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Proteus VIII Laptop from PC Specialist in Review

Recently I bought a new laptop from PC Specialist. Unfortunately I'm lost the original quote / specs that were sent to me, but it was a Proteus VIII. It has the following specs:

  • CPU: Intel i7-10875H
  • RAM: 32 GiB DDR4 2666MHz
  • Disk: 1 TiB SSD (M.2; nvme)
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060

In this post, I want to give a review now that I've had the device for a short while. I'm still experiencing some teething issues (more on those later), but I've experienced enough of the device to form an opinion on it. This post will also serve as a sort-of review of the installation process of Ubuntu too.

It arrived in good time - thankfully I didn't have any issues with their choice of delivery service (DPD in my area have some problems). I did have to wait a week or 2 for them to build the system, but I wasn't in any rush so this was fine for me. The packaging it arrived it was ok. It came in a rather large cardboard box, inside which there was some plastic padding (sad face), inside which there was another smaller cardboard box. Work to be done in the eco-friendly department, but on the whole good here.

I ordered without an operating system, as my preferred operating system is Ubuntu (the latest version is currently 20.10 Groovy Gorilla). The first order of business was the OS installation here. This went went fine - but only after I could actually get the machine to boot! It turns out that despite it appearing to have support for booting from USB flash drives as advertised in the boot menu, this feature doesn't actually work. I tried the following:

  • The official Ubuntu ISO flashed to a USB 3 flash drive
  • A GRUB installation on a USB 3 flash drive
  • A GRUB installation on a USB 2 flash drive
  • Ubuntu 20.10 burned to a DVD in an external DVD drive (ordered with the laptop)

....and only the last one worked. I've worked with a diverse range of different devices, but never have I encountered one that completely refused to boot at all from a USB drive. Clearly some serious work is required on the BIOS. The number of different settings in the BIOS were also somewhat limited compared to other systems I've poked around on, but I can't give any specific examples here of things that were missing (other than a setting to toggle the virtualisation extensions, which was on by default) - so I guess it doesn't matter all that much. The biggest problem is the lack of USB flash drive boot support - that was really frustrating.

When installing Ubuntu this time around, I decided to try enabling LVM (Logical Volume Management, it's very cool I've discovered) and a LUKS encrypted hard drive. Although I've encountered these technologies before, this will be my first time using them regularly myself. Thankfully, the Ubuntu installer did a great job of setting this up automatically (except the swap partition, which was too small to hibernate, but I'll talk about that in a moment).

Once installed, I got to doing the initial setup. I'm particularly picky here - I use the Unity 7.5 Desktop (yes, I know Ubuntu now uses the GNOME shell, and no I haven't yet been able to get along with it). I'll skip over the details of the setup here, as it's not really relevant to the review. I will mention though that I'm also using X11, not Wayland at the moment - and that I have the propriety Nvidia driver installed (version 450 at the time of typing).

Although I've had a discrete graphics card before (most recently an AMD Radeon R7 M445, and an Nvidia 525M), this is the first time I've had one that's significantly more powerful than the integrated graphics that's built into the CPU. My experience with this so far is mostly positive (it's rather good at rendering in Blender, but I have yet to stress it significantly), and in some graphical tests it gives significantly higher frame rates than the integrated graphics. If you use the propriety graphics drivers, I recommend going into the Nvidia X server settings (accessed through the launcher) → PRIME Profiles, changing it to "On-Demand", and then rebooting. This will prolong your battery life and reduce the noise from the fans by using the integrated graphics by default, but allow you to run select applications on the GPU (see my recent post on how to do this).

It's not without its teething issues though. I think I'm just unlucky, but I have yet to setup a system with an Nvidia graphics card where I haven't had some kind of problem. In this case, it's screen flickering. To alleviate this somewhat, I found and followed the instructions in this Ask Ubuntu Answer. I also found I had to enable the Force synchronization between X and GLX workaround (and maybe another one as well, I can't remember). Even with these enabled, sometimes I still get flickering after it resumes from suspension / stand by.

Speaking of stand by mode, I've found that this laptop does not like hibernation at all. I'm unsure as to whether this is just because I'm using LVM + LUKS, or whether it's an issue with the device more generally, but if I try sudo pm-hibernate from the terminal, the screen flashes a bit, the mouse cursor disappears, and then the fan spins up - with the screen still on and all my windows apparently still open.

I haven't experimented with the quirks / workarounds provided yet, but I guess ties into the early issues with the BIOS, in that there are some clear issues with the BIOS that need to be resolved.

This hibernation issue also ties into the upower subsystem, in that even if you tell it (in both the Unity and GNOME desktop shells) to "do nothing" on low battery, it will forcefully turn the device off - even if you're in the middle of typing a sentence! I think this is because upower doesn't seem to have an option for suspend or "do nothing" in /etc/Upower/UPower.conf or something? I'm still investigating this issue (if you have any suggestions, please do get in touch!).

Despite these problems, the build quality seems good. It's certainly nice having a metal frame, as it feels a lot more solid than my previous laptop. The keyboard feels great too - the feedback from pressing the keys enhances the feeling of a solid frame. The keyboard is backlit too, which makes more a more pleasant experience in dimly lit rooms (though proper lighting is a must in any workspace).

The layout of the keyboard feels a little odd to me. It's a UK keyboard yes (I use a UK keyboard myself), but it doesn't have dedicated Home / End / Page Up / Page Down keys - these are built into the number pad at the right hand side of the keyboard. It's taken some getting used to toggling the number lock every time I want to use these keys, which increases cognitive load.

It does have a dedicated SysRq key though (which my last laptop didn't have), so now I can articles like this one and use the SysRq feature to talk to the Linux Kernel directly in case of a lock-up or crash (I have had the screen freeze on me once or twice - I later discovered this was because it had attempted to hibernate and failed, and I also ran into this problem, which I have yet to find a resolution to), or in case I accidentally set off a program that eats all of the available RAM.

The backlight of the keyboard goes from red at the left-hand side to green in the middle, and blue at the right-hand side. According to the PC Specialist forums, there's a driver that you can install to control this, but the installation seems messy - and would probably need recompiling every time you install a new kernel since DKMS (Dynamic Kernel Module System, I think) isn't used. I'm ok with the default for now, so I haven't bothered with this.

The touchpad does feel ok. It supports precision scrolling, has a nice feel to it, and isn't too small, so I can't complain about it.

The laptop doesn't have an inbuilt optical drive, which is another first for me. I don't use optical disks often, but it was nice having a built-in drive for this in previous laptops. An external one just feels clunky - but I guess I can't complain too much because of the extra components and power that are built-in to the system.

The airflow of the system - as far as I can tell so far, is very good. Air comes in through the bottom, and is then pushed out again through the back and the back of the sides by 2 different fans. These fans are, however, rather noisy at times - and have taken some getting used to as my previous Dell laptop's fans were near silent until I started to stress the system. The noise they make is also slightly higher pitched too, which makes it more noticeable - and sound like a jet engine (though I admit I've never heard a real one in person, and I'm also somewhat hypersensitive to sound) when at full blast. Curiously, there's a dedicated key on the keyboard that - as far as I can tell - toggles between the normal on-demand fan mode and locking the fans at full blast. Great to quickly cool down the system if the fans haven't kicked in yet, but not so great for your ears!

I haven't tested the speakers much, but from what I can tell they are appropriately placed in front of the keyboard just before the hinge for the screen - which is a much better placement than on the underside at the front in my last laptop! Definitely a positive improvement there.

I wasn't sure based on the details on the PC specialist website, but the thickness of the base is 17.5mm at the thickest point, and 6mm for the screen - making ~23.5mm in total (although my measurements may not be completely accurate).

To summarise, the hardware I received was great - overlooking a few pain points such as the BIOS and poor keyboard layout decisions. Some work is still needed on environmental issues and sustainability, but packaging was on the whole ok. Watch out for the delivery service, as my laptop was delivered by DPD who don't have a great track record in my area.

Overall, the hardware build quality is excellent. I'm not sure if I can recommend them yet, but if you want a new PC or laptop they are certainly not a bad place to look.

Found this helpful? Got a suggestion? Want to say hi? Comment below!

Cluster, Part 2: Grand Designs

In the last part of this series, I talked about my plans for building an ARM-based cluster, because I'm growing out of the Raspberry Pi 3B+ I currently have at home. Since then, I have decided to focus on the compute cluster first, as I have a reasonable amount of room left on the 1tB WD Pidrive I have attached to my existing Raspberry Pi 3B+.

Hardware

To this end, I have been busy ordering parts and organising things to get construction of the compute cluster side of things going. The most important part of the whole cluster is the compute boards themselves. I've decided to go with 4 x Raspberry Pi 4s with 4GB RAM each for the worker nodes, and 1 x Raspberry Pi 4 with 2GB of RAM as the controller (it would have been a 1GB RAM model, but a recent announcement changed my mind :D):

(Above: The Raspberry Pi 4s I'm going to be using. The colourful heatsink cases there are to dissipate heat passively if possible and reduce the need for the fan to run as often. The one with the smaller red heatsink is the controller node - I don't anticipate the load on that node being high enough to need a bigger more expensive heatsink)

My reasoning for Raspberry Pis is software support. They are hugely popular - and from experience I can tell that they are pretty well supported on the software side of things. Issues with hardware features not being supported by the operating system are minimal - and where issues do arise they are more often than not sorted out. Regular kernel security updates are also provided - something that isn't always a thing with Linux distributions for other boards I've noticed.

Although the nodes in the cluster are very important, they are far from the only component I'll need. I'll also need a way to power it - which I've settled on an using a desktop ATX power supply (generously donated by University).

(Above: The ATX power supply, with a few wires cut and other bits and bobs attached. As of this blog post I'm in the middle of wiring it up, so I haven't finished it yet)

This adds some additional complications though, because wiring an ATX power supply up to a fleet of Raspberry Pi 4s isn't as easy as it sounds. To do that, I've decided to wire the 5V and ground wires up to 5 USB type-a breakout boards, with a 3 amp self-resettable fuse on each live (red) wire. Then I can use 5 short type-a to type-c converter cables to power the Raspberry Pi 4s.

(Above: The extra bits and bobs laid out that I'll be using to wire the ATX power supply up to the USB type-a breakout boards. From left to right: 3A self-resettable fuses, 18 AWG wire, Wagos, header pins, and finally the USB type-a breakout boards themselves)

With power to the Raspberry Pis, the core compute hardware is in place. I still need a bunch of things around the edges though, such as a (very quiet) fan to keep it cool:

(Above: A Noctua NF-P14s redux-1200)

I found this particular fan on quietpc.com. While their prices and shipping are somewhat expensive (I didn't actually buy it from there - I got a better deal on Amazon instead), they are a great place to look into the different options available for really quiet fans. I'm pretty sensitive to noise, so having a quiet fan is an important part of my cluster design.

This one is the large 14cm model, so that it fits in front of all 5 Raspberry Pis if they are stood up on their sides and stacked horizontally. It takes 12 volts, so I'll be connecting it to the 12V rail from the ATX power supply. The fan speed is also controllable via PWM (pulse-width modulation), so I plan on using an Arduino (probably one of the Arduino Unos I've got lying around) to control it and present a serial interface or something to the Raspberry Pi that's acting as the controller node in the cluster.

Lastly, another extremely important part of any cluster is a solid switch. Without a great switch at the base of the network, you'll have all sorts of connection issues and the performance of the cluster will be degraded significantly. I'm anticipating that I'll want to transfer significant amounts of data around very quickly (e.g. Docker container images, and later large blocks of data during a storage cluster rebalance).

For this reason, I've bought myself a Netgear GS116v2. While its unmanaged, I can't currently afford a more expensive managed switch at this time. It is however gigabit and also has an array of other features such as energy efficient ethernet (802.3az), full duplex gigabit (i.e. 32GB bandwidth available to all ports, which is enough for all ports to be transmitting and receiving gigabit at the same time), and a silent fanless design.

My Netgear GS116v2

(Above: The switch I'll be using. I watched eBay and got it used for much less than it's available new)

Networking

Hardware isn't the only thing I've been thinking about. While I've been waiting for packages to arrive, I've also been planning out the software I'm going to use and how I'm going to network all my Pis together.

My plans on the networking side of things are subject to significant change depending on how many responsibilities I can convince my home router to give up, but I have drawn up a network diagram showing what I'm currently aiming towards:

An ideal-case scenario network diagram. Explained below.

The cluster is represented on the left half of the diagram. This will probably entail some considerable persuasion of my router to pull off, but a quick look reveals that it's (probably) possible with some trial-and-error.

The idea is that I have a separate subnet for the cluster than the rest of the home network. Then I can do strange stuff and fiddle with it (hopefully) without affecting everyone else on the network.

Software

Meanwhile, out of all the different aspects of building this cluster I've got the clearest picture as to the software I'm going to be using.

I've decided that I'm going to use a container-based system. I've looked at a number of different options (such as podman and Singularity) - but I'm currently of the opinion that Docker is the most suitable option for what I'm going for. It's not as enterprisey as Singularity, and it seems to be more mature than podman. It also has a huge library of prebuilt containers too - but for learning purposes I'm going to be writing almost all my container scripts from scratch - probably using some sort of Alpine Linux container as a base. If I ever run into a situation where Docker isn't suitable and I need something closer to a VM, I'll probably use LXC, which I believe sits on top of the same underlying container runtime that Docker does.

I'm anticipating that container-based tech is going to be great for managing the stuff that's running on my cluster - so you can expect more posts that go into some depth about how it all works and how I'm setting my system up in the future.

To complement my container-based tech, I'm also going to be using a workload orchestrator. The Viper High-Performance Computer I've recently gained access to has lots of nodes in it and uses Slurm for workload orchestration, but that seems more geared towards environments that have lots of jobs that each have a defined running time. Great for scientific simulations and other such things, but not so great for personal self-hosted applications and the like.

Instead, I'm probably going to use Nomad. It looks seriously cool, and an initial look at the documentation reveals that it's probably going to be much simpler easier to understand than Kubernetes (see also), which seems to be the other competing software in the business. It also seems to integrate well with other programs done by the same company (Hashicorp) like Consul for service networking management (I'm hoping I can get DNS resolution for the services running on the cluster under control with it) and Vault for secret management (e.g. API keys, passwords, and other miscellaneous secrets) - all of which I'm going to install and experiment with (expect more on that soon).

All of those for now will be backed by an NFS share on all nodes in the cluster for the persistent volumes attached to running containers.

On the controller node I mentioned earlier I'm also going to be running a few extra items to aid in the management of the cluster:

  • A Docker registry, from which the worker nodes will be pulling containers for execution (worker nodes will not have access to the public Docker registry at hub.docker.com)
  • An apt caching proxy - probably apt-cacher-ng. Since all the nodes in the cluster are going to be using the same OS, have the same packages installed, and the same configuration settings etc, it doesn't make much sense for them to be downloading apt packages from the Internet every time - so I'll be caching them locally on the controller node
  • Potentially some sort of reverse proxy that sits in front of all the services running on the cluster, but I haven't decided on how this will fit into the larger puzzle just yet (more research is required). I'm already very familiar with Nginx, but I've seen Traefik recommended for dynamic container-based setups, so I'm going to investigate that too.

That about covers my high-level design ideas. As of the time of typing, the next thing I need to do is organise a case for it all to go in, fix the loose connections in the screw terminals (not pictured; they arrived after I took the pictures), and then find a place to put it....

Testing storage devices with f3

Some microSD cards (Above: Some microSD cards. Thankfully none of these are fake, but you never know.....)

Always test storage devices after you buy them. I don't just mean check to see if they work (though that's a good idea too), but also that they can actually store the amount of stuff that they advertise they can.

Recently, I bought myself 5 64GB microSD cards for my cluster (more on this very soon in a future blog post!). The first thing did when I got them was test them to make sure that they could actually store 64GB of stuff. My tool of choice was f3, which stands for Fight Flash Fraud or Fight Fake Flash. I'm glad I did - because 3 of them turned out to be faulty. 2 of them were actually 32GB cards in disguise, and 1 of them wouldn't mount at all.

While this might be my first experience with fake or fault storage devices, it's hardly an uncommon occurrence. Everything from microSD cards to flash drives - and even regular hard drives! - may be faulty upon arrival - or worse appear fine at first, and then a few months down the line start corrupting random data for no reason.

f3 is a suite of tools for testing storage devices to make sure they function properly. They work best as a destructive test - i.e. one that destroys existing data on the disk - so if you've got some data on the target disk you want to test, now is the time to back it up (hopefully this is something you've been doing already - more on that in another post if there's the demand).

f3 consists of 3 principle tools:

  • f3probe, which runs a fast test to check for issues (sadly I couldn't get this to work reliably)
  • f3write, which fills a disk with test files
  • f3read, which reads the test files back from disk and validates them

It's a real shame that I can't get f3probe to work reliably. Maybe at some point I'll implement my own version that writes data to every nth block of a device to test it more quickly than the f3write/f3read mechanism I'll explain below (if anyone knows of a better tool that works on Linux, please let comment below!)

To test a device, you first need to write the test files to it. I've taken to reformatting the device as ext4 (the Linux filesystem) first:

sudo umount /dev/sdXY; # Unmount it if it's currently mounted
sudo mkfs.ext4 /dev/sdXY; # Format it to ext4

....where /dev/sdXY is the partition you want to format. This isn't mandatory, but it is a quick way of making sure a disk is empty.

Next, we need to write the test files to the device. If it isn't already, you'll need to mount it first. This can be done like so:

# If it's not mounted automatically:
sudo mkdir /media/YOUR_USERNAME_HERE/SOME_NAME_HERE;
sudo mount /dev/sdXY /media/YOUR_USERNAME_HERE/SOME_NAME_HERE;
f3write /media/YOUR_USERNAME_HERE/SOME_NAME_HERE

This might take a while - don't forget to replace the paths there with those specific to your setup. With the test files written to the disk, we need to read them back again to make sure they are valid:

f3read /media/YOUR_USERNAME_HERE/SOME_NAME_HERE

This will read them all back again, and then print a summary report at the bottom to tell you what it found. Ideally, it should show a big number of blocks as succeeded, and no blocks in any of the other failure categories.

Running multiple commands like this is effort though, so surely we can do better than this. With some simple shell scripting, we can run both commands at once:

location=/media/YOUR_USERNAME_HERE/SOME_NAME_HERE; f3write "${location}"; && f3read "${location}"; alert

If you're on a machine with a graphical desktop, then the ; alert bit on the end should generate a desktop notification when it's done. For other users (e.g. over SSH), this should be removed. Just in case you have a graphical desktop (e.g. Ubuntu Desktop) and the alert bit doesn't work for you, append this to your ~/.bashrc file and restart your terminal:

# Add an "alert" alias for long running commands.  Use like so:
#   sleep 10; alert
alias alert='notify-send --urgency=low -i "$([ $? = 0 ] && echo terminal || echo error)" "$(history|tail -n1|sed -e '\''s/^\s*[0-9]\+\s*//;s/[;&|]\s*alert$//'\'')"'

....I forget where this is from exactly.

If you're not likely to be at your computer when it finishes, then there's still something you can do. Personally I use XMPP for personal messaging, so I thought it would be great if I could get a notification when it was done. Since I've already written xmppbridge for easily sending XMPP messages from the terminal, it was pretty trivial to write a shell script for my bin folder that would send my a message when the process was complete:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# f3test: Runs f3 on the current directory.
# 
# Usage:
#     f3test "alerts@xmpp.example.com"
# 

destination="$1";

f3write .;
f3read .;

echo "Card testing complete in ${SECONDS}s" | xmppbridge --groupchat --destination "${destination}";

I called this script f3test, and put it in my ~/bin folder. To use it, first cd to the root of the device you want to test (`` in the above examples), and then set a pair of environment variables to let it know how to login to an XMPP account to send a message:

export XMPP_JID="someone@bobsrockets.com"; # The JID to login with.
export XMPP_PASSWORD="weN33dM0reBoost3rs"; # The password to use when logging in

...remove the --groupchat in the script if it's not a groupchat you want it to send a message to (I have a personal group chat that's just between me and various bots that notify me about various aspect of the systems I manage). If you don't have an XMPP account yet, you can get one at any public server in the XMPP directory, or run your own (see also snikket, which is a distribution of Prosody that's designed to be extremely easy to setup & run)!

Of course, you could just as easily swap the xmppbridge call there with a different command to send a message via a different channel. For example mailx can send emails.

Found this interesting? Got a better tool? Need some help? Comment below!

Cluster, Part 1: Answers only lead to more questions

At home, I have a Raspberry Pi 3B+ as a home file server. Lately though, I've been noticing that I've been starting to grow out of it (both in terms of compute capacity and storage) - so I've decided to get thinking early about what I can do about it.

I thought of 2 different options pretty quickly:

  • Build a 'proper' server
  • Build a cluster instead

While both of these options are perfectly viable and would serve my needs well, one of them is distinctly more interesting than the other - that being a cluster. While having a 'proper' server would be much simpler, perhaps slightly more power efficient (though I would need tests to confirm, since ARM - the CPU architecture I'm planning on using for the cluster - is more power efficient), and would put all my system resources on the same box, I like the idea of building a cluster for a number of reasons.

For one, I'll learn new skills setting it up and managing it. So far, I've been mostly managing my servers by hand. When you start to acquire a number of machines though, this quickly becomes unwieldy. I'd like to experiment with a containerisation technology (I'm not sure which one yet) and play around with distributing containers across hosts - and auto-restarting them on a different host if 1 host goes down. If this is decentralised, even better!

For another, having a single larger server is a single point of failure - which would be relatively expensive to replace. If I use lots of small machines instead, then if 1 dies then not only is it cheaper to replace, but it's also not as urgent since the other machines in the cluster can take over while I order a replacement.

Finally, having a cluster is just cool. Do we really need more of a reason than this?

With all this in mind, I've been thinking quite a bit about the architecture of such a cluster. I haven't bought anything yet (and probably won't for a while yet) - because as you may have guessed from the title of this post I've been running into a number of issues that all need researching.

First though let's talk about which machines I'm planning on using. I'm actually considering 2 clusters, to solve 2 different issues: compute and storage. Compute refers to running applications (e.g. Nextcloud etc), and storage refers to a distributed storage mechanism with multiple hosts - each with 1 drive attached - though I'm unsure about the storage cluster at this stage.

For the compute cluster, I'm leaning towards 4 x Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GiB of RAM each. For the storage cluster, I'm considering a number of different boards. 3 identical boards of 1 of the following:

I do seem to remember a board that had USB 3 onboard, which would be useful for connecting to the external drives. Currently the plan is to use a SATA to USB converter connect to internal HDDs (e.g. WD Greens) - but I have yet to find one that doesn't include the power connector or splits the power off into a separate USB cable (more on power later). This would be all be backed up by a Gigabit switch of some description (so the Rock Pi S is not a particularly attractive option, since it would be limited to 100MiB).

I've been using HackerBoards.com to discover different boards which may fit my project - but I'm not particularly satisfied with any of the options here so far. Specifically, I'm after Gigabit Ethernet and USB 3 on the same board if possible.

The next issue is software support. I've been bitten by this before, so I'm being extra cautious this time. I'm after a board that provides good software support, so that I can actually use all the hardware I've paid for.

The other thing relating to software that I'd like if possible is the ability to use a systemd-free operating system. Just like before, when I selected Manjaro OpenRC (which is now called Artix Linux), since I already have a number of systems using systemd I would like to balance it out a bit with some systems that use something else. I don't really mind if this is OpenRC, S6, or RunIt - just that it's something different to broaden my skill set.

Unfortunately, it's been a challenge to locate a distribution of Linux that both has broad support for ARM SoCs and does not use systemd. I suspect that I may have to give up on this, but I'm still holding out hope that there's a distribution out there that can do what I want - even if I have to prepare the system image myself (Alpine Linux looks potentially promising, but at the moment it's a huge challenge to figure out whether a chipset supported or not....). Either way, from my research it looks like having mainline Linux kernel support fro my board of choice is critically important to ensure continued support and updates (both feature and security) in the future.

Lastly, I also have power problems. Specifically, how to power the cluster. The big problem is that the Raspberry Pi 4 requires 3A of power max - instead the usual 2.4A in the 3B+ model. Of course, it won't be using this all the time, but it's apparently important that the ceiling of the power supply is 3A to avoid issues. Problem is, most multi-port chargers can barely provide 2A to connected devices - and I have not yet seen one that would provide 3A to 4+ devices and support additional peripherals such as hard drives and other supporting boards as described above.

To this end, I may end up having to build my own power supply from an old ATX supply that you can find in an old desktop PC. These can generally supply plenty of power (though it's always best to check) - but the problem here is that I'd need to do a ton of research to make sure that I wire it up correctly and safely, to avoid issues there too (I'm scared of blowing a fuse or electrocuting someone etc).

This concludes my first blog post on my cluster plans. It may be a while until the next one, as I have lots more research to do before I can continue. Suggestions and tips are welcomed in the comments below.

Orange Pi 3 in review

An Orange Pi 3, along with it's logo. Of course, I'm not affiliated with the manufacturers in any way. In fact, they are probably not aware that this post even exists

I recently bought an Orange Pi 3 (based on the Allwinner H6 chipset) to perform a graphics-based task, and I've had an interesting enough time with it that I thought I'd share my experiences in a sort of review post here.

The first problem when it arrived was to find an operating system that supports it. My initial thought was to use Devuan, but I quickly realised that practically the only operating system that supports it at the moment is Armbian.

Not to be deterred, after a few false starts I got Armbian based on Ubuntu 18.04 Bionic Beaver installed. The next order of business was to install the software I wanted to use.

For the most part, I didn't have too much trouble with this - though it was definitely obvious that the arm64 (specifically sunxi64) architecture isn't a build target that's often supported by apt repository owners. This wasn't helped by the fact that apt has a habit of throw really weird error messages when you try to install something that exists in an apt repository, but for a different architecture.

After I got Kodi installed, the next order of business was to get it to display on the screen. I ended up managing this (eventually) with the help of a lot of tutorials and troubleshooting, but the experience was really rather unpleasant. I kept getting odd errors, like failed to load driver sun4i-drm when trying to start Kodi via an X11 server and other strangeness.

The trick in the end was to force X11 to use the fbdev driver, but I'm not entirely sure what that means or why it fixed the issue.

Moving on, I then started to explore the other capabilities of the device. Here, too, I discovered that a number of shortcomings in the software support provided by Linux, such as a lack of support for audio via HDMI and Bluetooth. I found the status matrix of the SunXI project, which is the community working to add support for the Allwinner H6 chipset to the Linux Kernel.

They do note that support for the H6 chipset is currently under development and is incomplete at the moment - and I wish I'd checked on software support before choosing a device to purchase.

The other big problem I encountered was a lack of kernel headers provided by Armbian. Normally, you can install the headers for your kernel by installing the linux-headers-XXXXXX package with your favourite package manager, where XXXXXX is the same as the string present in the linux-image-XXXXXX package you've got installed that contains the kernel itself.

This is actually kind of a problem, because it means that you can't compile any software that calls kernel functions yourself without the associated header files, preventing you from installing various dkms-based kernel modules that auto-recompile against the kernel you've got installed.

I ended up finding this forum thread, but the response who I assume is an armbian developer was less than stellar - they basically said that if you want kernel headers, you need to compile the kernel yourself! That's a significant undertaking, for those not in the know, and certainly not something that should be undertaken lightly.

While I've encountered a number of awkward issues that I haven't seen before, the device does have some good things worth noting. For one, it actually packs a pretty significant punch: it's much more powerful than a Raspberry Pi 3B+ (of which I have one; I bought this device before the Raspberry Pi 4 was released). This makes it an ideal choice for more demanding workloads, which a Raspberry Pi wouldn't quite be suitable for.

In conclusion, while it's a nice device, I can't recommend it to people just yet. Software support is definitely only half-baked at this point with some glaring holes (HDMI audio is one of them, which doesn't look like it's coming any time soon).

I think part of the problem is that Xunlong (that company that makes the device and others in it's family) don't appear to be interested in supporting the community at all, choosing instead to dump custom low-quality firmware for people to use as blobs of binary code (which apparently doesn't work) - which causes the SunXI community a lot of extra work to reverse-engineer it all and figure out how it all works before they can start implementing support in the Linux Kernel.

If you're interested in buying a similar embedded board, I can recommend instead using HackerBoards to find one that suits your needs. Don't forget to check for operating system support!

Found this interesting? Thinking of buying a board yourself? Had a different experience? Comment below!

LoRa Terminology Demystified: A Glossary

My 2 RFM95s on the lid of my project's box. More info in a future blog post coming soon!

(Above: My 2 RFM95s. One works, but the other doesn't yet....)

I've been doing some more experimenting with LoRa recently, as I've got 1 of my 2 RFM95 working (yay)! While the other is still giving me trouble (meaning that I can't have 1 transmit and the other receive yet :-/), I've still been able to experiment with other people's implementations.

To that end, I've been learning about a bunch of different words and concepts - and thought that I'd document them all here.

LoRa

The radio protocol itself is called LoRa, which stands for Long Range. It provides a chirp-based system (more on that later under Bandwidth) to allow 2 devices to communicate over great distances.

LoRaWAN

LoRaWAN builds on LoRa to provide a complete end-to-end protocol stack to allow Internet of Things (IoT) devices to communicate with an application server and each other. It provides:

  • Standard device classes (A, B, and C) with defined behaviours
    • Class A devices can only receive for a short time after transmitting
    • Class B devices receive on a regular, timed, basis - regardless of when they transmit
    • Class C devices send and receive whenever they like
  • The concept of a Gateway for picking up packets and forwarding them across the rest of the network (The Things Network is the largest open implementation to date - you should definitely check it out if you're thinking of using LoRa in a project)
  • Secure multiple-layered encryption of messages via AES

...amongst many other things.

The Things Network

The largest open implementation of LoRaWAN that I know of. If you hook into The Things Network's LoRaWAN network, then your messages will get delivered to and from your application server and LoRaWAN-enabled IoT device, wherever you are in the world (so long as you've got a connection to a gateway). It's often abbreviated to TTN.

Check out their website.

A coverage map for The Things Network.

(Above: A coverage map for The Things Network. The original can be found here)

Data Rate

The data rate is the speed at which a message is transmitted. This is measured in bits-per-second, as LoRa itself is an 'unreliable' protocol (it doesn't guarantee that anyone will pick anything up at the other end). There are a number of preset data rates:

Code Speed (bits/second)
DR0 250
DR1 440
DR2 980
DR3 1760
DR4 3125
DR5 5470
DR6 11000
DR7 50000

_(Source: Exploratory Engineering: Data Rate and Spreading Factor)_

These values are a little different in different places - the above are for Europe on 868MHz.

Maximum Payload Size

Going hand-in-hand with the Data Rate, the Maximum Payload Size is the maximum number of bytes that can be transmitted in a single packet. If more than the maximum number of bytes needs to be transmitted, then it will be split across multiple packets - much like TCP's Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU), when it comes to that.

With LoRa, the maximum payload size varies with the Data Rate - from 230 bytes at DR7 to just 59 at DF2 and below.

Spreading Factor

Often abbreviated to just simply SF, the spreading factor is also related to the Data Rate. In LoRa, the Spreading Factor refers to the duration of a single chirp. There are 6 defined Spreading Factors: ranging from SF7 (the fastest transmission speed) to SF12 (the slowest transmission speed).

Which one you use is up to you - and may be automatically determined by the driver library you use (it's always best to check). At first glance, it may seem optimal to choose SF7, but it's worth noting that the slower speeds achieved by the higher spreading factors can net you a longer range.

Data Rate Configuration bits / second Max payload size (bytes)
DR0 SF12/125kHz 250 59
DR1 SF11/125kHz 440 59
DR2 SF10/125kHz 980 59
DR3 SF9/125kHz 1 760 123
DR4 SF8/125kHz 3 125 230
DR5 SF7/125kHz 5 470 230
DR6 SF7/250kHz 11 000 230
DR7 FSK: 50kpbs 50 000 230

_(Again, from Exploratory Engineering: Data Rate and Spreading Factor)_

Duty Cycle

A Duty Cycle is the amount of time something is active as a percentage of a total time. In the case of LoRa(/WAN?), there is an imposed 1% Duty Cycle, which means that you aren't allowed to be transmitting for more than 1% of the time.

Bandwidth

Often understood, the Bandwidth is the range of frequencies across which LoRa transmits. The LoRa protocol itself uses a system of 'chirps', which are spread form one end of the Bandwidth to the other going either up (an up-chirp), or down (a down-chirp). LoRahas 2 bandwidths it uses: 125kHz, 250kHz, and 500kHz.

Some example LoRa chirps as described above.

(Some example LoRa Chirps. Source: This Article on Link Labs)

Frequency

Frequency is something that most of us are familiar with. Different wireless protocols utilise different frequencies - allowing them to go about their business in peace without interfering with each other. For example, 2.4GHz and 5GHz are used by WiFi, and 800MHz is one of the frequencies used by 4G.

In the case of LoRa, different frequencies are in use in different parts of the world. ~868MHz is used in Europe (443MHz can also be used, but I haven't heard of many people doing so), 915MHz is used in the US, and ~780MHz is used in China.

Location Frequency
Europe 863 - 870MHz
US 902 - 928MHz
China 779 - 787MHz

(Source: RF Wireless World)

Found this helpful? Still confused? Found a mistake? Comment below!

Sources and Further Reading

https://electronics.stackexchange.com/a/305287/180059

LoRaWAN talks at CD4I!

The LoRaWAN Logo (The LoRaWAN Logo. Of course, this post isn't endorsed (or even read?) by them at all)

Hello again! I decided to write a quick post about the trio of talks I attended at C4DI yesterday. We had Rob Miles, Robin, and a very knowledgeable Paul from Norfolk come to us about all things LoRa.

Rob Miles started off with an introduction to how it all works, and how as a hobbyist we can get started with it and build an excellent cow tracking program :D

Robin took it further by showing us how he took his idea for a temperature graph from first principles to a working device, all the steps along the way, and solutions to the problems he encountered whilst building it.

Finally, Paul showed us what he has been doing with LoRa down in Norfolk, and went into further details as to how LoRa devices communicate with your application server. He also talked more about The Things Network, and how the people behind it are creating a public LoRa network that everyone can both use and contribute to by running a gateway. Apparently, soon even private commercial companies can deploy private LoRa infrastructure that is able to route public messages through to the things network - since they are picked up anyway due to the nature of radio!

All in all, it was an excellent set of talks - even if I didn't know very many people there, and had to leave a bit before the end to attend a meeting!

If any of these 3 talks sound interesting to you, Rob Miles should have the slides available on his blog soon. I've also got a recording of all 3 talks (minus the last bit of Paul's talk of course). If you'd like a copy of the recordings, get in touch (IRL if you know me, by email - check my homepage for the address, or by commenting below and I can pull your email address from the comment)!

LoRaWAN: Dream wireless communication for IoT

The LoRaWAN Logo. Nope, I'm not affiliated with them in any way - I just find it really cool and awesome :P (Above: The LoRaWAN Logo. Nope, I'm not affiliated with them in any way - I just find it really cool and awesome :P)

Could it be? Wireless communication for internet of things devices that's not only low-power, but also fairly low-cost, and not only provides message authentication, but also industrial-strength encryption? Too good to be true? You might think so, but if what I'm reading is correct, there's initiative that aims to provide just that: LoRaWAN, long-range radio.

I first heard about it at the hardware meetup, and after a discussion last time, I thought I ought to take a serious look into it - and as you can probably guess by this post, I'm rather impressed by what I've seen.

Being radio-based, LoRaWAN uses various sub-gigahertz bands - the main one being ~868MHz in Europe, though apparently it can also use 433MHz and 169MHz. It can transfer up to 50kbps, but obviously that's that kind of speed can also be reached fairly close to the antenna.

Thankfully, the protocol seems to have accounted for this, and provides an adaptive speed negotiation system that lowers data-rates to suboptimal conditions and at long range - down to just 300bps, apparently - so while you're not going to browsing the web on it any time soon (sounds like a challenge to me :P), it's practically perfect for internet-of-things devices, which enable one to answer questions like "where's my cat? It's 2am and she's got out again....", and "what's the air quality like around here? Can we model it?" - without having to pay for an expensive cellular-based solution with a SIM card.

It's this that has me cautiously excited. The ability to answer such questions without paying thousands of pounds with certainly be rather cool. But my next question was: won't that mean even more laughably insecure devices scattered across the countryside? Well, maybe, but the LoRa alliance seems to have thought of this too, and have somehow managed to bake in 128-bit AES encryption and authentication.

Wait, what? Before we go into more detail, let's take a quick detour to look at how the LoRaWAN network functions. It's best explained with a diagram:

A diagram showing how the LoRa network works - explanation below.

  1. The IoT device sends a message by radio to the nearest gateways.
  2. All gateways in range receive the message and send it to the network server.
  3. The message travels through the internet to the network server.

In essence, the LoRa network is fairly simple multi-layered network:

  • IoT Device: The (low-power) end device sending (or receiving) a message.
  • Gateway: An internet-capable device with a (more powerful) LoRa antenna on it. Relays messages between IoT Devices and the requested network sever.
  • Network Server: A backend server that sends and receives messages to and from the gateways. It deduplicates incoming messages form the gateways, and sends them on to the right Application Server. Going in the opposite direction, it remembers to which gateway the IoT device has the strongest connection, and sends the message there to bee transmitted to the IoT device in the next transmit window.
  • Application Server (not pictured): The server that does all the backend processing of the data coming from or going out to the IoT Devices.

Very interesting. With the network structure out of the way, let's talk about that security I mentioned earlier. Firstly, reading their security white paper reveals that it's more specifically AES 128 bit in counter mode (AES-128-CTR).

Secondly, isn't AES the Advanced Encryption Algorithm? What's all this about authentication then? Well, it (ab?)uses AES to create a CMAC (cipher-based message authentication code) for every message sent across the network, thus verifying it's integrity. The specific algorithm in use is AES-CMAC, which is standardised in RFC 4493.

Reading the white papers and technical documents on the LoRa Alliance website doesn't reveal any specific details on how the encryption keys are exchanged, but it does mention that there are multiple different keys involved - with separate keys for the network server, application server, and the connecting device itself - as well as a session key derivation system, which sounds to me a lot like forward secrecy that's used in TLS.

Since there's interest at the C4DI hardware meetup of possibly doing a group-style project with LoRaWAN, I might post some more about it in the future. If you're interested yourself, you should certainly come along!

Sources and Further Readings

Demystifying microphones: The difference between dynamics and condensers

Welcome back to another demystification post! This time, it's about microphones. I had a question recently about microphones and phantom power, and after doing some rather extensive research on the subject (unintentionally of course :P), I thought it a waste not to summarise it here.

Basically, phantom power is a +48V direct current that's transmitted through a microphone cable (not the kind you plug into your laptop I don't think - the big chunky ones). It's required by condenser microphones (though some use a battery instead), which have a pair of films (called diaphragms) which vibrate. When a current is passed through from one plate to the other, the physical sound gets converted into an electrical signal we can use.

A diagram of how a condenser microphone works on a whiteboard. Full explanation below.

Condenser microphones are much more sensitive than their dynamic microphone counterparts. They are able to better represent a wider range of frequencies - but as a result of this heightened sensitivity, you normally need a pop filter if you're recording vocals. In addition, they don't tend to perform too well in loud environments, such as concerts. Finally, they tend to be more expensive than dynamic microphones, too.

A diagram of how a dynamic microphone works on a whiteboard. Full explanation below.

Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, don't require phantom power. They are basically a loudspeaker in reverse and generate the current themselves - they have a single diaphragm that's attached to a metal core - which in turn has a coil of wire around it. When the diaphragm vibrates, so does the metal core - and as you can probably guess, a current is induced in the coil, as metal cores tend to do when inside coils of conveniently placed wires.

While they are better in loud environments (like concerts and drum kits), dynamic microphones aren't so good at representing a wide ranges of frequencies - and as such they are usually tailored to be pick up a specific frequency range better than others. Furthermore, they aren't as sensitive in general as your average condenser microphone, so they don't get on particularly well with very quiet sounds either.

Which you use generally depends on what you want to do. If you've got an overly enthusiastic drummer in a rock concert, you probably want a dynamic microphone. On the other hand, if you're trying to record the song of a cricket on a still summer's evening, you probably want to keep a condenser microphone handy.

I'm not an audio expert, so I might have made a few mistakes here and there! If you spot one, please do let me know in the comments below :-)

Sources and Further Reading

My new Raspberry Pi 3!

My new Raspberry Pi 3!

I've got a little project in mind - I'd like to build a little storage server to back some things up to. It doesn't have to be anything terribly fancy, provide blisteringly fast speeds, or have store a huge number of files, so I've opted for a Raspberry Pi 3 to power the thing. It arrived just recently, and since the service I got from Pimoroni was excellent, I thought I'd post about it here. If you're after some bits for your raspberry pi, then they are a good reputable place to get them from.

In order to access the storage space on the server, I'll be configuring some samba shares (linux's implementation of Windows file shares, which is completely interoperable). Would anyone be interested in a tutorially kind of post on how you configure Samba? Let me know in the comments below.

Art by Mythdael