The Home Server Part 2: Ubuntu & ZFS

So I have my HP Micro Server. It has a modded BIOS. I have installed a spare SSD that I had into the OOD slot. Next step is Ubuntu.

Unfortunately I found the Ubuntu Server 13.10 doesn’t like to work with either of my USB keyboards which makes installing it impossible. So I got a Ubuntu 13.04 ISO and installed it via USB stick to the SSD, then upgraded to 13.10.

Now for ZFS I did the following

sudo -i
apt-get install python-software-properties software-properties-common
add-apt-repository ppa:zfs-native/stable
apt-get update
apt-get install ubuntu-zfs
apt-get install zfs-initramfs
I then put in my 3 500gb test HDD’s that I am going to use as practice for setting up and recovering zfs.
Next I edited /etc/default/zfs to enable automatic mounting/umounting of zfs shares on startup and shutdown, as well as the zfs sharing properties. (Change the top 4 options in the file from no to yes)
Execute the following to get the disk id’s of the disks  you want to use in your zfs pool:
ls -l /dev/disk/by_id
Mine were:
Then to create my RAIDZ pool (the Zfs equivalent of raid5) with my 3x500GB disks:
zpool create -f storage raidz /dev/disk/by-id/ata-WDC_WD5000AAKS-00TMA0_WD-WCAPW1902486 /dev/disk/by-id/ata-WDC_WD5000AAKS-00TMA0_WD-WCAPW1908191 /dev/disk/by-id/ata-SAMSUNG_HD501LJ_S0MUJ13P651726
Then to check its all created
$> zpool list
storage  1.36T   220K  1.36T     0%  1.00x  ONLINE  –
$> zpool status
Now when I ran both of those command the size it gives you is the raw size of the pool which in this case is 1.36TB.
Note also DEDUP is on. When I properly set this up with the final drives I plan to use I will be turning it off on some of my sub file systems.
If I run the following:
$> zfs list
storage   137K   913G  38.6K  /storage
I only see 913GB because of the 1/3 of the data taken to use as a parity.
Finally I am going to create a single zfs filesystem within my zfs filesystem
$> zfs create storage/test
$> zfs list
storage        188K   913G  40.0K  /storage
storage/test  38.6K   913G  38.6K  /storage/test
Next. Creating some data, losing a drive, and rebuilding

The Home Server Part 1: Modding the BIOS

So I got my HP N54L Micro server today, and it is quite simply brilliant, the only flaw with it seems to be a slightly noisy PSU fan, but this will be fine once its in my TV Cabinet.

So the first order of business was to install the modded BIOS to fully enable the extra SATA ports.

Now this would have been quite easy to just download someone else’s modded BIOS and simply apply it using the USB BIOS upgrading key created by the HP Utility

But instead I decided to mod my own BIOS to learn a bit more about them. So my first port of call is to get the Original BIOS (see HP’s website) and a modded BIOS (search the internet for it). Then you need to get the Bios Modding Tool.

Now we have all those tools, we need to decide what we need to do, we need to enable some extra functionality that is currently hidden in the BIOS. Namely we want access to the Southbridge Chipset configuration.

Which we can see is un-ticked. So all we need to do is to tick it, and then save it. (I ticked everything in the end)

Once we are done, we just need to copy it to our USB BIOS updating flash drive, and update the BIOS on the server.

I would recommend having a look around the BIOS with that tool, its really quite interesting.

The Home Server

Last year I decided not to renew my TV License for a myriad of reasons. This has lead me to using Netflix and my considerable DVD and TV/Movie collection a lot more.

I also want to share this content with my other devices remotely, and reliably. Basically what I want is a Netflix but for my collection! My NAS (Synology DS411j) is not powerful enough at the moment to do this, even before we consider transcoding content, and the more advance backup scenarios I would like.

So I then thought that using a AMD A4 CPU, I could build my own HTPC/NAS which could handle this for me. This was 1, looking rather expensive, both in terms of parts (a case which supported 4HDD’s is at least £100) and 2, in power usage.

It was then suggested that I could use a HP N54L micro server which would be able to handle (a colleague with the N36L/N40L could do it, so a N54L should be able to, too) the transcoding, needed for Plex Media Server. Its also significantly cheaper than building something myself, and its power usage is also wonderfully low.

A HP N54L micro server can be got for around £199, you can then get £100 cashback on top of that. So just £99! which is cheaper than a good case (and it comes with a pretty good case).

On top of that, I am adding 16GB of RAM (£115) So a total of £214. Hopefully I can get £100 for my old NAS which means I my outlay is only about £115, which isn’t bad really!

The boot drive will be either the 250GB HDD that comes with the micro server OR a spare 128GB SSD that I have, but I have not decided yet.

I’m going to write a little series, of blog posts as I set it up, the various tools and servers I use, with the custom scripts and bits I plan to use. I will be testing various failure scenarios and how to recover from them (mainly losing a disk, and replacing it). Hopefully by putting them online, they will help someone else, but also help me a few years down the road when I may need it.

So here’s the unspecific list of things I hope to blog about.

  1. Modding the N54L’s BIOS to enable the extra SATA Ports
  2. Installing Ubuntu Server 13.10 & Setting up ZFS
  3. Recovering ZFS from a Drive Failure (simulated by pulling a drive out and wiping it)
  4. SMB Setup
  5. RSync Backup from Clients & Snapshotting
  6. Snapshotting & Clean up
  7. Anything else that comes up long the way



Can Microsoft Succeed in the Mobile / Tablet markets?

Firstly lets define succeed, this doesn’t mean to become the biggest market share holder, but to take a significant chunk of the market – be a major player. This isn’t like Mac vs. PC or Betamax vs. VHS where there can only be one winner, its different this time, there is room for 3, and it’s very possible for there to be three or more major players and for the consumer it is essential that there are more than two major players to keep competition alive.

The big difference this time is that Microsoft cannot use its old tried and proven method of breaking in to market – sell it cheaper, let it run on anything and everything, and profit through volume. It worked for Microsoft with Windows, and IE, But Google has already taken this strategy and taken it to the extreme, Microsoft cannot undercut free. Microsoft has its back up against the wall.

So they need a new strategy, one similar to what they did with the Xbox which overtime, was very successful, even though it had initial problems, tough competition, and it was in a market, where the game was considered over.

A lot of people I have discussed this with, have said that its game over in these markets, and it’s too late for Microsoft to make an entrance (hopefully some of the above should distil that) but, these are new markets relatively, and the markets are far too young, and too fast changing to say that the game is over. Android is still making considerable progress against iOS in the smartphone market across the world, and the Tablet market is hardly developed and still has a lot of expansion and growth to go under. A market cannot be in a position where a winner can be declared, while there is such rapid growth and market share changes. There is all still to play for!

So what is Microsoft’s Strategy?

Firstly, they are going to try and match their competitors’ prices (maybe even slightly undercut it initially). This has to be done, to get consumers on-board.

Secondly strike at the enterprise. This will be easy for Microsoft, integration with their existing services and manageability tools means Microsoft can win this hands down, and this will expose the devices to a large number of consumers who are likely to then buy the devices at home (comfort, familiarity, etc.).

Finally and this is the key part of Microsoft’s strategy – is that Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, offer something unique and different, to a market that is very polarised. At one end you have Apple’s completely closed ecosystem, limited or no choice in hardware, or services. At the other you have Android, where you have a multitude of devices from the very good to the absolutely terrible, where there are any number of services you can use, and a very open ecosystem.

What Microsoft is going to do is to provide a middle ground. A limited number of very good quality devices, across a number of price points. Along with a restricted set of services (this is needed to solve malware issues that android suffers from) which users can trust. They are going to try and provide the best of both worlds, choice and quality.

  • Everything so far is just Microsoft’s attempt to catch up and compete. Microsoft has also provided a number of new and innovative bits of functionality (not all of these apply to both markets).
  • A Unique User Interface. (Weirdly this also take a middle ground between Apples icons only – and Androids unlimited widgets, but providing something like widgets but within a consistent UI)
  • True Multitasking (on the tablet, it is possible to have two apps on the screen at once)
  • As mentioned previously – Cracking Enterprise Support
  • A common UI across multiple devices
  • A brilliant development environment, with lots of choices.
  • Xbox Integration
  • Office

I think all of the above means that Microsoft has a good chance of becoming a major player in these markets over time, as long as they don’t allow long periods without updates (they need to move to a yearly release cycle for Windows in my opinion), it’s far too early to rule them out!

The Microsoft Surface

Wow just wow, I was not expecting Microsoft to announce that last night, and I think (yes I know I am a bit of a fan-boy) this is the tablet which defines what a tablet should be.

The iPad while good, was simply good, it was not excellent, it was not brilliant, it was not a replacement for a laptop, it wasn’t a productivity device. It was a device that was hard to justify buying, and mainly there for consumption and entertainment. Basically it was exactly what you would expect from Apple.

Microsoft has given us what we expect from Microsoft. A device which is great for consumption, but also brilliant for productivity. I finally fill like I can sell my Laptop (MBP) and my iPad and just have one device. This has always been my issue with the iPad, that you cannot just have an iPad sooner or later you end up needing a laptop to do something. This has happened to me a number of times. There’s too many restrictions in the iPad, too many compromises.

What MS allows, mainly due to Windows 8 is to remove as many of those compromises as possible, the biggest one remaining is Legacy Software on ARM, but this is one which is acceptable to a degree (although there might be ways around it) for security and resource management reasons, to ensure the user gets the best possible experience. But this coupled with such a lovely bit of hardware like the surface, extenuates this. You have a tablet, like the iPad, with a similar cover, but in a few seconds, it turns into a lightweight laptop, but one which is just as useful as a laptop. I don’t have to worry, about if I need a laptop, I am already carrying one.

The Touch Cover is an amazing bit of engineering, and will seriously improve the typing experience. My fingers hurt after prolonged typing on the iPad, its simply not comfortable. The Touch Cover will improve typing speed, and comfort while increasing the usability of the device, without having to carry around a bit heavy keyboard.

Now for the downside

As MS mentioned in its keynote, the displays are “Retina” (using Apples definition of not begin able to distinguish pixels from a normal usage distance). They might not be as high on the ppi scale as the iPad, but using other clever technology they have achieved it, which enables lower power usage.

Yes, if your a purist you might say the screens let it down, but I think we will have to wait and see to pass judgement on if ClearType is an acceptable substitute.

Yes the iPad will have more apps on its App Store, but it is just a matter of time for Windows 8 to catch up, and I am sure the quality will be just as good if not better. Developers should want to develop for Windows 8, because of the shear number of devices it will be on – not just tablets.

The other issues are mostly relating to the lack of details about the device, why are no firm specifications, prices, release date, set yet? Why announce this now, and not wait until they could announce and release at the same time, instead of making us wait months (not to mention they did not detail global availability, if it will be sold outside the US (hopefully they wont make this mistake again like they did with the Zune))

The only reason I can think of, why they announced it now, is because they are about to go into mass production with the device, and this would have lead to leaks (Most of Apples recent devices have been leaked, due to manufacturing leaks, parts lists. But that does not excuse the lack of details, which must surely be set in stone by now. I do not think we will ever know why MS announced when it did.

Finally why no 3G/4G support. This seems like such an obvious thing not to miss out, unless they just had not decided on it, as part of the final specification yet.

Which One

So I will definitely be buying one of these, but which one. That I have not decided yet. Part of me feels I should get the ARM one, lighter, thinner, cooler, longer battery life, but there is a little bit of me, that wants the Intel one, just so I can open Visual Studio, and do a bit of development, and perhaps put some of my favourite classic games on it from GTA to SimCity, but that is at the compromise of much lower battery life, hotter, thicker and heavier.

I think I will end up with the ARM one, for the reasons given above, but also because I want, hope believe, that these publishers will release metro apps which will give me, the functionality I want without needing to go to the desktop. There is no reason why there should not be Windows 8 Metro versions of GTA, or SimCity, just like there are on the iPad.

I also have some plans for applications which I will hopefully release when Windows 8 is released which should hopefully give me some of my development opportunities back on Windows 8 Metro.

The OEM View

Building its own PC Hardware is a big departure from the norm, for Microsoft, and will have a massive effect on how the OEM’s act and behave. But lets be honest here, a lot of OEM’s have failed MS and their users, and MS is simply saying to them, ‘This is the quality of the device we want you to make, no crap ware, original thinking, put the user first’. MS have set the bar and it is the OEM’s job to jump it.


I feel, the device is great, almost perfect for the future of computing, and I am very excited for it. Just cannot wait to get my hands on it now!!!