When You Need A Home Server, How About A Low Power Netbook or a Raspberry Pi?

I had a problem, and this is the thought process behind how I solved it.  It isn’t the solution itself.  I have to take pictures and write all that stuff down.  I simply haven’t yet.  That will come in the future.  By the end of the process, I’ll have created a nice tidy, low power consumption file server that can be ignored because it will just work.

What this does also is to take that computer that was slid into the back of the closet with data on it, and clean all that once- important stuff off of it, and give the machine another 3 to 5 years of very important use.

Great way to reuse something that you were wondering how to get rid of isn’t it?

But here is the thought process, if you are curious…

 

 

We like to collect “stuff”.

Drive down any street in Suburbia during the weekends and you are guaranteed to find a $20,000 or more car sitting in the driveway because the garage is stuffed with things you can’t bare to get rid of.

That extends to the digital world too.

On my Main Computer, I have a 128 GB memory chip that I use as an external drive.  You know, like the one you stuff into your camera?

On it are my resume, personal files, picture collection, and many many more files.  That stuff is very important to me and must be safeguarded by frequently backing it up in case that chip gets lost or destroyed.

Just a few years ago, that would have been an inconceivable amount of space, if you could have found it at all.  Now, that size of an actual hard drive is getting to be Low End and harder to find.

What do You do now?

You being An Average Home User.  You have a Main Computer.  It could be any given thing from Mac to Windows to, if you are “odd” like me, a Linux Workstation.   You may or may not have other machines in the house.  Phones where you take pictures.  Actual cameras.  iPods and your music collection.

Where do you put all that “stuff”.

First choice.  External hard drive.  They’re about $50 for a reasonable sized drive, or $100 for a drive that will take you years to fill up.

But where do you connect it.  You start with plugging it into your computer’s USB port.  That works for a while, until someone else wants access to it.  After all “they” have stuff to save too!

It’s that Digital equivalent of the Two Car Garage.  But that doesn’t help the phone, it is not exactly easy to plug an Android phone into a standard external drive, and forget it for the iPhone.

Not to go too deeply into this whole thing, The First Choice hard drive needs to be moved.  If you are lucky your Wifi Router will have a USB port.  A Slot.  If you look in the little slot, the plastic tab should hopefully be blue for USB 3.0, but at least it should be USB 2.0.

(Yes, I know that is an inexact way of saying things, but I have a very broad audience here)

If it isn’t in use, that is, you plug your drive in to that USB port and go surf the administrative page of the router.  Mine is at http://192.168.1.1 and it brings up a login box asking me for user and password.  That is the page you use to configure where and who has access to that drive and your network.

I could spend hours writing here on how to configure your router.  I’m not.  See this is more of an intro to something that has been sitting in my mind.

Why?

You see we have already used that port with something else that needs to sit there.   It’s in use with the backup for that 128GB chip I was talking about earlier.

So I had to decide what to do next.

I have been given a number of “old” or “low power” computers over the years.  I won’t say specifically “Obsolete” because there’s always something you can do with a computer that is too slow to run Windows.

And that’s the crux of it.

The first time I tried this, I had attempted to use a RaspberryPi as a server.  Now, a RaspberryPi, or at least the “Model B” I have has the computing power of a cell phone of a couple years ago.   When I first got it, I put a lot of energy into turning it into a web server.

Take my word for it, there are better ways to make a home web server than a RaspberryPi.  It’s too slow for that.   You have the base operating system, and when you add all that “web stuff” it runs too slow to be useful.

But, the RaspberryPi is “just enough” for you to use as a desktop machine, if you aren’t slapping it around too much.  By that I mean, one browser with one or two tabs open, or some programming tasks.  After all it is not meant to be a “Screaming fast” computer.  Small tasks.

I did find out that the Pi was “just enough” to be a file server.

There is a software bug in the main operating system as I had it configured that had me choose another machine.  The amount of data that you copy onto an attached drive on the version of Linux called “Raspian” was limited to the free space on the boot drive.  Since it is common practice to use a 4 or 8GB memory chip for that, I only had 3 gigs free.   Another solution would be to get a larger chip and try again.  I will later.

You see the Raspberry Pi runs with so little power itself that it is like one of those old glowy neon nightlights that were used for years before they ended up being an indicator light in a power strip.

In other words it’s a Low Power Consumption alternative – very “Green”.

But since that didn’t work without my buying a very large chip, I looked around for an alternative.

The solution was that I had an old Netbook that was gathering dust.  After all, it was a Windows XP Era machine looking for a use case.

A Netbook of that first era had a very small display, 10 inches, with a small display of 1024 by 600.

Never mind the numbers, it was designed to be the machine you would use on the couch while watching TV.  That was why it ended up being set aside, I do too much graphics work to be able to live with such a small display.

Despite that the old beastly big CRT Monitors of the last century would not be able to do that resolution.

So I put that Netbook back on the air as what I call a “Drop In File Server”.

A Drop In File Server would be a computer configured to accept an external hard drive, sit on the network, and serve files.

The reality is that when you install the needed software, the Print Server comes along for the ride.  Configure and plug in a printer as well and you can print anywhere on your network.  You end up having a lot of benefits from having a dedicated machine doing that work.  All from something that was slow when it was new.

Another very important benefit is that all that runs on less than 10 watts of power, a refrigerator bulb of power consumption for something that will be left on pretty much whenever I am awake, 16 or more hours a day.

Now, the high order of this is that once you install Debian or Ubuntu Linux to do the actual work, you’re able to take that little netbook and put it on someone else’s network and serve files there.

That sounds kind of a strange need, but the idea for this would be to hand the little machine off to someone else let them plug it into their network and their own drive into the machine and that way I don’t have to be involved with computer support for someone who is 200 miles away.

You know, a Loaner Server.  Something to serve a need but not need a lot of service.

But it worked.  It would also work with just about any laptop made within the last 10 years, just like that old computer you forgot about under your jeans in the closet.

All that will just have to wait for another time.

Outlook.com – How To Block Messenger

Microsoft, please don’t annoy me before 6AM.

I had gotten in after the dog walk, settled in for some iced tea, and wanted to check my email once the computer got started.

Using www.outlook.com has never been a pleasure for me.  I want an email service that stays out of my way with extra “features” that I don’t want.   Having a chat service tied into an email program that is a bloated mess was not my choice.  Even Hotmail.com was better than the steaming pile of garbage that Outlook.com has been bloated into.

At the lower left of the browser screen was a helpful “Messaging” area with little icons of people who I have written in the past.  I found myself immediately looking for a way to turn it off.  After wasting a half hour in the “Byzantine” settings menu in Outlook, I went to do a search for how to do it.  I found this page suggesting that I add an entry into a low level file and restart my computer.   The low level file is a text file called “Hosts” that your computer reads in when it starts.  What Hosts does is to override networking.  

In Windows it is at C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc and Linux keeps it at /etc/hosts which would be where I would expect to find it on Mac OSX.

Some very basic and oversimplified networking concepts.

If you type in http://www.ramblingmoose.com your computer doesn’t know what that does. It consults your network stack, finds the gateway, and then talks to your internet service provider.  In this case it looks at a giant phone book called your DNS and gets the IP Address of the site.  Since my blog points to a blogger site, that number changes, and it’s hosted by Google anyway. 

But I can change that.

If I bring up Hosts in notepad or any other TEXT editor, I can add in a line saying that a specific IP address is to be used when you go to a specific web address or URL.

For example, if I want to block Google, I add a line to the file:

127.0.0.1  http://www.google.com

Save the file and restart the computer.

This works for some sites that are advertising providers and other nuisance sites.  My own Hosts file is pretty large having gotten one that has most of those malware and advertising sites that were known at the time.

But all this is annoying to maintain.  Fortunately, there is an easier way to do it.

Adblock Edge or Adblock Plus in Firefox and whichever other browsers it supports.  Adblock Edge is always the first thing I add when I install Firefox.  It allows me to block ads, hide pictures, and even block whole websites (domains) if I choose to from a semi-friendly interface.

Simply add a custom “rule” to adblock to block the following URL:

geo.gateway.messenger.live.com

It would be a whole lot simpler if Microsoft had decided that it would give you a way to block that Messaging app within Outlook.com settings, but they chose not to.  Luckily I can turn it off and get some things done.

How to add a custom rule:

  • Ctrl+Shift+F will open a window called “Adblock Edge Filter Preferences”.
  • Click on the “Add Filter” button in the upper right of the window.
  • In the blue box, enter geo.gateway.messenger.live.com and Enter.
  • Close the window by clicking the Close Box.
  • When you refresh Outlook.com in your browser, it will be blocked in that browser only.

Confessions of a Data Pack Rat

The nice thing about the digital age is that clutter has become virtual.

I got a deep discount on a case the other week.   It’s an external drive box that allowed me to put a hard drive on the network instead of inside of a PC.  My largest drive is around 3 years old, and is a 750GB drive.  All those numbers aside, it’s tough to put a desktop drive into a laptop.   The technical word for it is a NAS or SAN drive.

NAS – Network Addressable Storage.
SAN – Storage Area Network.

This way I treat the thing as yet another drive when I’m sitting at home on the network and keep a cache of the most needed files in places like a memory stick or on the hard drive of the laptop so it’s available immediately when I need them.

Think of it this way, if I’m at home, I have a new drive that pops up and will be accessible if I need it. 

The case is small, and will be put somewhere better than being hid under clutter, and it’s about the size of a small hardback book.  For $12, it’s a steal.   One of those external cases without the network “upgrade” would be around $30.  They sold out of the one that I got, especially at $1 plus $11 shipping.  If you are looking for something like it, the place I ordered from has a replacement for $23 with free shipping at this link.

Getting that little case to work on the network with some rather odd software that came with it meant I could look around and put files where the belonged.  There’s one thing.  I have a lot of files.  Specifically picture files.  I post a lot of pictures on this blog, and will continue to do so.  On the other hand, I just found out that I have around 3,308 picture files. 

I’m not talking about stuff I “collected” on the web, this is a directory of what I have taken myself over the years.  That translates to 5.08GB according to Windows 7.

I’ve never found anyone who has a “lot” of pictures that had a good suggestion of how to store them.   I use my own pictures here and try to make sense of how they’re stored, but the reality is that it’s kind of tough to remember 3300 of anything.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I have three million three hundred eight thousand words.

Give or take a syllable.

A stroll down a memory lane like that will take quite a while, especially since the Achilles Heel of this drive is that it doesn’t like to do more than one thing at a time.  In fact what got me started writing about this is that I made the mistake of starting a copy to the drive and hit delete on one of the folders on the drive at the same time.  Now, it’s stuck churning its way through all of that.   SLOWLY. 

Ok, but it’s cheap right?

At least if it is doing just one thing at a time, it’s quick.  It’s about as quick as any other networked drive, in fact it’s quicker than trying to grab a file from one of the other machines here.

In the drive, just like any other folder is the “Pics” folder.  Inside that they’re all labeled in sub folders by date and description.  Hundreds of folders.  Bloody hundreds of them. 

If anybody has a better way to categorize this stuff, I’d entertain your suggestions since its rather a lot. 

On the other hand, a casual stroll down that particular memory lane has some things on its swale that may help with writer’s block if I ever get it again.