My Mini-ITX Project (Pics now up!)

Written by rob on May 31, 2007 – 8:53 pm -

My Mini Server

UPDATE (05-31-07): I finally got the pictures up for the Mini-ITX server. Check them out here. If you are interested in the components behind it, read the original post below.


As you may or may not be aware, there is a certain motherboard specification called Mini-ITX. It was pushed to the market mainly by VIA, though there are many offerings nowadays. Essentially, it follows the ATX standard, but condenses all of the motherboard components down to a 6.75″x6.75″ board. Also, the motherboard has sound, network, video, and CPU all built into it. Even better, most of them contain no fans, and instead use heatsinks to cool the CPU and chipsets… this passive cooling cuts on power usage and also makes the system 100% silent. All that needs to be added to such a motherboard to make a full computer is a form of persistent storage (hard drive, etc.), RAM, and power supply. Optionally, a disk drive and other accessories can be added. All of this uses very little power (think 30-50W, as opposed to modern gaming computers that use around 550W) and runs relatively cool.

When I started my project, I was aiming at making a headless (meaning it has no monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and is instead controlled from other computers over the network using technologies such as SSH and/or VNC) Linux server. I chose Linux for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it can support low-end systems and is highly customizable (and thus can be a large or small as I want it to be). That said, I went and purchased the components on eBay. For the motherboard itself, I picked what was the original Mini-ITX board offering from VIA, the EPIA 5000. It contains a 533mhz C3 processor, plus built-in sound/video/network. I already had a piece of 256MB PC100 Ram, so all I needed in addition to the board was a hard drive and power supply. For the hard drive I chose to go with a Compact Flash card (and thus needed a CF -> IDE adapter to connect it to the motherboard as if it were a real hard drive), and got a 512MB one. It has turned out to be enough room, but things are definitely tight. Finally, for the power supply I went with the Morex PW-60, which as you may be able to tell from the name, is a 60W offering. The power supply itself is about half the size of a modern AGP video card, and it is the only part of the system that makes any noise (it doesn’t have any fans, but it has a slight “hum”).

Once all the pieces that I had ordered arrived, it was as simply as popping in the RAM, connecting the CF card via my adapter, and then plugging the power supply into the motherboard and a power outlet. I temporarily connected a CD drive to install the Linux OS (I chose Damn Small Linux because of my tiny 512MB hard drive limitation and because it is based on my favorite distro: Debian) and also temporarily used my main PC’s monitor, keyboard, and mouse. I installed the OS, then made sure SSH was working correctly. Once that was done, I disconnected all of the accessories and removed the CD drive. I then SSH’d into it from my main computer and went to work.

I have installed a variety of things onto it in the past week. For starters, I installed HoTTProxy, a proxy server that can be utilized by cell phones. It is the only service I know of that gears itself specifically to cell phones, and is ridiculously easy to setup (just create a user, run the program and point your phone to it). Not to mention the fact that it keeps a cache which speeds everything up. This worked with minimal effort, as I used Damn Small Linux’s package system (myDSL) to install the required Perl.

Next I aimed to get VNC working on it. Again, this was a breeze with the myDSL system. I had to make some hacks to get the vncserver to start on bootup (the package didn’t create a nice /etc/init.d/vncserver script, so I manually added a line calling the server process from the local run-at-boot script that DSL utilizes). One additional thing I had to mess around with was getting a static IP address (necessary for router port forwarding so that I could SSH and VNC in from the Internet, i.e. from school/work). The usual Debian way just didn’t work with DSL, so I again solved it by putting the manual “ifconfig” and “route add gw” entries into the local run-at-boot script.

My final goal was getting a web server with PHP support installed. I chose to use lighttpd mainly because of its low memory footprint and its speed. It includes FastCGI, which interfaces very well with PHP4. Anyway, using the myDSL packages for PHP did not work because they were not compiled with FastCGI support. So, I had to resort to the old “wget, tar xvzf, cd dir, ./configure, make, sudo make install” method, which I am well-accustomed to from my old Linux From Scratch days. Nonetheless, I eventually got the two to work together, and it is now running. I also added eAccelerator, the PHP caching tool that caches opcodes among other things, hoping that it may speed up whatever application I eventually deploy on the web server.

With all the software taken care of, I now look at my semi-completed Mini-ITX Server. I face one last hurdle… that of a case. I purposely chose not to buy a case, both for monetary and DIYish reasons. So, hopefully some time in the next few weeks I will come up with a good idea for how to house the components. A 7.5″x7.5″x3.5″ container of some sort would fit everything and then some. I don’t, however, want to simply use one of the oft-used cop-outs like a cardboard box or a cigar case. I want something original. I’m currently looking into a hermit crab cage or small fish aquarium, but they’re a little too pre-made for me. We’ll see what I come up with.

In the mean time, I am going to be slowly adding pictures of the currently caseless build to my Coppermine photo gallery that has been long neglected, which can be reached here. I am not, however, making any promises on when those will be up.

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G3-Optimized Firefox

Written by rob on May 31, 2007 – 8:39 pm -

UPDATE (06-04-07): I knew I wouldn’t get this done any earlier than Sunday. So, here it is. Mozilla Firefox optimized for G3! Click here to download it.

If you are interested in hearing my excuse as to why this is so late, click the link below (or if you are viewing the post directly [not from the home page], then just read below).
Read more »

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New PS3 Firmware 1.80 Adds Great New Features

Written by rob on May 26, 2007 – 12:55 pm -

The new PS3 firmware is much more exciting than anything else released lately. This firmware adds three huge new features that should not be taken lightly, as well as some other features that will help a lot of people.

The first large update is the ability for the PS3 to act as a UPnP or DLNA client. You may be thinking, “Wow, that’s great. I don’t even know what those things are.” Well, despite the weird acronyms, this is actually a VERY useful feature that makes up for one thing 360 used to have over PS3. Essentially, any Windows computer running Windows Media Player 11 can act as a DLNA server. Then, the PS3, since it now supports being a DLNA client, can access any media you have available to your Windows Media Player 11 Library. The possibilities are endless.

Some tweaking is necessary to get things working nicely, however. For example, I keep all of my music in iTunes, and none of it in Windows Media Player. So when I logged into my PC from the PS3, there was no music available. To add music from iTunes into Windows Media Player, you can follow the guide located here. As described in the guide, an applet called MusicBridge allows you to sync playlist and other metadata (such as album artwork). This makes your Windows Media Player library contain all the music from iTunes, and essentially gives your PS3 access to all of your iTunes info such as playlists.

Another important consideration is that of video. The PS3 does not support that much, and most notably lacks DivX/Xvid support, which is the format that most internet-downloaded movies are in. If you want to watch such videos/movies on the PS3, another workaround is necessary. This one requires you to bypass Windows Media Player alltogether, and use Nero MediaHome. This requries Nero 7 Ultra Edition, but I’m sure most people have that since it is the best Windows media burning solution available. A guide for using Nero MediaHome to stream various unsupported video files to PS3 is located here.

With those two things taken care of, the power of PS3 as a media center has just gone up exponentially. This part of the Firmware 1.80 update should make every PS3 owner very happy. Beyond that, it should also attract the attention of many PC media enthusiasts… it has been said that PS3’s interface is much cleaner than that of Xbox 360’s (though I have no experience with 360’s), and should appeal to more people. I think this streaming also verifies why a hard drive larger than 20GB is not currently necessary (not like it matters, since the 20GB version has been discontinued, and an 80GB upgrade to the Premium model is rumored and in my opinion likely in the next three months).

The second huge part of the update is a lot easier to reap the benefits of. It is HD Upscaling for DVDs and PS1/PS2 games. This feature is enabled by default, and can be tweaked under the Settings part of the XMB. Not much to say here, other than it works very nicely for DVDs. I have not tried it with PS1/PS2 games, but there is a comparison of God of War II here (via Digg). This is a feature that also greatly enhances the PS3’s abilities and makes its $600 more worth it.

Finally, the third huge update is Remote Play via the Internet. This will allow the PSP to access anything on your PS3 via the Internet using the Remote Play functionality. Combined with the media streaming, you could access your entire home network’s arsenal of media from anywhere in the world with a wireless broadband internet connection. This will require the not-yet-released PSP Firmware 3.50 update, that I am hoping dark_alex converts to 3.50 OE (Open Edition) custom firmware soon, so that I can try out the Remote Play feature finally!

Other added features include (from Sony Press Release):

  • Copying Saved Data to a Memory Card Users can now copy saved data from PlayStation or PlayStation 2 format software stored on their PS3 system to a Memory Card or Memory Card (8MB) (for PlayStation2), using their PS3 system and a Memory Card Adaptor.
  • Photo Printing, Viewing, and Editing The photo capabilities of PS3 system have been enhanced, allowing users to print digital photos stored on a PS3s hard drive or inserted storage media. Currently, select Epson printers connected via USB are compatible. In addition, users will find a new type of slideshow for displaying photos, zoom functionality and the option to crop images.

The photo printing especially is a pretty important addition. It shows how the PS3 is increasingly becoming a multi-purpose media device. With this combined with the streaming, you could use the PS3’s cool photo slideshow effects to show off photography to family and friends (or clients if you take professional photography) from the comfort of your living room. If they like a certain photo, you could then print it right from the living room to one of the support photo printers. The possibilities are great to think consider.

I think this firmware update shows how powerful the PS3 is, and how it truly is not just a powerful gaming machine. All of these new features add a lot of greatness to the PS3, which will hopefully make it an attractive purchase for prospective buyers while we wait for the wave of 2nd half of 2007 releases to hit stores and give the PS3 much-needed gaming merit.

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