Damn Small Linux

No, this is not about the distro.

Entropy is high, manifesting as seasonal allergy, a couple of very spotty and moody kids (chickenpox is a particularly nasty ailment to visit upon a one-year-old, and it looks as if the eldest is going to spend his birthday sick) and a series of random failures all over the place. Personal mood is optimistic, but very tired and unfocused.

To annoy me somewhat further, my NSLU2 lived a long and happy life but died mysteriously over the past weekend. Actually, it’s more complicated and cosmically entangled than that - both the PSUs for the NSLU2 units I have (one live, one mothballed in case of failure) died one just after the other due to what I believe to be a series of brownouts, and rather than grabbing a new PSU off eBay, I’m considering getting something else instead.

It’s sad, because the NSLU2 has been one of my main Linux machines for years. A dinky little ARM CPU running on what was arguably one of Linksys’ better designs and eminently hackable, it was my (un)usual testbed for lots of things - and my way to SSH into the house network. It also ran a (remarkably sprightly) test instance of this site, allowed me to mount disks remotely (which included backups via rsync and rdiff-backup), fooled my iOS devices into thinking it was an AirPrint-enabled printer, and helped me perform a number of other entertaining and endearing spoofs.

And it was undoubtedly the most cost-effective server I’ve ever run - it was running Debian off an old pen drive of late, and for all the stuff it was doing it was easily the thriftiest machine in the closet. The battered WRT54G3G prototype I set up as an alternate SSH gateway works (and lets me keep shell sessions alive in there via screen), but it has zero useful storage and expandability (despite the wide variety of packages available for OpenWRT), so I started looking for alternatives in PlugApps and beyond.

But there seems to be no real equivalent to the NSLU2 in terms of out-of-the box flexibility - and before you ask I’ve also looked at extra-compact PCs, but it’s very, very hard to beat the Mac mini in terms of bang per Watt and I’m not (yet) looking to buy a NAS.

Up until a few days, my choices were down to:

  • TonidoPlug (ARM, probably the best direct replacement, currently lacking in EU stock for delivery and apparently without plans for building more, which is sad - because it runs Ubuntu out of the box and would be perfect)
  • Beagleboard (ARM, some assembly required, vibrant community, although low on server stuff)
  • Bifferboard (Intel binary compatible, minimalist, slow but very cheap)

Sadly, my time is sorely limited - otherwise I’d probably go for the Beagleboard already and get something I could fool around with, since its video output makes it interesting for a number of purposes. My usage patterns have changed a bit and “always on” home storage is well handled by an AirPort (which supports AFP natively), so I’m looking for more of an application server than a file server (for which it should do fine once I got it set up).

But I’d rather get something with, say, a case and an actual product finish to it, so I’ve been turning to other kinds of boxes like the Insignia Infocast - it’s ARM-based (Chumby-based, actually), can be turned into a completely different beast by simply replacing the internal SD card, and brings together a number of nice features - a display, USB expandability, easy customization, (relatively) low power consumption, and more than enough oomph to run a “normal” Linux distro and let me pull my stunts.

Alas, it’s not available in Europe in any way, and I have no clue as to how to get my hands on one as yet. So if you happen to have one gathering dust…