The MagPi, Issue 54

The MagPi Issue 54This month’s The MagPi Magazine, the official publication of the Raspberry Pi community, features my review of an impressive compact network-attached storage (NAS) device: the Nextcloud Box.

Built around the PiDrive storage system from Western Digital Labs and featuring software from the open-source Nextcloud project – itself born from a fork of the Owncloud project – the Nextcloud Box does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a box which runs Nextcloud.

More accurately, it’s a box that can run Nextcloud. Out of the box, there’s a key piece missing: the packaging reveals a two-part plastic chassis with clever magnetic clasp, a smart split power and data cable, a power supply, a 1TB Western Digital 2.5″ hard drive, and a micro-SD card with the Nextcloud software already loaded onto an Ubuntu Core installation. What you don’t get is a Raspberry Pi: the brains need to be supplied separately, with only the Raspberry Pi 2 supported at the time of writing.

Once you’ve affixed your Pi in place with the bundled Torx screwdriver and screws, you can begin the installation process – which is as simple as putting the micro-SD card in and connecting power. Over the course of a few minutes the operating system is copied to the 1TB hard drive, and then the system reboots ready for configuration.

Nextcloud is, I have to say, incredibly impressive software. While there’s some way to go in certain aspects of usability – in particular setting the NAS up for access from outside your home network requires a bit of fiddling at the command line, registration of a domain name, and manual port forwarding on your router or gateway – the UI and general functionality are both polished to a high standard.

For my full opinion on the device, though, you’ll have to read the review – and you can do so for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed DRM-free PDF at the official MagPi website, or by picking up a print copy from your nearest supermarket or newsagent.

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 172

Linux User & Developer Issue 172Readers of this latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer will find my review of the surprisingly capable Nextcloud Box, a bare-bones network attached storage (NAS) system based around a Raspberry Pi 2.

Provided as a press sample by Nextcloud, the company split from the Owncloud project, the Nextcloud Box is at its heart a rebadged – though, oddly, cheaper – Western Digital Labs PiDrive. Inside the box you find the black plastic housing, a 1TB USB hard drive, a clever splitter cable for power and data, and the screws you need to mount your own Raspberry Pi. You also get a small 4GB micro-SD card, which serves as the bootstrap device: on first run, the operating system is copied from this micro-SD to the 1TB hard drive.

It’s the contents of the micro-SD card that makes the Nextcloud Box distinct from the PiDrive: it contains a copy of Ubuntu Snappy Core and a preinstalled Snap of the Nextcloud NAS software. Administered almost entirely from a web interface, Nextcloud proved to a powerful NAS package with everything from encrypted storage and remote access to centralised calendar and contact facilities – and with additional functionality available through a built-in ‘app store’ feature.

If you’re interested to read the full review Linux User & Developer Issue 172 is on shelves now at supermarkets and newsagents throughout the land, or can be grabbed in digital format from Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 141

Linux User & Developer Issue 141In the latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer, in addition to my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the world of open source, I review the Synology DS414j network attached storage (NAS) system and the Duo Security two-factor authentication platform.

I actually came across Duo Security when I learned that support for the platform had been added to the LastPass password management service. Signing up for an account and registering my details, I found that the software could be quickly and easily used to protect an SSH server – and with more than one public-facing SSH server, that piqued my interest.

Duo Security is a two-factor authentication system which uses push messaging to a smartphone application, turning your phone into the ‘thing-you-have’ portion of the setup and precluding the need to buy a dedicated security token. There’s fallback to other authentication measures, from offline token generation similar to Google Authenticator through to SMS and even voice call functionality. Better still, an account is free for ‘enterprises’ of fewer than ten users.

The Synology DS414j, meanwhile, is the latest NAS device to appear from the company and one designed as an upgrade from its popular dual-bay boxes. Featuring four 3.5″ SATA drive bays, the DS414j comes with Synology’s excellent DiskStation Manager (DSM) Linux distribution, but there’s little doubting corners have been cut: the drive bays are not hot-swappable for a start, which means downtime if you need to swap out a failed drive.

My conclusions on both products, plus my take on the most interesting open-source stories of the month, can be yours with a simple trip to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via digital distribution services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 128

Linux User & Developer Issue 128This month’s Linux User & Developer includes two reviews of mine, plus my new regular news spread: four pages of Linux and open source news covering the spread from hardware and software to business and politics.

First, the news spread. Following the departure of the magazine’s regular news contributor, I was asked to take over the four-page spread on an ongoing basis. I’d previous written for the news section to cover absence, but from now on it’s going to be all me. The exception will be when larger features eat up the page count: because there’s a limit to how many pages an individual freelancer can have in the magazine – blame the beancounters – there will be times when I only do two of the four pages.

Both reviews this month are centred around ARM-based devices, but with very different target audiences: the BeagleBone Black and the Synology DS213J, a single-board computer aimed at developers and a dual-bay network attached storage (NAS) device designed to be as easy to use as possible.

I’ve been excited to play with the BeagleBone Black since it was announced, as it offers significantly more capability than the Raspberry Pi for not a lot more money – contrasted with the original BeagleBone, which wouldn’t leave you much change from £150 if you wanted accessories and HDMI output. While the software still needs work – a constant refrain in the maker-oriented single-board computer market, I find – it’s certainly an impressive device.

The DS213J, meanwhile, is a minor upgrade to one of Synology’s varied dual-bay NAS devices. Using a new Marvell Armada system-on-chip, it offers improved performance, new hardware floating point extensions, wake-on-LAN support and double the RAM at 512MB. Considering its price puts it well below the equivalent Atom-based system, it was certainly worth giving a test-drive.

How did the two devices do? Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to pick up the magazine to find out. It’s in most good newsagents, or is available digitally via Zinio and other services.

Custom PC, Issue 118

Custom PC Issue 118I hinted last month that there were changes afoot at Custom PC, and this latest issue is the result: my regular two-page interview column has been replaced with Hobby Tech, a new four-page extravaganza celebrating the best of the hacker, maker and retrocomputing communities.

In other words: it’s a column where I get to waffle on about the sort of things I do for fun these days. While getting paid. What’s not to like?

It’s likely to be a couple of issues before the column gets into its full swing – the idea is that it will evolve into a 21st century update of Jerry Pournelle’s old column from BYTE magazine, which has long been one of my favourite pieces of content. I’m no Pournelle, but hopefully I can rustle up something that will keep the readers entertained each month.

So, onto the column itself. This month, the focus – as evidenced by the issue’s cover splash – is on the work I’ve done turning a Raspberry Pi into a low-cost NAS. Taking the form of a tutorial, this part looks at how I used Btrfs, SSH and a pair of external hard drives to create a low-cost, low-power destination for my backups and miscellaneous files. If you’re struggling with “page allocation failure” messages in your Pi’s kernel log, it also includes advice about that.

That’s only two pages, however, and Hobby Tech is bigger than that. So, there was room for a quick review of the excellent ExpEYES Junior developed by the Inter-University Accelerator Centre in New Delhi as an educational aid. Connecting to a USB port and driven by an open-source Python toolkit, the device acts as a programmable power supply, four-channel storage oscilloscope, microphone, analogue-to-digital converter, signal generator and more – and comes with the components required to perform 50 experiments.

Finally, for the retrocomputing enthusiasts, an explanation of how I turned a second-hand Amiga A1200 – purchased, incidentally, from Custom PC’s sister website – into more than the sum of its parts. Those who follow me on Twitter will be aware of my work in that regard: fitting heatsinks to prolong the life, replacing the plastics and keyboard, upgrading the Kickstart ROMs, installing a CompactFlash hard drive and connecting the system to my home network.

If that sounds like something of a hodgepodge of topics, then that’s probably because it is; the link between them all is that they’re all subjects about which I am extremely passionate, and I hope that comes across in the column.

I’m very keen to get feedback on Hobby Tech, as is editor Ben Hardwidge: it’s a new direction for the magazine, and something of an experiment. Please, if you’ve read this month’s Custom PC, leave a comment with your thoughts either here or on the magazine discussion forum. Likewise, if you’ve got any ideas for topics or devices you’d like to see covered in future Hobby Tech columns, let me know!

Custom PC Issue 118 is available pretty much everywhere, but if it isn’t then grab a digital copy from Zinio or an equivalent service instead.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 120

Linux User & Developer, Issue 120This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes the second feature to come out of my interview with Andreas Olofsson, founder of parallel processing startup Adapteva, on the subject of his Parallella Kickstarter project.

The focus of my previous article, published in Issue 111 of Custom PC Magazine, was on Parallella’s implications for the smartphone and tablet world – appropriately enough, given that it appeared in the Mobile Tech Watch column. This time, however, I’m looking at the platform itself and what it could spell for the future of computing education.

One thing Andreas was keen to point out was the openness of his platform: should the Parallella project reach its funding goal – something that, since writing, has been achieved – he promised to make everything relating to the Epiphany architecture that powers the 16- or 64-core co-processor open, from the documentation to the compiler toolchain. That’s something that could really shake up the industry: most embedded computing platforms are encumbered with proprietary drivers, obscure or missing documentation, and the requirement to sign onerous non-disclosure agreements – and usually hand over a wodge of cash – to get enough information to make use of the platform on anything but a very high level.

Parallella could change all that – and speaking to Andreas, one thing you can’t fault him on is his enthusiasm for the subject. Whether that enthusiasm will translate into a shipping and sustainable product, of course, is another matter.

This issue of the magazine also includes a review of Synology’s DS213air dual-drive network attached storage device. Based on a custom Linux distribution dubbed DSM – DiskStation Manager – Synology’s NAS boxes offer far more than the average, with the ability to install everything from an SSH server to Drupal. Does that justify the high retail price, though? Better read the review to find out, hadn’t you?

Finally, the front of the magazine includes a two-page spread of open-source news from the past month. Usually covered by an in-house staff writer, I’ve been handling it for the past two issues due to absence – and it’s been a nice change from my usual work for the magazine. As for what I covered, you’ll have to find a copy of the magazine and take a look if you’re really that curious.

Linux User & Developer Issue 120 is in shops now, with more details available on the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 112

Linux User & Developer Magazine, Issue 112This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine features my usual group test – this time looking at mind-mapping software – and a review of Synology’s 12-bay NAS box.

Hardware reviews are a very different beast to software: you need to strip the system down, investigate its components, build it back up, install it, test it, benchmark it and build up an informed opinion of precisely how the system works. With something like Synology’s NAS boxes, that’s not too difficult: the company builds its systems to be easy to take apart, and its PR team members are great at getting things back to you when they say they will. With other companies, it’s not so easy…

The group test this month looks at mind-mapping software, a subject close to my heart. When I’m planning large-scale projects, like in-depth features or books, I use mind-mapping software to help lay out the subject matter in a logical manner. There are some real stinkers out there, though, so it’s important to pick the right one to start with – data portability wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind when these packages were being developed!

More details are available over on the Linux User & Developer website.