DebConf19: Brazil

Aug 16, 2019 / 0 comments

My first DebConf was DebConf4, held in Porte Alegre, Brazil back in 2004. Uncle Steve did the majority of the travel arrangements for 6 of us to go. We had some mishaps which we still tease him about, but it was a great experience. So when I learnt DebConf19 was to be in Brazil again, this time in Curitiba, I had to go. So last November I realised flights were only likely to get more expensive, that I’d really kick myself if I didn’t go, and so I booked my tickets. A bunch of life happened in the meantime that mean the timing wasn’t particularly great for me - it’s been a busy 6 months - but going was still the right move.

One thing that struck me about DC19 is that a lot of the faces I’m used to seeing at a DebConf weren’t there. Only myself and Steve from the UK DC4 group made it, for example. I don’t know if that’s due to the travelling distances involved, or just the fact that attendance varies and this happened to be a year where a number of people couldn’t make it. Nonetheless I was able to catch up with a number of people I only really see at DebConfs, as well as getting to hang out with some new folk.

Given how busy I’ve been this year and expect to be for at least the next year I set myself a hard goal of not committing to any additional tasks. That said DebConf often provides a welcome space to concentrate on technical bits. I reviewed and merged dkg’s work on WKD and DANE for the Debian keyring under debian.org - we’re not exposed to the recent keyserver network issues due to the fact the keyring is curated, but providing additional access to our keyring makes sense if it can be done easily. I spent some time with Ian Jackson talking about dgit - I’m not a user of it at present, but I’m intrigued by the potential for being able to do Debian package uploads via signed git tags. Of course I also attended a variety of different talks (and, as usual, at times the schedule conflicted such that I had a difficult choice about which option to chose for a particular slot).

This also marks the first time I did a non-team related talk at DebConf, warbling about my home automation (similar to my NI Dev Conf talk but with some more bits about the Debian involvement thrown in):

In addition I co-presented a couple of talks for teams I’m part of:

I only realised late in the week that 2 talks I’d normally expect to attend, an Software in the Public Interest BoF and a New Member BoF, were not on the schedule, but to be honest I don’t think I’d have been able to run either even if I’d realised in advance.

Finally, DebConf wouldn’t be DebConf without playing with some embedded hardware at some point, and this year it was the Caninos Loucos Labrador. This is a Brazilian grown single board ARM based computer with a modular form factor designed for easy integration into bigger projects. There;s nothing particularly remarkable about the hardware and you might ask why not just use a Pi? The reason is that import duties in Brazil make such things prohibitively expensive - importing a $35 board can end up costing $150 by the time shipping, taxes and customs fees are all taken into account. The intent is to design and build locally, as components can be imported with minimal taxes if the final product is being assembled within Brazil. And Mercosul allows access to many other South American countries without tariffs. I’d have loved to get hold of one of the boards, but they’ve only produced 1000 in the initial run and really need to get them into the hands of people who can help progress the project rather than those who don’t have enough time.

Next year DebConf20 is in Haifa - a city I’ve spent some time in before - but I’ve made the decision not to attend; rather than spending a single 7-10 day chunk away from home I’m going to aim to attend some more local conferences for shorter periods of time.

Upgrading my home server

Jul 19, 2019 / 0 comments

Vertically mounted 2U server

At the end of last year I decided it was time to upgrade my home server. I built it back in 2013 as an all-in-one device to be my only always-on machine, with some attempt towards low power consumption. It was starting to creak a bit - the motherboard is limited to 16G RAM and the i3-3220T is somewhat ancient (though has served me well). So it was time to think about something more up to date. Additionally since then my needs have changed; my internet connection is VDSL2 (BT Fibre-to-the-Cabinet) so I have an BT HomeHub 5 running OpenWRT to drive that and provide core routing/firewalling. My wifi is provided by a pair of UniFi APs at opposite ends of the house. I also decided I could use something low power to run Kodi and access my ripped DVD collection, rather than having the main machine in the living room. That meant what I wanted was much closer to just a standard server rather than having any special needs.

The first thing to consider was a case. My ADSL terminates in what I call the “comms room” - it has the electricity meter / distribution board and gas boiler, as well as being where one of the UniFi’s lives and where the downstairs ethernet terminates. In short it’s the right room for a server to live in. I don’t want a full rack, however, and ideally wanted something that could sit alongside the meter cabinet without protruding from the wall any further. A tower case would have worked, but only if turned sideways, which would have made it a bit awkward to access. I tried in vain to find a wall mount case with side access that was shallow enough, but failed. However in the process I discovered a 4U vertical wall mount. This was about the same depth as the meter cabinet, so an ideal choice. I paired it with a basic 2U case from X-Case, giving me a couple of spare U should I decide I want another rack-mount machine or two.

My old machine has 2 3.5” hotswap drive bays; this has been useful in the past when a drive failed even just to avoid having to take the machine apart. I still wanted to aim for low power consumption, so 2 drives is enough. I started with a pair of cheap 5.25” drive bay to dual 2.5” + 3.5” hotswap bay devices, but the rear SATA connectors ended up being very fragile and breaking off, so I bit the bullet and bought a SilverStone FS303. This takes up 2 5.25” bays and provides 3 x 3.5” hotswap bays. It’s well constructed and the extra bay has already turned out useful when a drive started to fail and I was able to put the replacement in and resync the RAID set before having to remove the old drive.

Now I had the externals sorted I needed to think about what to put inside. The only thing coming from the old machine were the hard disks (a 4T Seagate and a 6T WD RED, 4T of software RAID1 and 2T of unRAIDed backup space), so everything else was up for discussion. I toyed with an Intel i7-8700T - 6 cores in 35W. AMD have a stronger offering these days though and the AMD Ryzen 2700E with 8 cores in 45W seemed like a good option for an extra 10W. Plus on top there are several of the recent speculative execution exploits that don’t seem to affect AMD chips (or more recent Intel CPUs, but they weren’t out at the time in a low power format). Sadly the 2700E proved to be made of unobtanium; I sat with it on backorder for nearly 3 months before giving up and ordering a AMD Ryzen 2700 that was on offer. This is rated at up to 65W, but I considered trying to underclock if necessary or tweak the cpufreq settings at least.

Next up was a motherboard. The 2U case is short, but allows for MicroATX, an improvement over the MiniITX my last case needs. One of the things constraining me with the old machine was that it maxed out at 16G RAM, so I wanted something that would take more. It turns out there are a number of Socket AM4 MicroATX boards that will take 64G over 4 DIMMs. I chose an ASRock B450M Pro4, which had a couple of good reviews and seemed to have all the bits I wanted. It’s been decent so far - including having some interactions with ASRock support when I initially put an AMD 240GE (while waiting for the 2700E that was never coming) in it. I like to think of BIOS 3.10 as mine ;).

For RAM I went with a Corsair CMK32GX4M2A2400C14 Vengeance LPX 32GB (2 x 16GB) set. I’m sure I should care more about RAM but it was decently priced from a vendor I trust. At some point I’ll buy another set to bring the board up to the full 64GB, but for now this is twice what the old machine had.

Finally I decided to splash out on some SSD. The spinning rust is primarily for media (music + video shared out to Kodi etc) and backups, but I wanted to move my containers (home automation, UniFi controller, various others) over to SSD. I talked myself into a pair of Corsair MP510 960GB NVMe M.2 drives. One went on the motherboard slot and I had to buy a low profile PCIe adaptor for the other (of course they’re RAID1ed). They fly; initially I clocked them in at about 1.5GB/s until I realised the one in the add-in card was only using 2 PCIe lanes. Once I rejigged things so it had all 4 it can use I was up to 2.3GB/s. Impressive.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned a graphic card here. I ended up with a cheap NVidia off eBay to get things going, but this is a server in a comms room and removing the graphics card saves me at least 10W of power (it was also the reason the NVMe drive only had 2 lanes). I couldn’t find an AM4 motherboard that did serial console, but the 450M Pro is happy to boot without a graphics card present, and I have GRUB onward configured to do serial console just in case.

And the power consumption? The previous machine idled at around 50W, getting to maybe 60-65W under load. I’ve cheated with the new machine; because the spinning rust is not generally in use it’s configured to spin down after 20 minutes idle. As a result the machine idles at around 36W. It hits 50W when the drives spin up, so for 8 cores compared to 2 we’re still sitting in the same ballpark. That’s good, because that’s the general case - idle here means Home Assistant operational, the UniFi controller going, the syslog container logging and so on. However the new server peaks considerably higher; if the drives are spun up and I compile a kernel I can hit 120W. However the compilation takes less than a quarter of the time - the machine is significantly faster than the old one, and even without taking advantage of the SSDs idles at roughly the same power level. I’d call that an overall win.

Burn it all

Jul 12, 2019 / 0 comments

I am generally positive about my return to Northern Ireland, and decision to stay here. Things are much better than when I was growing up and there’s a lot more going on here these days. There’s an active tech scene and the quality of life is pretty decent. That said, this time of year is one that always dampens my optimism. TLDR: This post brings no joy. This is the darkest timeline.

First, we have the usual bonfire issues. I’m all for setting things on fire while having a drink, but when your bonfire is so big it leads to nearby flat residents being evacuated to a youth hostel for the night or you decide that adding 1800 tyres to your bonfire is a great idea, it’s time to question whether you’re celebrating your cultural identity while respecting those around you, or just a clampit (thanks, @Bolster). If you’re starting to displace people from their homes, or releasing lots of noxious fumes that are a risk to your health and that of your local community you need to take a hard look at the message you’re sending out.

Secondly, we have the House of Commons vote on Tuesday to amend the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to require the government to bring forward legislation to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland. On the face of it this is a good thing; both are things the majority of the NI population want legalised and it’s an area of division between us and the rest of the UK (and, for that matter, Ireland). Dig deeper and it doesn’t tell a great story about the Northern Ireland Assembly. The bill is being brought in the first place because (at the time of writing) it’s been 907 days since Northern Ireland had a government. The current deadline for forming an executive is August 25th, or another election must be held. The bill extends this to October 21st, with an option to extend it further to January 13th. That’ll be 3 years since the assembly sat. That’s not what I voted for; I want my elected officials to actually do their jobs - I may not agree with all of their views, but it serves NI much more to have them turning up and making things happen than failing to do so. Especially during this time of uncertainty about borders and financial stability.

It’s also important to note that the amendments only kick in if an executive is not formed by October 21st - if there’s a functioning local government it’s expected to step in and enact the appropriate legislation to bring NI into compliance with its human rights obligations, as determined by the Supreme Court. It’s possible that this will provide some impetus to the DUP to re-form the assembly in NI. Equally it’s possible that it will make it less likely that Sinn Fein will rush to re-form it, as both amendments cover issues they have tried to resolve in the past.

Equally while I’m grateful to Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn for proposing these amendments, it’s a rare example of Westminster appearing to care about Northern Ireland at all. The ‘backstop’ has been bandied about as a political football, with more regard paid to how many points Tory leadership contenders can score off each other than what the real impact will be upon the people in Northern Ireland. It’s the most attention anyone has paid to us since the Good Friday Agreement, but it’s not exactly the right sort of attention.

I don’t know what the answer is. Since the GFA politics in Northern Ireland has mostly just got more polarised rather than us finding common ground. The most recent EU elections returned an Alliance MEP, Naomi Long, for the first time, which is perhaps some sign of a move to non-sectarian politics, but the real test would be what a new Assembly election would look like. I don’t hold out any hope that we’d get a different set of parties in power.

Still, I suppose at least it’s a public holiday today. Here’s hoping the pub is open for lunch.

Support your local Hackerspace

Jun 26, 2019 / 0 comments

My first Hackerspace was Noisebridge. It was full of smart and interesting people and I never felt like I belonged, but I had just moved to San Francisco and it had interesting events, like 5MoF, and provided access to basic stuff I hadn’t moved with me, like a soldering iron. While I was never a heavy user of the space I very much appreciated its presence, and availability even to non-members. People were generally welcoming, it was a well stocked space and there was always something going on.

These days my local hackerspace is Farset Labs. I don’t have a need for tooling in the same way, being lucky enough to have space at home and access to all the things I didn’t move to the US, but it’s still a space full of smart and interesting people that has interesting events. And mostly that’s how I make use of the space - I attend events there. It’s one of many venues in Belfast that are part of the regular Meetup scene, and for a while I was just another meetup attendee. A couple of things changed the way I looked at. Firstly, for whatever reason, I have more of a sense of belonging. It could be because the tech scene in Belfast is small enough that you’ll bump into the same people at wildly different events, but I think that’s true of the tech scene in most places. Secondly, I had the realisation (and this is obvious once you say it, but still) that Farset was the only non-commercial venue that was hosting these events. It’s predominantly funded by members fees; it’s not getting Invest NI or government subsidies (though I believe Weavers Court is a pretty supportive landlord).

So I became a member. It then took me several months after signing up to actually be in the space again, but I feel it’s the right thing to do; without the support of their local tech communities hackerspaces can’t thrive. I’m probably in Farset at most once a month, but I’d miss it if it wasn’t there. Plus I don’t want to see such a valuable resource disappear from the Belfast scene.

And that would be my message to you, dear reader. Support your local hackerspace. Become a member if you can afford it, donate what you can if not, or just show up and help out - as non-commercial entities things generally happen as a result of people turning up and volunteering their time to help out.

(This post prompted by a bunch of Small Charity Week tweets last week singing the praises of Farset, alongside the announcement today that Farset Labs is expanding - if you use the space and have been considering becoming a member or even just donating, now is the time to do it.)

NIDevConf 19 slides on Home Automation

Jun 9, 2019 / 0 comments

The 3rd Northern Ireland Developer Conference was held yesterday, once again in Riddel Hall at QUB. It’s a good venue for a great conference and as usual it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, with talks from the usual NI suspects as well as some people who were new to me. I finally submitted a talk this year, and ended up speaking about my home automation setup - basically stringing together a bunch of the information I’ve blogged about here over the past year or so. It seemed to go well other than having a bit too much content for the allocated time, but I got the main arc covered and mostly just had to skim through the additional information. I’ve had a similar talk accepted for DebConf19 this Summer, with a longer time slot that will allow me to go into a bit more detail about how Debian has enable each of the pieces.

Slides from yesterday’s presentation are below; if you’re a regular reader I doubt there’ll be anything new and it’s a slide deck very much intended to be talked around rather than stand alone so if you weren’t there they’re probably not that useful. There’s a recording of the talk which I don’t hate as much as I thought I would (and the rest of the conference is also on the NIDevConf Youtube channel).

Note that a lot of the slides have very small links at the bottom which will take you to either a blog post expanding on the details, or an external reference I think is useful.

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Also available for direct download.

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