Hardware Isle of Man

A Hackspace for the Isle of Man?

I’ve discussed the need for a hackspace on the island over the years with members of the Isle of Man Linux User group, work colleagues in education, people in the pub, family and friends and they’ve all said what a great idea it would be.

Today while out walking the dogs, I noticed this building is up for sale:


This building was originally a small church, but has since been used as a workshop recently. It has loads of potential as a community hackspace to benefit the people of the Isle of Man.

 Wouldn’t it be great if the community could come together to secure this as resource for everyone?

‘Isle of Man PLC’ is always spinning stories in the media about how hi-tech it is, and how space and engineering are growing sectors for the island. There’s always talk of investing in education too, and providing opportunities for people to better themselves and learn new skills. Couple that with the island’s strong sense of community, and it’s hard to see why we don’t have a hackspace already!

 Wouldn’t it be great if the community could come together to secure this as resource for everyone?

You may be wondering why, and just what is a hackspace anyway? Well, firstly let’s make sure that we don’t mix up that term ‘hacker’ with the negative way that it gets used in the media. RFC 1392 defines a hacker as:

“A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.”

Hacking has nothing to do with breaking things, or gaining unauthorised access to computer systems. (The correct term for that is ‘cracking’ – media please note!!)

A hackspace then, is a place where like-minded individuals can meet up to share and swap ideas, build things, test things, improve things and share in a learning culture. Having a basic set of tools, soldering irons, test gear and computers is almost a prerequisite for a useful and productive hackspace. If you’ve the time, this video will give you a good idea of the benefits of hackspaces.

Wouldn’t it be great if the community could come together to secure this as resource for everyone?

This is the point where I’m stuck.

How can we make this happen? How can we rally the troops? How can we find the money needed to secure this hackspace? Who can support us? Who knows about grants and pots of money? Who knows about crowdfunding like Kickstarter or Indiegogo? Can our MHKs assist us?




LG Smart TV

It’s Christmas time, and family are coming to stay. I realised that they would probably want a TV in their room. There isn’t much choice for TV retailers on the Isle of Man, but I figured that if I was buying a TV at the end of 2013 it should have at least an LED backlight, DVB-T2 HD capability, and built in Wi-fi for connectivity. I found an LG model that ticked all of these boxes.

With the onslaught of the Christmas festivities, I only had time to hook it to my wireless network, update the firmware and set up the TV tuner. The LG Smart TV software looks fairly comprehensive at first glance, with options for streaming media from the internet and also accessing content from my HP Proliant NAS box that I blogged about earlier. It looks like you can control the TV from a tablet or smartphone too, so I’ll have to explore when I have a bit more time.

Of course, I’ll also be having a bit of a dig inside the software internals to see how it all works. Already I think it’s probably a Linux + busybox affair, so there will be some options to tinker. I’ll also have a think about how the TV stands from a security and privacy point of view…

I’ll blog here if I find anything of note, but for now have a great Christmas and New Year!


USB Wi-Fi Adapter

While I was in the UK recently, I took advantage of an Argos store to acquire a USB Wireless dongle. I bought the TP-Link TL-WN725N because it was cheap, and very small. The plan was to use it with my Raspberry PI, and a quick Google suggested the TL-WN725N would run directly from the Raspberry Pi without needing external power, and the driver was already baked into the kernel.

Of course, nothing in life is ever simple. It turns out that TP-Link have recently changed the chip inside the adapter, and are now selling version 2.0 of the device. This would be great (newer hardware is always better, right?) apart from the fact that the kernel in the Raspian linux I use on my Rasperry Pi does not have the correct driver for this new chip.

Luckily, the new chip is manufactured by Realtek who are such a great company they release driver source code for their devices. So, on my to-do list now is to compile the new wireless driver for my Raspberry Pi kernel. I suspect compiling from source will take quite a while on the humble ARM processor in the Raspberry Pi…


Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition

My Dell XPS 13 developer edition is a lovely machine. It’s slim and light, very very fast and has a beautiful screen. It also came from the manufacturer with Ubuntu linux pre-installed and ready to go. I do wish more manufacturers would sell their computers without Microsoft Windows.

However, it did have a tendency to drop the wireless connection randomly which is surprisingly frustrating. Having never bought a ‘proper’ laptop before I thought I’d make use of the 12 months pro-support that came with it. Sadly, Dell’s representative was asking me Windows related things, so I politely gave up on them. Maybe if I’d persevered they would have put me through to an Ubuntu specialist, maybe not. I suppose the leaflet in the laptop packaging about getting started with Windows 8 should have made me suspicious of what to expect!

Anyway, it turns out that the Atheros Killer wifi card in the machine wasn’t being supported very well by the linux kernel that was shipped with the machine. That doesn’t say much for Dell’s quality assurance testing. All that was needed was for me to install a newer kernel, and the wifi now works perfectly.

I’d like to think that this minor issue will be addressed by Dell, but just in case you’ve got yourself a shiny new XPS 13 Developer Edition with flaky wifi, here’s how to get a newer kernel that works:

Open a terminal (press CTRL+ALT+T) and type:

sudo apt-get install linux-generic-lts-quantal

Then reboot your laptop.


HP Proliant Microsever

I bought a 300 GB NAS box about 10 years ago, and although it still works fine it had finally filled up.  The thought that it has all my digital life on one spinning disk was also making me feel uneasy – especially given that it has been spinning for a decade. So, I was looking for something bigger to replace it but I knew that I wanted something with some redundancy against physical hard drive failures.

Now, these types of redundant NAS boxes don’t come cheap and they only do one job, so I was finding the costs hard to justify. Perfect timing then that I came across a great deal from HP on their Proliant Microserver. They were offering £100 cash back, which meant that I could by the server for a little over £100. I also bought two 2 TB hard drives at the same time, so the total cost was about £250. This compared very well to the NAS boxes I had been looking at that were nearer the £500 mark.

Of course there was the added bonus that I would get to install the operating system, and configure everything myself. Some people will see that as a hassle, but I love it when I know how all my computer bits work on the inside! Naturally, I opted for an open source solution and decided to install Ubuntu Server 12.04 LTS.

The HP Proliant literature claimed it had RAID built in, but I soon realised that this is handled in software by the BIOS and takes some processor cycles. A few quick tests convinced me that I wouldn’t use the built in RAID and instead opted for Ubuntu’s software RAID instead. This was more configurable, and seemed to perform faster than the built in solution! Having never built a RAID array before, I opted for RAID 1 which means that each of the 2 TB drives is a perfect copy of the other. This means that if one drive fails, my data is safe on the other.

The install was very easy (hooray for Ubuntu!) and with the addition of some Samba packages, it didn’t take long before I had a working NAS. It performs very well, and is much faster than the old NAS box it replaces.

So, was it worth the marginal extra effort over a ready-made-off-the-shelf NAS? Definitely. I now have a small, relatively cheap to run machine that currently provides:

  • Two terabytes of redundant storage to all the devices on my network
  • A 24/7 solution for uploading data from my Fitbit activity tracker, using the libfitbit software library by Kyle Machulis
  • USB power for my Raspberry Pi

Future plans include adding a streaming webcam server, and an AllStar link node for amateur radio.

If you’re looking for a small home server, then I’d recommend the HP Proliant range. Especially if you can get it with a cash back offer like I did.