Blast from the past

I was surprised to find my less-than-a-year-old HP Microserver Gen8 taking over half an hour to come back from each reboot. Closer inspection showed the system clock jumping back to 2016 every time it restarted, which forces an fsck when Linux realises its disks have been modified “in the future”. Checking >1TB of disk takes a long time.

It’s been a while since I had to replace a CMOS battery, but it fixed the problem:

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The Stuff Should Just Work Epiphany

It doesn’t apply to everyone who works in the IT industry, but as most of us get older, we lose our tolerance for things which don’t Just Work, at least in our home lives. When you’ve spent all day working with new and sharp-edged technology, you really want to come home and have your appliances act like appliances, not like computers which misbehave and need debugging. Having said that, a related phenomenon I’ve experienced over the past year is that when you are promoted far enough to stop doing coding for a living, you may have a resurgence of interest in hacking around with stuff in your spare time…

Installing a new Raspberry Pi

This has got very slick. These days, if you buy a new Pi with one of their SD cards, it boots to a nice menu asking which operating system you’d like to install – including Microsoft’s IoT offering, which looks interesting. I haven’t tried it yet, though, as my first Pi 3 is destined for media centre duties, making OSMC the OS of choice.

noobs

GWR, you’re fired

Blissful, unimaginable spaaace!

Blissful, unimaginable spaaace!

So I’m off to spend the weekend with friends in London, as you do.

There are a few things I really want to get done on the train, involving my laptop. Odds of getting a seat with a plug socket and enough space to work, on a Friday night peak time GWR train from Oxford to London Paddington? Approaching zero unless I pay double for first class.

But wait, capitalism to the rescue! Almost uniquely in the country, Oxford station now has multiple competing routes into London, courtesy of Chiltern going via Oxford Parkway and into London Marylebone. And unlike GWR, it’s on time, and I have not just a table, socket and reasonably roomy seat, but three other unoccupied seats around me.

GWR, I’m never taking your route to London again.

(The WiFi is crocked, though … couldn’t all be perfect, now could it.)

Cheaper isn’t always better

Getting data abroad on EE pay as you go has always been a miserable experience, assuming you’re too disorganised to sort it out in advance. You land somewhere foreign, you just need a few MB to get Google Maps up and find your hotel, and if their captive portal even manages to load, it’s sorely lacking in a button which says “shut up and take my money”. They also apply rather mean time limits – yes, you can have 75MB of data, but it only lasts 24 hours. WTF? I wanted that much for the whole trip.

For longer trips abroad, none of this matters as you can simply buy a local SIM at the airport. This is especially easy for me with my OnePlus Two, as it has twin SIM slots so you don’t miss out on the odd text or urgent call from home.

However, for just four full days on the ground in Seville – much of it spent in an underground hotel conference centre with excellent WiFi – what to do?

Google Maps is really good these days at downloading the surrounding area while you’re on WiFi, which almost solves the problem, but not quite.

However, I remembered that I have an AAISP SIM in my second slot. In addition to its clever SIP pass through, it can also do data roaming. The prices are high – 10p/MB – but it’s pay as you go, billed in arrears by direct debit, and you can set hard limits at their end as well as on the phone itself.

This worked out really nicely, and I used 28.98MB over the four days. Which means I saved 11p vs paying EE their £3, and probably a lot more because I would have needed data over more than a 24 hour period. Well done AAISP.

Memo to self: must ditch EE for someone less annoying.

Abroad with Monzo

I’m in Spain this week for ApacheCon, and Monzo is definitely delivering on the promise – no foreign usage fees, just the MasterCard exchange rate. I got some cash out when I landed, and the rate was €1.16 for a pound. The Post Office seem to require a minimum spend of £400 to give a worse rate (€1.1266 for a pound)  – and who has time to get their holiday money in advance in this day and age?

Getting cash out at the airport

Getting cash out at the airport

As ever with these things, avoid ATM and chip and PIN machines offering to charge you in GBP – they’re highly unlikely to give a better rate.

HPE Microserver Gen8

It was about time I pensioned off the tired old Core2 Duo desktop running as my home fileserver. It sucked up sufficient electricity that it was worth having a Raspberry Pi sat on top of it, to issue a wake-on-LAN before running various tasks (e.g. backups) and turn it off again afterwards. It was also starting to develop reliability issues – who knew buying used-up hardware for a nominal £1 would barely give three years’ service…

HP’s Microservers have a good reputation as a basic home NAS box, and the £60 cashback offer running in November certainly helps: I got the Gen8 with a dual core 2.3Ghz Celeron and 4GB of RAM for £120 after cashback. Here it is:

HPE Gen8 Microserver

HPE Gen8 Microserver

It looks quite swish and is very quiet, especially if you select the power-saving options in the BIOS – it also puts out reassuringly little heat. The BIOS is quite nicely laid out and easy to follow, though it does seem to lack the classic “discard changes and exit” option.

HPE Microserver Gen8 BIOS

HPE Microserver Gen8 BIOS

Disks

It has four SATA bays which are inside the front door and have trays to slide the disks in and out with. They’re not hot-swap apparently they are as long as you don’t use the inbuilt RAID controller!, but at least physically moving disks in and out isn’t a problem: they even supply a little tool to handle the screws with. I put the boot disk from my old server in the leftmost slot, and the two 1.5TB halves of my main RAID array in slots 2 and 3. It booted from the first disk and Just Worked, though the BIOS takes a while to wade through all the checks.

I believe it has some sort of built in hardware RAID controller, but I prefer to stick to good ol’ fashioned Linux software RAID (newer, cooler solutions are also available): you can set up an array on any old hardware, plug the disks into something new and different, and it all comes back to life trivially. Linux is really good at moving to new hardware, and after an fsck* (even that could have been avoided if I’d set the system clock right) it was all ready to go. Try doing that with hardware RAID, where moving disks to a new controller is often impossible without wiping them and starting over.

Network

It has no less than three network ports on the back – two are ordinary dual NICs and the third is for HP’s “iLO” remote management stuff. Since I’ve run out of ports on my router I haven’t had a chance to try that out. Linux recognised the NICs as eth2 and eth3, but that might just be a hangover from the installation starting life on other hardware.

Other thoughts

I’ve only had it a few days, but it’s been solid and reliable so far … here’s hoping it outlasts its Core2 predecessor by a good few years.

*File System ChecK – it’s a Linux command. Obviously.

Amazon Echo

I’m not often one to buy the latest gadget without letting them work the kinks out, but I read and heard enough good things about the Amazon Echo to give it a go. If nothing else, it’s a decent Bluetooth speaker for my lounge for the price, and the rest is a futuristic bonus.

Alexa, you don't look out of place on the coffee table

Alexa, you don’t look out of place on the coffee table

Setup

The packaging is quite nice. Once unboxed you just need to connect the power (proprietary, not USB). Then you plug details and connect to WiFi and your various accounts via their app, which worked first time on Android, though it’s a bit cluttered.

Playing music

This is mainly what I got it for, and is rather neat. You can tell it to play artists, albums or playlists from Spotify or Prime Music, and it can even hear you over itself when you say “pause” or “stop” or “shuffle”.

News and traffic

It’s a bit of a gimmick but quite neat to have the news read out to you. I’ve only asked what my commute was like once, and it gave me as good a time and route as Google Now ever does. Disappointingly it understands but refuses to answer queries about how long it takes to get to other places, claiming not to know your speed.

Hive integration

This is a “skill” provided by the Hive developers. It works, but has a couple of flaws – it always seems to end up back in “off” not “schedule” after a boost done by voice, and I could do without a machine saying “good call, it’s hot in here”.

IFTTT

The glaring omission from the UK version of the Echo is support for IFTTT (If This Then That), which would allow interfacing with lots of other services. By the looks of it, it would also allow me to bypass the dodgy Hive skill and make the heating do what I want. Sort it out, Amazon. It’s allegedly coming soon but a date wouldn’t go amiss.

Verdict?

” I spoke to the future, and it listened more convincingly than ever before “.

Blogging on the Kindle Fire

I thought I’d hate doing this on a device with no hardware keyboard (why did I sell my netbook? Remember when they were cool?), but it’s workable for short bursts. Now stand by for some real content, because in a week where the news has not been all good, I’ve attempted to cheer myself up with some new toys…

Wood burning microserver?

Wood burning microserver?