Project Box

Introduction

Lazyweb, we need your help!

Niel Bornstein and I came up with this idea on the proverbial napkin in a bar. The problem that we wanted to solve is common in our line of work: we were working on a project (a data center Linux strategy and architecture) with a team of a half-dozen people at a client site without Internet access. The client was (overly?) concerned about data security and wouldn’t let us onto their corporate network and we didn’t have any other mechanism for getting out to the public Internet. Yes, there are places in the world without broadband wireless. Yes, we did find a coffee shop with wireless.

Niel and I thought that a good solution to this problem would be to have a small physical box that we could all connect to and use for collaboration. It would need to have some kind of storage and either wired or wireless connectivity. We thought that we could load it up with useful information ahead of time (templates, previous projects, code snippets, interview guides, and so forth) in addition to a standard set of collaboration tools (messaging, calendar, wiki, etc.) Niel, I think, jury-rigged a prototype together out of a spare HD and WRT54G router, but the idea never went anywhere.

Description

The ProjectBox is a small portable computer and (optional) wireless router which provides several services for short-term consulting teams. The requirements are:

  • Network segment infrastructure
    • DHCP
    • DNS
    • Print spooler
    • NAT (for when the client network allows connection)
  • Central file storage with revision control in a standard directory structure
  • Collaborative document creation
  • Presentation rendering
  • Shared calendar for project tasks and meetings
  • Directory infrastructure for Novell and client team information
  • Web-based access and administration
  • Offline synchronization

Accordingly, the ProjectBox will have the following services enabled:

  • DHCP/DNS
  • Apache
  • FTP server
  • Subversion (too heavyweight? alternatives?)
  • Shared calendar (caldav?)
  • OpenLDAP? for contacts, or maybe just flat files
  • Twiki
  • s5
  • CUPS
  • Storage with standard directory structure and templates

A key requirement is the price point: less than $200

As much of the functionality as possible must be available as open source software.

The Project Box hardware could be a small laptop with a decent-sized hard drive, or it could be a small PC. (Could we use something even smaller/lighter?) A small ethernet hub or wireless router is also required.

Web-based interface requirements

  • Configure networking; set offline/passthru mode
  • File management
    • Create project structure
    • Upload file (with revision control)
    • Download file
    • Synchronize files
  • Contact Management
    • Add contact
    • View/Edit contact
    • Delete contact
  • Calendar Management
    • Add appointment
    • View/Edit appointment
    • Delete appointment

Hardware options

1. Linksys WRT54G (or comparable) wireless router running Open WRT (or Tomato, my new favorite)
Pros:

* Pretty cheap
* Known to run Linux

Cons:

* No USB ports for attached storage

2. Mini-ITX
A very small, quiet PC that could run SLES10

Pros:

* Fanless, so it’s quiet

Cons:

* They don’t tend to be very durable
* Not cheap

3. Linksys NSLU2
A cheap NAS appliance that can run Linux

Pros:

* Cheap cheap cheap

Cons:

* Storage not included
* Storage enclosure not included
* Wireless not included

Proposed Architecture

So, given all that, here’s what the proposed box might look like.

Hardware

  • CPU + Router: Linksys WRT54G
  • Storage appliance: Linksys NSLU2
  • Storage device: any USB drive

Software

  • Operating System: OpenWRT/Tomato
  • Additional packages: * *

References

http://xent.com/pipermail/fork/Week-of-M…

The wireless part is optional, but the router part is required, I think.

The only custom developed part would be the web front end, correct?

I would prefer to use, instead of a full-on PC, a modified wireless router running Open WRT or something similar, with a hard drive in an external exclosure. Is that possible?

The wireless router as CPU is a nice idea, but it seems like attaching storage will be difficult at our price point — most of them do not include USB ports. Maybe a better way to go would be a gumstix, Mini-ITX, or similar very small box for the processor, with external storage and external wireless router.

Dell Ideastorm

Interesting new ‘community’ site from Dell, “Ideastorm.”

[Later: Jon Bultmeyer points to a similar site at Salesforce.com.]

Kevin Rollins was famously ambivalent about the consumer market. His ouster, Michael Dell’s return, and other recent changes, including Ideastorm, seem to suggest that they’re looking again at the consumer business. Ideastorm has a very Web 2.0 look and the early discussions are what you would expect from the same group of 25,000 people who try everything first: pre-load Linux(es), Open Office, get rid of the pestware that comes with new Dell PCs, etc.

I’ve written before that a bad support call made me swear off of Dell consumer products. I still like and recommend their enterpise-grade stuff, but when I needed to get a new desktop machine for myself, I ended up getting a sweet deal from EndPCNoise and never thought of going to Dell.

Two SmugMug bits: Sun and Amazon

Interesting comparison of hardware vendors from a photo-sharing site, SmugMug:

Sun ended up winning their business, largely on the basis of the X2200 M2, which is interesting in of itself.  The list of pros and cons is worth reading.  Sun continues to be a fascinating company to watch, with great technology, but backed into a strategic corner with a questionable business model.

Separately, but also from Don McAskill’s blog, an interesting post on Amazon’s S3 service.  I’ve been looking around for a good S3-based backup offering but haven’t found one yet.  Jungledisk seems like it’s the closest, but I’d prefer something a bit more mature.

Dell consumer experience: beware support!

My father-in-law, a retired orthodontist, needed a new computer to replace his old Dell laptop. He’d been very happy with his old machine, which last seven years with nothing more than an occasional hard drive upgrade, so we spec’d out a new Dell laptop at the website. We looked at a couple of alternatives both on-line and at stores, but the Dell prices were ‘good enough,’ so we went with them. He wasn’t especially price sensitive, but didn’t want to get ripped off and Dell did not seem like a rip-off, which was good.

He’s no computer expert, but he has a few things that he’s accustomed to doing and he is an expert at those, so he wanted his new machine to look like his old one. I spent some time, the dutiful son-in-law, downloading Firefox instead of Explorer and configuring it so that he couldn’t tell the difference. Likewise with Open Office. We cancelled his AOL account but — very nice customer service, by the way, astonishingly — they let us keep his username and mail account, accessed via their website instead of through their client software. My father-in-law was happy that he was saving the $25/month but I found the whole thing completely confusing; I don’t understand AOL at all. Switching him over to the cable company’s Internet service instead of AOL-over-cable was equally easy. Getting his new wireless router to work was more of a hassle and required a few calls to the Phillipines for customer service; eventually, I gave up and swapped out his router for one I’m familiar with, the Linksys WRT-54 and that did the trick.

We did this all while on vacation, but I was fairly pleased that a day’s work had set him up for the next seven years, with better hardware and software. (I was afraid to go near his old machine, it was so infested with rootkits and viruses.)

So we leave his place and drive back to where we’re staying, 45 minutes away. We walk in the door and the phone rings. It’s David. “Ed, I’ve got a problem with the computer.” I think, ah, no problem; this is why, smart guy that I am, I told him to buy ‘configuration support’ from Dell, a week or two of unlimited phone help. Not so smart as it turns out. I suggest he call Dell. But he had already, because apparently minutes after we left his house he couldn’t find something — the tabbed browsing in Firefox? the new Gmail account worked differently than AOL?, I’m still not sure — so he faithfully called Dell. Their customer service helpfully walked him through some diagnostics and then decided that what he really needed to do was to re-install his entire system, a clean install.

Which he did.

That got rid of the problem, but he was having trouble finding the web browser and called me to ask for help. Of course, the reason that he couldn’t find it was because Dell had told him to wipe away my day’s work, all the carefully configured Explorer-like tweaks I’d done to Firefox, the copied bookmarks in the same place as he knew from his old computer, the wireless setup, the whole thing. I was so mad that I wanted to break things; I think that I threw my phone at one point.

I went back the next day and, more quickly this time, re-did his setup and added backup software to we could go back to good known images if necessary. But that one call to customer service made me swear off (and swear at) Dell for consumer-grade products forever. I still like them for servers and enterprise stuff, but no more Dells for my family.