Philosophy & Servers – Part 1

Hello everyone, I hope you’re well. I’ve written a lot about my health situation lately but I also promised I would write properly about technology as soon as time allowed. I’m pleased to say that day has finally arrived. I want to tell you about the changes I’ve made to my computing setup in the last 6-9 months and the thinking behind it, I’ll also dish the dirt on this new Pixel C tablet I’m currently toting. That sounds like a lot to cram in so I’ll probably split this into 2 or 3 posts, we’ll see. So let’s start with the new computing philosophy I’ve come to and the reasons for it.

A side on photo of the HP Microserver Gen8 with the case open

HP Microserver Gen8 – case open

In the last couple of years I’ve been lucky enough to have the use of a Google Nexus 10 tablet belonging to my employers. Prior to this I hadn’t really gotten on board with the whole tablet computing revolution. I remember the previous false dawns and promises of tablets a decade ago. I’d had a couple of Nexus smartphones and maintained an an active interest in Android, even trying Android x86 on a netbook, but despite the excitement surrounding iPads and other shiny new devices I just didn’t see the point. “I have a phone and a laptop, what else would I need?” was my mindset. Over time though I noticed I was using the Nexus tablet more and more, rarely even turning on the laptop at home. The purchase of a bluetooth keyboard case for the Nexus 10 helped a lot with this, it felt much more like a mini laptop anyway. I could already easily do all of the following: Email, social media, web browsing, podcast aggregation, media consumption (Netflix, Plex, YouTube, BBC iPlayer etc), casual gaming (only solitaire or Angry Birds but I have a PS4 for serious gaming), time management and organisation (calendar, shopping lists, TODOs etc). The only things I couldn’t do on Android were audio production, web development and running virtual machines. I have a pretty powerful desktop PC that can take care of the podcast production and audio editing, probably the other bits too. I don’t do as much development these days anyway but when I do it’s carried out in an SSH session to a remote server anyway. That just left VMs and I figured a server could also take care of that. With the proliferation of faster broadband speeds, cloud computing, thin clients and an effective return to the client/server model it all seemed to be heading one way. I don’t need to carry a full computer when I can have a cool mobile device and can use it as a thin client anyway if I need to.

I’ve long thought that our phones will become our main computers eventually anyway. 5 or 10 years ago that seemed far fetched but these days you hardly need to be Nostradamus to see that one coming. A few companies have already attempted to create smartphones you can dock into a keyboard and large display, so far it hasn’t really worked out but sooner or later someone will get it right. My hunch is “sooner”, in the next year or two. I know this is a big part of the Ubuntu phone strategy, running Android and Ubuntu side by side, it remains to be seen whether that works. Tablets are certainly ripe for this kind of market. I also have a feeling Google are looking to merge Android and ChromeOS in the very near future, making a more serious play for the desktop and laptop market. New Google CEO Sundar Pichai is clearly keen. It’s silly to have these 2 separate products confusing the market, and while you could argue that they serve different purposes and different users, I don’t really buy that. “Convergence”, “synergy” and other such PR buzz words have long been in fashion. Now even Microsoft has realised that having 15 different editions of Windows is stupid. Have the same core OS across phone, tablet, laptop and desktop just brand it all the same. I can see why servers might still be a different kettle of fish but it makes sense to keep everything together. I’m excited about what Android N could bring in May and I’ve taken a gamble investing in the Pixel C. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, enough marketing and business speculation nonsense, where did all this ruminating really leave me? I’d already been running my own server for backups, media management and other things. It was a Buffalo Linkstation Duo NAS I hacked to allow full SSH access for backups (gotta love rsync) but it was low powered and also ARM based. It couldn’t handle increasingly essential software for me like Plex, Syncthing and ZeroTier (more on those in the next post). I had an old Lenovo netbook lying around and my makeshift solution was to set this up with Linux Mint MATE edition and then mount the NAS automatically on boot. It worked but if I was to truly embrace thin client computing and KVM I knew I had to step up my server game.

The Kernel Virtual Machine logo, Tux juggling next to the word KVM

Tux Likes To Juggle Apparently

My home computing set up this time last year was: a powerful studio desktop PC for podcasting/music which we can leave out of the equation as I was always going to keep that, this cobbled together Buffalo NAS and Lenovo netbook server, my ASUS laptop (Core i3, 4Gb RAM, not terrifically powerful but enough) and the Nexus 10 for casual stuff. After much experimentation in the last year I now have a powerful server with KVM to suit my desktop needs and a Google Pixel C tablet for most of my mobile computing needs. I still have the laptop of course, I haven’t thrown it away, it just hasn’t been switched on in almost a month.

I figured I should talk you through my transition in these next 2 articles. It’s still an experiment really. In the next post I’ll explain how I got hold of an HP Microserver and upgraded the hardware, installed all the appropriate software, broke it, fixed it, broke it again and so on. What I’ve learned about Plex, KVM, Zero Tier and other things. Finally in the 3rd post I’ll talk about my recent purchase of the Google Pixel C and review the device properly, I’m actually writing this on it right now. I plan to get all this done before I go into hospital in 2 weeks so stay tuned.

Until then take care everyone,

Dan

Posted in Opinions, Technology, Update
6 comments on “Philosophy & Servers – Part 1
  1. Tony Hughes says:

    Hi Dan, I was one of those that said that the desktop/laptop PC would never be replaced by mobile computing, how wrong I was. I bought a Samsung p900 last February and it is now my main day to day device. I still use my lenovo x201 (first gen i5)for some things as it’s powerful enough for VM’s but for regular daily use the Samsung has taken over. It’s large enough to read magazines as well which was the main reason I opted for a 12″ tablet, and what I primary bought it for. My main gripe is the length of time samsung have taken for the ota update to 5.02 which I got today. With all the security issues this raises if tablets are the future then this needs to be sorted. I for one can’t afford to to buy a new device every year to be up to date and secure. On my laptop/desktop I run updates every few days as needed.

    Looking forward to the rest of the story and review of the pixel tablet.

    PS. Still holding you in my thoughts for 2 weeks time.

    • Dan says:

      Hi Tony, sounds like you’ve had a similar experience with regard to the tablet. Good point about the updates, I hadn’t really thought about that. The fragmentation of Android between all the different manufacturers is a problem. Samsung and others spend a long time customising each version and you have to wonder what real incentive there is for them to pay developers to work on software updates for older devices. Selling new products is their only goal.

      You’re totally right that most people can’t afford to buy a new device each year just to get up to date software. I’ve been lucky to use Nexus devices that get OTA updates straight from Google but I paid a premium for them up front, once again that’s probably not affordable for the masses. I hope they’ll find a solution that maintains the freedom hardware manufacturers want to customise but also fixes the update fragmentation.

      Thanks also for the good wishes. I appreciate it 🙂

  2. milan says:

    hey dan, I’m actually looking forward to number 2 of your post. not that i don’t care about reading the pixel review, but i would really like to know what did you come up with on the home server side. I’ve been juggling with different solutions for years and i’m still not happy with neither of them… and good luck on your date soon, we’re thinking of you here in malmo sweden!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks Milan, I’m just writing the second article right now actually. Hopefully it won’t be long. Should be published well before the end of the week. Stay tuned.

  3. Dave Lee says:

    Hey Dan,

    I actually went out and bought myself a Pixel C off the back of your pending review (yes, I know that makes no sense). I was originally going to get the Nexus 9, but I only discovered the Pixel C because I read about it here.

    It’s exceeded all of my expectations, aside for the fact that it’s a lot heavier than my old Nexus 7 (2013)!!

    I don’t have the keyboard yet, although I’m typing this very quickly and comfortably on the Swype on-screen keyboard. I’ll be interested to hear whether the Pixel C keyboard is worth the money or not.

    All the best for Wednesday… we’re all thinking about you here.

    Dave

    • Dan says:

      Hi Dave, I’m really glad you like the Pixel C. It must be a lot heavier than a Nexus 7 but it’s a much bigger device with a 10.2 inch screen. I’d say the Nexus 7 is more of a pocket device than a work machine, this certainly wouldn’t fit in a pocket very easily!

      I won’t get time to post the review before my operation now sadly but I think the official keyboard is excellent yes. It’s expensive and there’s no doubt about that. If you’re not going to be typing long essays and you’re happy with the on screen keyboard then the investment probably isn’t worth it, but I like a physical keyboard and I’m using this like a laptop so I write on it a lot. I find it well worth the money. Hope that goes so way to answering the question. It is also a really good case. Interestingly I also got a firmware update for the keyboard directly through the tablet the other day, it installed easily and not having to charge the keyboard is really usful. It does inductive charging from the main unit.

      Thanks for your kind wishes, I’m in Manchester tonight staying near The Christie so I can get in early in the morning. I’m sure it’ll all be fine, it’s just gonna take a little while. The operation isn’t actually till Thursday but I have to go in 24 hours before.

      I’ll be back!! Like the Terminator 🙂

      Dan

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