The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'Linux' Category

Pertaining to the Mighty Penguin

Dharma / Maya – A New Virtualization Platform for Silverfir to Replace Minimus

Posted by Deliverator on 22nd March 2014

Back in 2009, most of Silverfir.net’s services were migrated from an aging behemoth of a Compaq server named Frankenputin onto what was hoped would be a much more manageable platform which I christened Minimus. Minimus was designed to be a server that could run contentedly in a closet for year’s on end. It was based around a dual core atom motherboard which sipped power and featured completely passive cooling and used a solid state drive as its boot drive for greater reliability. The host OS was Windows 7 running VMware Server 1.x to host a Ubuntu Linux virtual machine. Eventually VMware stopped supporting the free VMware Server 1.x line and we were forced to upgrade to VMware Server 2.x, which featured a barely functional web based management interface.

Several months ago, Silverfir started experiencing unexplained lockups every few days that required the virtual machine to be rebooted. This became annoying (especially for a box-in-the-closet) and very inconvenient for both Ryan and I. Eventually, the VM failed to boot entirely and the chunk of Silverfir hosted by Minimus was down entirely. This coincided with an extended trip by me to Rarotonga, an island in the middle of the pacific ocean with very minimal internet access. While Ryan and I were jointly remotely investigating the causes of this misbehavior, we found several VM metadata files that were 0 bytes and backup copies of these files were zero bytes as well. I reinstalled VMware Server and Ryan recreated the VM definition files from scratch. During this process, the web interface was very difficult to work with, as it wasn’t working properly in modern versions of IE and Firefox. Eventually, Ryan was able to get everything working again, and took the opportunity to upgrade from Ubuntu 9.04 to the current Long Term Support edition of Ubuntu, 12.04. Unfortunately, this did not solve the problem with the VM locking up every couple days. I decided it was time to modernize Minimus.

After spending a week experimenting with a number of modern hardware assisted hypervisors, I eventually decided to use Xenserver 6.2 Xenserver is a free (in multiple senses of the word) minimal footprint hypervisor similar to VMware ESXi. Unlike VMWare Server, which required a full fledge host OS be installed, Xenserver’s host footprint is very minimal, leaving more of the system’s resources (especially ram) free to be allocated to guest virtual machines. Because Xenserver relies on hardware level support for virtualization (a cpu feature called VT-x), guest virtual machines run much closer to the “bare metal” and feel a lot snappier as a result. Xenserver also has support for another newer hardware virtualization feature called VT-d which allows for hardware devices to be directly shared with guest VMs. This allows for devices like GPUs to be directly accessible to virtual machines. Citrix likes to show off this feature by running demanding, modern games like Skyrim in a VM and playing the game through a thin client device like an Ipad. Neat, but not very relevant to our particular use case.

The main things that I liked about Xenserver were:

  1. Free in multiple senses of the word. Based around an open source project, Xen, with widespread adoption both within the OS community and among major commercial users such as Amazon. Xenserver stores its VM metadata in standardized formats that are directly importable into other virtualization environments. Because of this, I have some confidence that I am not going to be bitten by a product discontinuation or lack of an easy forward migration path as occurred with VMware Server.
  2. After a week of hammering at it, Xenserver feels very mature. I only experienced one bug, relating to migrating VMs with associated snapshots, in a week of testing oddball cases. The windows based management tool, called Citrix Xencenter, is a pleasure to use.
  3. Xenserver allows me to create redundancy “pools,” clusters of  Xenserver hosts and shared storage resources that allow for guest virtual machines to be moved back and forth between multiple physical servers without needing to be taken offline. It is VERY cool to have a server being run off one physical box one moment and 30 seconds later having it be running off a different server with less than a single second’s network downtime. This should allow for Silverfir to stay online while hardware maintenance is being performed, something that wasn’t possible under the previous VMware Server environment.
  4. Xenserver allows for easy snapshot backups of running VMs, allowing backups to be created while the server is in use. With VMware Server, the guest had to be shutdown to backup the virtual disks, a process which took hours even using an eSATA based external backup drive.

Migrating Minimus to Xenserver was a fairly straightforward process. I was able to import the primary Minimus VMware virtual disk .vmdk file directly into a newly created VM guest in Xenserver. I had to edit grub, fstab and network interfaces to get the VM working in Xenserver and also had to add an remove a few kernel modules and install the old VMware tools, but all told I probably spent less than 2 hours getting Minimus running happily under Xenserver. What wasn’t so painless was getting the second data volume .vmdk to import. This second .vmdk stored all of Silverfir’s websites, photo galleries, etc…you know…the things that people actually care about. I received errors trying to import this file using a wide variety of virtual disk management/manipulation tools. I think this vmdk file had been created in an earlier version of VMware and probably used an older version of the .vmdk format. Eventually, after almost a whole day of trying to import this file I threw up my arms in disgust. As a workaround, I put both the old Minimus virtual machine and the new Xenserver virtual machine, which I am calling Maya, on the same network segment and created a new virtual disk container in Xenserver. Ryan then copied the data from the old virtual server to the new using the magic of rsync. This took quite a while, as almost 500 GB of data needed to be copied over at 100 mbit speeds. After almost a full day of copying and some adjusting of permissions, Maya was substantially complete and took over hosting duties from Minimus. Maya has been happily hosting Silverfir without incident for over a week.

In the near future, I plan to decommission Minimus entirely and replace it entirely. Maya’s current primary Xenserver host is a Core 2 Duo with 7 GB of ram. I plan on using most of the guts of Minimus to create a new server based around an Intel Avoton C2750 motherboard. This new system, which I am calling Dharma will be the primary Xenserver host for Maya, with the current Core 2 Duo host serving as a high availability backup server. Hosting of Maya’s data volumes will be via a Readynas Ultra 6 with a 12 TB Raid 6 array. Hopefully this new setup will allow for greater reliability and fault tolerance than what was  achieved with Minimus and Maya can continue serving Silverfir’s users for years to come.

Posted in Blogging, Emulation and Virtualization, General, Linux, Operating Systems, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Belated thoughts on the Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on 9th April 2010

I’ve been using a Nokia N900 as my cell for about 4 months now. I usually write about new gadgets in my collection much sooner than this, but with the N900 I wanted to take some more time for emotion to dampen down and to see how the platform matures before giving my take. Here are some thoughts:

Hardware

-The n900 is a big beautiful brick of a device. It feels very solid and well engineered cradled in your hands. I don’t worry much about accidental damage when I purchase a Nokia device, which is a big consideration for me, as I am a bit of a clutz.

-The screen is bright, beautiful, and daylight viewable. The resolution on the Iphone and similar smartphones is a joke compared to the screen on the n900. I wish Nokia had stayed somewhere in the 4.1 inch range or even gone a little larger, rather than shrinking the screen to 3.5″, which is a bit squint inducing to my eyes these days. The screen surface is a bit softer than those of the previous Nokia tablets, enough that I felt the need to purchase a screen protector. The screen also gathers fingerprints to such an extent that I was whipping it off multiple times a day with a microfiber cloth.

-The resistive digitizer is ultra-precise and has never needed any sort of calibrations. I’ve never had a problem with a touchscreen on a Nokia device. I’ve never found multi-touch to be much more than a gimmick in terms of usability and don’t like the other trade-offs from using a capacitive touchscreen. I really prefer using a stylus, or the edge of a fingernail in most situations due to better precision and not adding fingerprints to the screen.

-I don’t like the positioning of the slide-to-unlock switch or stylus silo. The n900 is really designed to be a two handed, horizontal orientation device and the positioning of these two components is less than optimal. Having the stylus in the lower right also forces you to pickup the phone to draw the stylus when you have it propped on its stand on a desk.

-The headphone and charging ports are located on opposite ends of the device, which makes the N900 awkward to use in a lot of circumstances while charging.

-The charging port is a Micro-USB port, rather than the standard round Nokia connector found on pretty much every other Nokia phone and all previous Nokia Internet Tablets. This forces people to buy new accessories, which is a small but non negligible issue. The bigger problem is that Nokia chose to use a surface mount micro-usb connector with no mechanical stabilization other than a few solder pads and wishful thinking, rather than a proper through hole connector. A large number of users have managed to pull this connector right out when detaching the charging cable, or place enough strain on the connector to stress the solder joints, resulting in intermittent or total loss of charging ability. Nokia’s response to user with this issue has been less than forthright or consistent. This is a design and manufacturing error, period, and is not a result of improper treatment by users. Users who experience this issue either in or out of warranty should receive a priority replacement of their device and not be forced to wait 6-8 weeks. I am absolutely dreading that this will happen to my N900 at some point. I am being extremely careful when attaching and detaching my charger and have taken the additional step of filing down two overly large metal nubs on the tip of the Nokia supplied charger, which are designed to prevent the charger from slipping out accidentally, which exacerbates the issue by requiring much greater force to be used to detach the charging cable. Most other Micro-USB cables I have also have these two nubs, but they are much less prominent than on the Nokia official charger. Just to be safe, I filed the nubs on all my cables down to almost nothing.

-The kickstand integrated into the N900’s battery cover plate is a bad joke, especially when compared to the excellent, full device width, adjustable stands built into the N800 and N810. The N900’s stand only has one viewing angle, and it is one which is suboptimal in almost any use case for the device. It is located so far to the extreme left of the device that virtually any pressure on the screen causes he device to wobble or fall over. This is a major step back in design for Nokia. It would have been better to leave it out entirely, rather than leave it there for everyone to comment on in virtually every review I’ve seen. A laser cut stand designed by a member of the Internet Tablet Talk community has proven to be a hot seller.

-The bezel around the otherwise excellent 5mp camera is chrome and allows light to reflect into the camera, especially when using the flash. This causes many pictures to have a nasty haze to them. There is also a piece of blue plastic that is too close causing many pictures to have a bluish tinge. This issue can largely be fixed with a sharpie marker, but I am surprised it slipped through QA. A cell phone accessory manufacturer could make a lot of money selling replacement backs for the N900 which fixes this issue and includes a better stand.

-The battery life is pretty abysmal. I find myself hard pressed to get through a full day without throwing the N900 back on the charger for an hour. For the first time in my life, I’ve purchased a car charger for a phone. I also bought a portable external battery from iGO for those times when I just know I won’t be able to plug in during the day. The included battery should really have been about 50% higher capacity, even at the cost of additional size/thickness to the device. Mugin, a 3rd party battery manufacturer, appears to be making an extended capacity battery along with a replacement backplate, but the backplate appears to be extremely basic and doesn’t appear to have a stand.

-In general, I LOVE the guts of the N900. The processor is an extremely zippy OMAP which provides enough ooomph for substantive applications to actually feel fluid. 256 MB of ram and a large pagefile make for useful multitasking. I often times have 6+ applications running simultaneously on my N900. 32 GB of flash gives plenty of space for my media files, and there is also a Micro-SD card slot for expansion. The n900 has a 3d accelerator powerful enough to play Quake 3. There is both an FM radio receiver and transmitter. The GPS unit is much better than on any previous Nokia device Ive used and gets a lock quickly and maintains a lock in more challenging locations than the one in the N810 or N95. It isn’t as good or as accurate as the MTK chipset Bluetooth GPS I got to use with my N800 and N810, but it is good enough that I haven’t felt compelled to carry the Bluetooth GPS, either. The N900 also has TV-out, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc….

Software

-The N900 UI is quite fluid and easy to navigate. I like the concept of multiple virtual desktops on which you can organize your various widgets, application shortcuts, etc. I generally keep my most often accessed program shortcuts on one screen, keep all my phone and communications related widgets and shortcuts on another and keep a screen-full of iconized website bookmarks on a third.

-I LOVE the multitasking experience on the N900. I often times have a half dozen or more applications running on the N900 simultaneously and rarely experience anything like a slowdown. This undoubtedly is part of the reason for my dreadful battery life, but I ultimately have the choice of how I want to use my device.

-The Nokia Internet Tablets have always offered what I consider the best pocket-able Internet experience out there and the N900 is no exception. The browser is as close to a desktop level browsing experience as I have found in a device this size. Broadly speaking, all those rich Web 2.0 sites just work. The n900 is also one of the few phones with real Adobe Flash support. Go ahead, use Youtube. For all you social networking types, the multitasking abilities of the N900 let you stay constantly connected to Twitter, Facebook, IM, RSS feeds, etc. all the time without needing to manually switch back and forth between apps as with some of the single tasking or pseudo multi-tasking alternatives out there. The N900 is also the first cell phone to receive a officially sanctioned/produced mobile version of the Firefox browser, complete with plugin support (Weave Sync, Adblock Plus, etc.).

-The Maemo 5 OS powering the n900 offers very close to the full Linux desktop stack of libraries and frameworks, making it very easy for Linux developers to write and port existing apps to the platform. Additionally, because ARM is already a target platform for Debian (the flavor of Linux from which Maemo shares its roots), a lot of existing Debian tools and apps work essentially out of the box. There is a project called Easy-Debian to make installing a full Debian environment alongside Maemo even easier.

-I really like the combined approach of having a commercial app store (Ovi Store) alongside the traditional Linux application repository approach. Nokia has also developed a multiple repository approach by which users can choose from application sources based on how much testing they have gone through. There is no need to “jailbreak” an N900. You can install and run anything you like. On the flip side, as a developer, you can write anything you like and not have to worry about having your application being rejected by the boys in Cupertino for some unclear, unstated reason. Maemo is quite simply by FAR the most open phone platform for phones as of this post.

-The commercial application market for the N900 is still quite new, but community developed applications have filled most of my mobile app needs at this point. Here are a list of just a few of the apps I routinely use on my N900:

Firefox – Firefox on the N900 is still a bit slower browsing option than the default Microb browser, but on the other hand it supports tabbed browsing and a decent subset of the full desktop version of Firefox’s plugins. I love using the Weave plugin to sync my bookmarks, passwords, etc between my desktop and N900. I also highly enjoy not having to look at ads on a mobile device thanks to Adblock+…

VNC, SSH & Remote Desktop – I frequently use these to check in on servers I administer while out and about. This can be a real lifesaver when you need to fight a fire at an awkward moment.

Pidgin – I use this for my mobile IM needs, although there are now plugins for the built in conversations application that probably make this unnecessary.

Witter – This is an excellent twitter application that is actually better than most desktop twitter clients I have used.

Gpodder – Nice podcasting client

Xchat – Cause all the people / Turing AI’s worth talking to still hang out on IRC.

FM radio app – Lets you use the built in FM radio tuner.

Canola – This was probably the best overall media player for previous Maemo devices. It works on the N900 as well, but there are some significant bugs/gotchas that the authors have been slow to fix.

Maemo Mapper – This is an excellent mapping/gps application that can use a variety of map sources. Was one of the killer apps on the previous Maemo devices. The n900 version was a bit slow out the door, but seems to be in rapid development now.

FBReader – Excellent ebook reading software which supports a wide variety of file formats and is highly configurable

Wizard Mounter – Lets me mount windows file shares on the N900. I transfer most of my media wirelessly this way.

Battery-eye – Lets you see a detailed view of battery status / discharges rates and helps you figure out if a particular application is draining battery at a abnormal/unacceptable rate perhaps due to a bug.

DialCentral – DialCentral is a client for managing and making phonecalls through Google Voice.

Skype and Sip VOIP support – I can’t think of another phone that gives you as  many options for making low cost VOIP calls out of the box and in such a highly integrated way. Making a VOIP call is just as easy as any other phone call on the N900.

Posted in General, Linux, Operating Systems, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Notice Anything Different?

Posted by Deliverator on 20th October 2009

Ryan pulled a late night and did a final sync of data from Frankenputin (old server) to Minimus. I mainly sat back and let Ryan do the heavy lifting, just acting as cheerleader, head scratcher in chief and occasional googler of error messages. There were some struggles with Mysql and the usual Gallery puking, but eventually the beast was wrestled into submission. A few port forwarding changes and now everything is being served up by Minimus. Frankenputin has been powered down, quite possibly for good. My garage no longer sounds like a jet taking off and I kinda miss it.

If you are a silverfir.net user, please poke your head into infrequently visited dark corners and see if you find anything growing there. I plan to consign Frankenputin to its new role as boat anchor and kick Minimus into a closet as soon as it is verified that the new server is stable and no additional settings/data need importing from Frankenputin.

Posted in Blogging, Emulation and Virtualization, Linux, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Nokia N900 – To Buy Or Not To Buy

Posted by Deliverator on 25th September 2009

Ive owned all three Nokia Internet Tablets (Nokia 770, N800 and N810) and all three have been part of my “everyday carry.” Each upgrade decision has not been easy for me. Some design changes between models were extremely offputting for me. For instance, I really liked the extremely tactile, discrete buttons on the 770, which made it easily the best ebook reader of the bunch and the metal screen cover which made me feel at ease when jamming it in a pocket full of keys, coins and god knows what else. Still, each new generation has, imo, at the time of its release, offered the best pocketable “full fledged” Internet experience of any device on the market.

As soon as this week, Nokia is releasing their new N900 device to the US market and I am finding myself more reluctant to buy than on any previous release. Here are some of the main reasons why:

Failure to create an attractive developer ecosystem

– The N900 will come in at more than $620 after taxes/shipping to my location in the US. There is no carrier subsidy option for US consumers. Making the device this expensive instantly relegates it to a niche, “premium user” market category, which instantly makes it less attractive to commercial application developers. Smartphones like the Iphone 3g and various Android handsets all have robust app marketplaces in part because they are getting the devices into the hands of users through lower price points and are making more of their profits on the back end. Even relative latecomers like the Palm Pre are seeing app marketplace growth. Pricing is key to attracting developers.

– Nokia has announced that future versions of the Maemo OS will be based around a different graphical framework than is currently used (QT vs GTK+) which, given previous release cycles, only gives commercial developers about a year’s time to profitably exploit the current platform. Nokia has not even committed to releasing future Maemo OS versions for the N900 and has a poor trackrecord of supporting previous NIT devices post sale. This provides a further disincentive to both the consumer to make an initial purchase and for developers to target the platform.

Too many conflicting design imperatives to make this either a good phone or a good internet tablet-

-Nokia has done away with the 4.1 inch 800*480 screens of the previous NITs and is trying to cram the same resolution into a screen which is only 3.5.” This resolution was already highly squint inducing on the previous devices. Although a device mounted stylus is thankfully included, almost all Maemo UI elements have been significantly enlarged to be more finger friendly. All this ultimately means less useful information displayed on screen and in an increasingly smaller space. At the same time, there are now a fair number of pocket-able, competing devices which carry 1024*600 resolution screens in a similar size to the original NITs.

-The D-Pad has been done away with entirely and the keyboard is now a three row variety placing many commonly used keys on second functions or pop up symbol menus. The spacebar is shrunken and extremely awkwardly placed to the far right of the keypad. There are many better keyboards available on competing devices.

-The innovative full width  integral kickstand of the N800 and N810 has been done away with and replaced by an off center one under the camera which likely won’t work at all on non-rigid surfaces and offers extremely poor viewing angle options for watching video (which seems to me one of the better selling points of the N900)

-Almost all the applications on the device can only be used in landscape mode, which pretty much necessitates two handed use for most common functions. This will make using the device as a phone extremely awkward imo.

-The browser only supports flash 9.4. While this is better than almost any other phone, it isn’t current. I have lost confidence in Nokia releasing significant updates to Maemo devices post sale, particularly when it comes to proprietary, licensed components. I don’t feel like when I purchase a Nokia devices I am going to get a meaningful, up to date, web experience for years to come.

-The N900 does not support MMS. The Iphone has been HEAVILY criticized for this and to not differentiate on this point is just stupid imo.

Misc Hardware Criticisms

– The N900 has only an internal micro-SDHC slot for expansion. While it has 32 GB of built in storage and it shows up as a USB mass storage device, I have found transfer rates via this mode to be soo slow that I’ve found it far more efficient to pop out the memory card and use a USB reader to transfer music, movies, etc. The N800 really had the ideal situation, with not one but TWO SDHC card slots. This made the N800 supremely useful as a portable device with which to work with photos from a REAL camera.

-The USB port on the N900 can be used for charging (yay!) but uses a crappy micro-usb connector. It sounds like the N900 has even less support for using the USB port in host-mode. Previous Nokia devices were fairly popular among the linux/custom hardware crowd due to it being one of the smallest Linux devices you could meaningfully hook up to a variety of USB devices.

I don’t mind the N900 being a phone. I would LOVE to move from my current N95+N810 two pocket solution to just one. I just think the N900 compromises too many of the Internet Tablet aspects of the equation in order to do so. I would like to see a device similar in size or even a little bigger than the current N810 with both phone and tablet functionality, a better range of tactile buttons, a full size hostmode USB port and an externally accessible “press to eject” SDHC card slot. From what I can see, moving in that direction would appeal to the vast majority of current NIT users (read purchasers) and I just don’t think the direction they are heading will create broad appeal in new market segments anyways.

Posted in Linux, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Extreme Disappointment Regarding Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on 26th May 2009

Let me state first off that I’ve owned and been an active, everyday user of all three of Nokia’s Maemo-based Internet Tablets (Nokia 770, N800 and N810). A couple days ago, Mobilecrunch.com released substantial amounts of leaked info on the next generation Nokia N900. The basic information provided has since been verified by sources associated with Nokia on the Internet Tablet Talk forums who have proven spot on accurate through several past product release cycles.

MobileCrunch wouldn’t release photos it had of the device due to apparent watermarking, but asserted the following image as an accurate representation of the device.


Is this the Nokia N900???

CELLPASSION on the other hand had no compunction about releasing a photo of what it claims is the N900. The photo is low resolution, but basically matches MobileCrunch’s depiction.

Is this the Nokia N900?

The biggest shocker about the N900 is that it will in fact be a phone. Previous internet tablets had bluetooth connectivity for data connectivity through a phone and several VOIP platforms were supported officially and through 3rd party installable software, but this will be the first Nokia Internet Tablet with direct cellular connectivity. The device supports quad band GSM and 3 band 3g data. T-mobile was mentioned as a release partner and it is quite possible that this device will be provider locked and possibly subsidized, at least initially. If this device is truly T-mobile only and not independently purchasable unsubsidized and unlocked I will be extremely disappointed. I’ve purchased several Nokia phones due to them being one of the few sellers of high quality unlocked, carrier scourge free GSM phones.

The good:

-OMAP3430 500/600 Mhz processor will be amongst the fastest on market. The Palm Pre is the only other phone I know of at the moment using this fast of a processor.
-5 megapixel camera with dual LED flash and sliding lens cover. Can capture high resolution video and save in h.264 format.
-built in GPS and accelerometer. The GPS built into the n810 and N95 were absolutely terrible, with extremely long lock times and poor reception. Hopefully Nokia has learned from this and included a decent chipset from MTK or Sirf and the GPS isn’t just thrown in to fulfill another marketing bullet point.
-32 GB of flash with room for even more expansion via micro-sdhc
-256 MB of ram (up from 128 MB in the N810) with ability to set up to a 768 MB page file (up from 256 MB on N810). I had hoped for a little more headroom, especially since a lot of the added frameworks in Maemo 5 are going to eat up some of this working memory.
-This will be the first Linux based phone from a major manufacturer with nearly the full compliment of Linux libraries and frameworks built in. Maemo is now on its 5th major revision and is a mature, stable platform. With a huge complement of open source apps available plus the newly announced Ovi app store, this could be the best (for the consumer) combination of both open and commercial application development. The closed “apple knows best” nature of the Iphone and the crappy hardware thus far released for the android platform have made both unattractive to me. Finally a decent alternative.

The bad:

-The n810 had a 4.1″ 800*480 screen which was already at the limits of my squint abilities. With the N900, Nokia is making the screen .6″ smaller while keeping the resolution the same. While this makes the device a little more pocketable, it make it much less useable.
-Nokia has done away with the 4 way D-Pad entirely, several other hard buttons and apparently the stylus as well (although the last is somewhat uncertain at this point). The Maemo 5 interface has gone off the deep end towards oversized buttons, fonts and other UI elements. It is obvious that they want you to use your big fat greesy fingers for everything. I absolutely hate this for a wide variety of reasons. The ability to interact with programs in a variety of ways was a big selling point of the Maemo UI and device controls in previous versions. From what I have seen of Maemo 5, I am VERY doubtful that Nokia is going to be able to implement as fluid a user experience as the iPhone with an exclusively finger oriented Maemo UI. Nokia is doing a really good job of eliminating their strong points and trying to fight the iPhone on its own turf.
-Nokia has replaced the 4 row keyboard of the N810 with an inferior 3 row one which places a lot of common characters on second functions. I am seeing MASSIVE numbers of negative comments on this one. WTF were they thinking?
-No mention of Bluetooth functionality at all. Previous Nokia tablets could tether with a phone for connectivity, use of Bluetooth keyboards, headsets, etc. Have they eliminated this functionality in their phone inclusive tablet because with Linux as the basis it would be too easy to write a bluetooth tethering application to share out the device’s data plan?
-The N900 is reported to be somewhere in the vicinity of 185 grams. This is substantially heavier than either the Palm Pre or Iphone 3g which weigh in at ~130 grams or even the G1 Android phone which weighs in at ~160g. For all that weight, extra radios and processing power, the N900 has a fairly low battery capacity of ~1300mah. The G1 garnered a LOT of complaints about its poor battery life and I can’t imagine a similar debacle would be good for Nokia’s reputation or the future of such a device.
-A lot of similarities between this device and the N97 which is being released in a couple of weeks in the US. Having two such similar devices is likely going to undercut the market for both.

I really want a Maemo Linux based phone to succeed in the market, but find a lot of the design decisions apparent in the N900 to be actively repulsive. I can’t see this device being nearly as useful to me throughout the day as my current two pocket solution. The compromises in overall functionality of the N900 vs a two pocket solution are just too much. I know without needing to even set my paws on the device that the smaller screen size, bad keyboard, button and UI decisions are just too much of a deal breaker for me. Even in this economy, I would have gladly up-ended my wallet for a straight forward refresh of the N810 with more ram, storage, faster processor and integrated (carrier agnostic) cellular functions, but as it is, I just can’t see this device as proposed fitting into how I want to live my life.

I went ahead and ordered a new Mugen extended life N810 battery. I’ll try and get a few more years of use out of my N810 and if Nokia hasn’t impressed me by then, I will probably move to something like the Viliv S5 for my mobile internet needs.

Posted in General, Linux, Operating Systems, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Terminal Multitasking

Posted by Deliverator on 25th March 2008

One of the things I like best about my n810 is its ability to serve as a remote access client using RDP, VNC or SSH. With RDP and VNC, the bandwidth requirements are such that a WiFi connection is needed to work efficiently. With SSH, the bandwidth requirements are much lower, such that I can effectively use my N95’s EDGE wireless wan connection. While T-mobile’s EDGE coverage around the Seattle area is good, it is simply not practical to keep the connection up all the time. Even if the coverage were perfect, battery life issues would prevent a continuous connection all day long.

Unfortunately, by default SSH only gives you a single terminal session in which to launch applications. If the connection is interrupted, so is any app you might have been running. What is needed is a way to multitask and keep the application running. Screen fits the bill nicely. With it, I can ssh to a server from my n810, start up multiple command line tasks and before disconnecting, decouple any apps I wish to keep running from the session. I can then move elsewhere, reconnect to the server using ssh and with the simple command screen -r, reconnect all those running apps to my new session. This ability comes in really, really handy. I can leave things like IM clients, IRC clients, email, network monitoring apps, backup jobs, long software compile operations, etc. running all day long and just connect to them as needed. If you haven’t given screen a try, I highly recommend starting off by reading this introductory guide, as official documentation is sparse.

Posted in General, Linux, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Grandma Stable, Server Stable

Posted by Deliverator on 15th March 2008

It has been touch and go with my grandmother over the last half week, but she seems to be doing better since yesterday. She has been bleeding a lot internally and the doctors have given her 8-10 units of blood and have been draining the internal bleeding almost as fast as they have infused. Prior to all the bleeding starting, they put her on Coumadin, an anti-coagulant drug to try to break up a clot. In retrospect, this seems to have been not such a great idea, as I believe this greatly increased her internal blood loss. Once they stopped the Coumadin and started giving her blood like mad, it still took several days to get it out of her system and they gave her shots of Vitamin K to try and reverse the effects. Wikipedia notes that this method of reversal is somewhat out of fashion in favor of using Prothrombin Complex Concentrate. The treating physician mentioned to us several times the results of clotting tests that they were doing and from what I can tell, her case seems to meet the criteria used by various practice standards bodies as to when it is preferred to use the PCC method of treatment vs the blood+ Vitamin K method. Then again, I am not a hematologist and Wikipedia isn’t known for being the best authority on some issues. Because they had to stop the Coumadin before it had a chance to break up the clot, they decided to put in some sort of filter stent in one of the major arteries of her neck, to catch any clots that might break loose before they could give her a stroke. Anyways, she seems much improved. She is more alert, eating a bit more and was able to briefly walk and spent part of the day sitting in a chair. We hope this means she gets to spend some more time with us.

From the trivial news department, I made an in person visit to Frankenputin and did some upgrades. Frankenputin now has a external backup drive with 232 GB of capacity. If you are a silverfir user and would like to make use of the new drive to backup your website or other data, contact Ryan or myself for instructions. I moved Frankenputin and associated hardware onto a UPS. The UPS has a serial port for monitoring, and I hooked it up, but haven’t had a chance to investigate Linux UPS monitoring agents yet. Oasis, the older desktop machine which used to host Silverfir (and still hosts a few things like the TRC mailing lists) unfortunately couldn’t go onto the UPS as well do to over wattage concerns. I also added a KVM switch, older LCD monitor, compact keyboard and trackball to the desk on which Oasis and Frankenputin sit. This should make in-person administration a little bit less of an exercise in not knocking things over.

Update: Frankenputin felt a bit slow while I was working on it this evening. I checked and it looks like during the upgrade to the Gutsy Gibbon release of Ubuntu, the Linux kernel got switched to using a i386 one which doesn’t support smp. In effect, Frankenputin was only using one of its two PIII 933mhz processors. I manually switched to using the “generic” Ubuntu kernel, as this one now supports SMP by default. The old way of doing smp on Ubuntu, by installing the linux-image-686 meta-package has been discontinued.

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Panic…Don’t Panic…Panic

Posted by Deliverator on 10th March 2008

As Ryan noted earlier today, Silverfir had an attack of the Hiccups. Ryan noticed what appeared to be some sort of file corruption. We had some notices from Silverfir’s RAID controller, a Compaq Smart Array 5302, a few weeks ago that one of the drives in the 14 disk array (which Silverfir uses to store all the websites it hosts) was having problems. At the time, I didn’t worry worry much, as the array was constructed in such a way that two drives could fail at the same time without data loss. In addition. I designated a drive in each array as a hot-spare. Essentially a hot-spare is a drive which is kept unused in reserve so that if a drive fails, the hot-spare can automatically be brought in as a replacement without the server maintainers needing to so much as lift a finger. Still, given the age of the drives in the array and my own real world experience of hard disk failure rates, I was more than a little worried. I headed over to check on the server in person, while Ryan went to work troubleshooting the problem remotely. By the time I got there, Ryan had already dismounted the array and was running a fsck (a type of filesystem integrity check) on the array. The scan found a number of file system issues, most likely due to power failures during disk writes. Silverfir had its own UPS, but it was recently removed do to a dead battery. We never set up UPS monitoring/management agents, so all the UPS was doing was preventing the briefest browouts and power outages from causing problems. Thankfully, Silverfir uses a journaling file system and the file system check was able to repair all the issues with little to no apparent data loss.

On my end, I found no idiot lights or other indications of actual drive failure. None the less, I went to work tarring up important (to me at least) data directories and transferring them over the network to my laptop. While I do occasionally back up my WordPress database, user account home directory and other assorted files, I don’t do it nearly as often as I should or in a real systematic fashion. Silverfir’s users are largely left to back up their own damn data themselves, thank you very much! This is a nice sentiment in theory, but the lack of a locally available backup drive or of a fat pipe for internet based backup has made this problematic.

Silverfir has largely been a stompbox for Ryan and I, and as a result hasn’t exactly received the same diligent administrative attention that we would apply to a “real” server. We have largely just let it coast. I think we are both reaching the point where a little systematic backup and other prophylactic measures would give us both some peace of mind. Towards that end, I installed a PCI->USB 2 adapter card to allow an external hard disk to be hooked up for backup purposes. I am going to purchase a large enough backup drive that we should be able to take quite a few backup points before needing to delete intermediate data points. I will also likely donate a UPS and some other hardware for the good of the order.

Long term, I would like to get Silverfir on some more modern, compact, lower power, quieter server hardware; achieving as much reliability through hardware as possible. I think Ryan on the other hand would just assume move Silverfir onto commodity desktop hardware and achieve peace of mind through virtualization and/or rigorous backup. I think both approaches have their merits, so at some point we will need to have a discussion. For now, I think we are both happy to let the server go back to coasting (once we get the backup drive set up).

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Updated information about Nokia N810

Posted by Deliverator on 19th October 2007

Thoughtfix just got back from the Web2Summit event where the N810 was announced. He managed to take home a retail boxed demo unit and held a live interactive video “show and tell” with the Internet Tablet Talk community using ustream.tv which allows for live syndication of video content using flash based video. You can chat with the host(s) of the show using an integrated flash based chat room. About 80 people showed up for Throughfix’s impromtu show and almost everyone came prepared with a ton of questions.

Here is what I learned from Thoughfix’s show:

-The 2 GB of flash that is built in is 80% full of maps to begin with and is likely fat formatted, so those hoping for expanded storage space for Linux applications can look elsewhere.

-The memory card slot is indeed Mini-SD. The slot insertion/removal mechanism is difficult to operate. The maximum theoretical overall capacity of the unit is 10 GB when combining internal and external flash.

-The battery door is difficult to open, but without an internal card slot there isn’t much point. Door is solidly in place and doesn’t rattle in its frame like on the n800.

-The top keys have been improved with the full screen and +/- buttons seperated as on the 770. There is a hardware lock key on the top that locks the device from coming out of power saving mode due to accidental key presses or bumping of the screen while it sits in one’s pocket.

-The camera appears to use a higher quality sensor than on the n800. I spoke with him over my n800 using google talk video during his show. There was very little “speckled” ccd noise evident in his stream, whereas my image was a noisy mess despite a lot of overhead lighting.

-The screen is brighter and also appears to be transflective a.k.a. direct sunlight viewable.

-The keypad has a nice back lighting feature that is activated/deactivated automatically by the ambient light sensor.

-The casing/construction is almost entirely metal and has a very solid feel to it.

-Despite not being an officially listed feature, the N810 paired with a set of Bluetooth stereo headphones (A2DP). When attempting to use for voice calling, got a lot of stuttering/poor quality noise.

-Would pair with a bluetooth mouse, but does not support the profile.

-The new Firefox based web browser seems to work better with a lot of Web 2.0 websites, but also crashed on a number of occasions.

-The revamped Desktop Applets/Plugins functionality looks to be cool and applets can now be resized and can overlap.

-The UI skins look nice and utilize transparency well. Best default visual theme of any NIT yet. Navigation and opening of programs was quite responsive.

-The GPS was able to lock onto five satellites indoors at Thoughtfix’s house. Software was extremely slow in plotting a route for a 600 mile trip within the same state. The 3d view still doesn’t show street names. The N810 comes with a cradle and a basic screw-type mounting bracket for in car use. It sounds like many GPS features will only be functional for an additional price.

-Keypad seemed to be slow and cumbersome as an input method due to chiclet sized keys with a very stiff response. Hitting keys along top row is somewhat difficult due to the overhanging lip of the screen. Several common keys like tab are simply not present (arg!). Many common keys including number keys are on a second function and there isn’t a function lock/sticky keys mode for more efficient entry. Nor will holding a key down longer activate the second function for that key. This has become a common convention on compact qwerty devices. Hopefully Nokia will improve this in a software update.

-The D Pad positioning is as awkward as it looks and the center “enter” key of the D Pad is too large. Hitting up on the D Pad is difficult as it is against the side of the screen when extended. It sounds like Nokia needs to make the slider extend more.

-The soft slip case is pseudo-seude leather and is made in turkey and better fits that N810. There is no official hard case in the works as far as anyone knows.

-The speaker volume seems adequate and the N810 has the same special jack that allows one to use a standard set of headphones or a special set of stereo headphones with a built in microphone.

-Expanded video format support has not been shown in my mind as the N810 crapped out on a number of attempts to play formats listed in the new specifications. I would like to see a systematic testing of a wide variety of formats under rigorous conditions. I would like to see an official statement as to what resolutions and bitrates the N810 is capable of playing and what subversions of formats are supported (i.e. if you state WMV support, does that mean WM8, 9, 11, etc.?)

-There is no FM radio tuner on the N810, a disappointment to many people that used that feature on the N800.

-Despite long promises of an improved email client, the default mail client on the N810 is the same POS as before. I recommend installing Claws Mail and forgoing the built in client altogether.

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Latest Ubuntu Linux Now Available!

Posted by Deliverator on 18th October 2007

The latest release of one of the most popular Linux operating systems just hit the web. I have used Ubuntu through several generations on a wide variety of different hardware platforms (this server runs it) and I have been really impressed by how each new release introduces technically ambitious, substantive new features and integrates them into the look and feel of the OS in a consistent, thoughtful manner, which is a lot more than I can say about the Windows OS space. Also unlike the most recent version of Windows, Ubuntu feels fast and responsive on even fairly modest hardware. This latest release, codenamed “Gutsy Gibbon” introduces a slew of new features. Some of my favorite include:

-Latest version of the Gnome desktop environment with 3D visual effects turned on by default. Also, unlike Vista, the 3d environment can actually be put to good, functional use.

-Much better support for detecting and configuring your graphics settings without needing to modify arcane text configuration files

-Plug and play printer installation. I know this has been in the Windows world for ages, but Linux has had a different focus for a long time. To be able to just plug a printer into a Linux system and have it work with no fuss is a big deal.

-Supports reading and writing to NTFS formatted disks, which makes cohabitation with Windows formatted drives much easier.

-Ability to encrypt the full hard disk.

-Improved power consumption for laptops and desktops

-First version of Ubuntu to support AppArmor which allows one to place strict boundaries on what files/devices (on Linux the distinction between the two is muddled) a program can access. This is great as it allows one to confine programs to only the resources they need, so that they can’t harm the rest of the system. It is fairly common in the Windows world in particular for an undocumented vulnerability in a program such as a web server to be used to gain access to the broader system. In this era of internet worms, exploitation of common vulnerabilities can lead to millions of affected computers in a very short time. Not everyone keeps their systems patched and up to date, and even those that do can fall prey to an undocumented exploit. Technologies like AppArmor help to seriously limit the potential fallout of such an attack.

Anyways, download Ubuntu and give it a truly no risk free trial via its bootable cd mode and when you are ready to install it on your computer full time, your pocketbook can rest easy as Ubuntu is free then too. If you aren’t ready to commit to Ubuntu entirely, you can even install it in a dual-boot mode which will allow you to preserve your existing Windows installation.

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