing for TRIM

Windows 7
You can  check whether or not TRIM is enabled by accessing the Command Prompt (running as Administrator);

CD to C:\Windows\system32 and enter: > fsutil behavior query disabledeletenotify

The result will be one of the following:-

DisableDeleteNotify = 1 (Windows TRIM commands are disabled)

DisableDeleteNotify = 0 (Windows TRIM commands are enabled)

AHCI – Advanced Host Controller Interface
Most Motherboards on PCs have 2x disk modes, RAID or PCI-IDE mode. SSD’s work best when the motherboard is in AHCI mode. This is found in the BIOS settings of the system and is enabled using the RAID option – Although It may not mention AHCI, it will usually be in operation when RAID is enabled. Although TRIM does not work on RAID volumes, you can use RAID with most SSD drives in a PC, although this will give faster read and write performance – it is questionable whether a user will notice any improvement over a standard SSD unless there are extreme applications shuffling a lot of data about. 

It is best to enable AHCI before installing the SSD and Operating System, however for Windows 7 – this can be done retrospectively – check out how at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/922976

We welcome discussion on this subject – get in touch if you need more info.