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A Linux Server in the Palm of Your Hand

A Linux Server in the Palm of Your Hand

Plat'Home's latest product, OpenBlockS is a pint-sized Linux server that weighs in at a measly 225 grams. It's not much bigger than a deck of cards, but it can run many of the same server applications full-sized machines run. It's ideal for many surveillance and automation processes that rely heavily on reliability.

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
04/23/08 4:00 AM PT

Japanese Linux computer firm Plat'Home released in March a palm-sized, full-featured Linux-based server dubbed "OpenBlockS." This tiny marvel is no lightweight wanna-be replacement to a real Linux server. It can run most server applications that you would expect to run on a "normal" full-sized Linux box.

Despite their tiny size, OpenBlockS servers are capable of doing real work. However, this is not a gadget for hobbyists or those with little experience with server-level Linux.

Users can fully administer this device over a network. Another strong point is that the OpenBlockS does not require a connection to I/O (input/output) devices such as a monitor, keyboard or mouse.

OpenBlockS is a product line within Plat'Home's MicroServer series, all of which are designed with customizable SSD/Linux operating system, a flavor developed by Plat'Home. Each server includes integrated Power over Ethernet (PoE) functionality, so they can even work without a separate power supply cable. This can be a handy selling point for space-starved companies already floundering with mangy cables and a lack of nearby power outlets.

What's Inside

Actually, OpenBlockS is the company's own custom version of BSD mixed with SSD/Linux, Martin Killmann of Plat'Home's merchandise planning department, told LinuxInsider. The OpenBlockS server is supported by SSD/Linux, Debian and NetBSD.

BSD is a Unix operating system originally developed as Berkeley Software Distribution. The SSD/Linux distribution gets its name from where its was developed, Sotokanda in Tokyo. It is an imitation of BSD and has the look and feel of a BSD-like Linux distribution.

SSD/Linux is not a distribution for desktop users. Instead, it is designed for small servers or system integraters to customize the OpenBlockS series. Users are able to create their own FlashROM or CF image.

Hands-On View

When putting the OpenBlockS through its paces, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a fully functional Linux server. The entire apparatus came to me in a box no bigger than a shipping case for a software product.

The setup involved the palm-sized server, the AC power cord, a short network connector and several installation CDs. Connection to a Linux desktop was relatively painless.

The test device came configured with a 1 GB compact flash card. That provided more than enough storage capacity (no hard drive inside) to test multiple server functions at once.

Users can log into the OpenBlockS server three ways. The User's Guide supplied detailed directions to make the process somewhat easier than expected.

The first method involved the serial setup tool. This required using the provided adapter to connect the RS-232C port of the server device to the serial port of the PC. Then, the Serial Setup Tool on the installation CD finished the connection process.

The other two methods were even less challenging. These provided access through a telnet program or by logging in via a Web browser.

Users have to be conversant with basic Linux commands from the SSD/Linux default install, however. Once I got up to speed with the handy list provided at the vendor's Web site, testing was a breeze.

Specs at a Glance

The server's RISC (reduced instruction set computing)-based hardware is powered by an IBM PowerPC 405GPr 266 MHz processor. It carries 128 MB of onboard memory (PC133 SDRAM) and 16 MB of Flash random access memory, with approximately 3.6 MB of user area.

Internal storage is provided by Compact Flash Type 1 (PIO Mode 4 or DMA Mode CF card) or an integrated drive electronics 2.5-inch hard disk drive. However, the components are not included as standard equipment.

OpenBlockS has one serial RJ-45 port and a full modem connection port. Users can add a console with an optional adapter.

Its aluminum alloy case measures 4.5 inches long by 3.2 inches wide by 1.5 inches high. The hardware device weighs 225g.

A dedicated AC power adapter rated DC 5V / 3.0A is included.

Eco Friendly

OpenBlockS is the newest sibling to Plat'Home's similar OpenMicroServer product. But OpenBlockS is more eco-friendly, according to company officials.

For instance, it runs on only 4.5 watts of power or less. In standby mode, it draws just 4 watts. That is nearly 77 times less power than the Dell Poweredge R200, which consumes 345 watts, according to Plat'Home.

Also, OpenBlockS is RoHS certified. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive is a European Union directive indicating that the components are free of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and other damaging materials.

Plat'Home's engineers eliminated moving parts, including a hard disk drive and cooling fan, to further push the envelope on running green.

What It Does

Its minimal footprint and energy efficiency make the OpenBlockS server ideal for many surveillance and automation processes that rely heavily on reliability. The device can also manage network problems and troubleshoot errors such as packet loss, delay, fluctuation and duplication.

This can provide a cost-effective solution to monitor a local network and to ensure line quality for a critical server or terminal where it is necessary to maintain an appropriate line speed.

Other uses for the OpenBlockS are running virtual private network software or adding an open source telephony engine to create a switching board for IP phone calls from the local network or over the Internet. Still more possibilities include running a Web-based database application or an Intranet forum.

With an added PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) wireless local area network (LAN) card (OpenBlockS) or USB wireless LAN adapter (OpenMicroServer), the configuration can serve as an access point for a wireless network. With two OpenBlockS devices and three OpenMicroServer network ports plus iptables and dhcp installed by default, the users can configure a highly customizable firewall, gateway and router for a network.

Unit Pricing

Plat'Home did not make the purchase price of its OpenBlockS and OpenMicroServer lines available for this review. It also does not post the pricing details on its Web site.

The company rents out evaluation samples to prospective corporate customers in the U.S. and Japan.


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