Category Archives: Product Review

Proxmox Lab: Intel NUC

Thanks for reading this first post in a new series I am putting together titled “Proxmox Lab”. In this blog series I will be covering various things related to Proxmox and the various hardware I have tested things on.

In this installment we will discuss a small foot print low power build that you can carry in your pocket, well, if you wear cargo shorts with the big pockets on the side.

Around two years ago I had purchased one of the earlier all black Intel NUC systems and a 32GB Crucial mSATA disk to run Proxmox 3.1 or 3.2, I forget the version at the time. Anyhow, around the same time that I attempted to complete the build of the device a client called up and expressed an immediate need for a small PC that could hide behind a conference room wall mount TV. Just like that my Intel NUC disappeared…

Months later I was able to find enough free time to get a new NUC, this time it was the more modern, current as of the time of this post, silver and black version. I went with the Core i3 variant as I didn’t want to go Celeron and the i5 was out of stock. Armed with 8GB of low voltage RAM (1.35V s required), I installed Proxmox to a 32GB Crucial mSATA drive and off I went. I strictly used the local storage for ISOs and the Proxmox system itself. This system ran excellently and never gave me so much as a hiccup. The combination of super fast BIOS and the SSD boot volume meant that this thing would boot or reboot so fast that I had to double check that I actually shut it down, quite a nice problem to have.

As so often happens here at the home office lab, I change hardware pretty frequently. Often times it is due to client needs or desires, other times it’s simply that I see something new and shiny. Regardless of the reasons, I rarely regret the money spent as the investment always comes back many times over in the form of education and experience gained.

This i3 system was eventually replaced about a year later when someone I knew really wanted the i3 NUC so I sent it packing to a new and better home. Since I had grown accustom to the silence, low power/heat, and wonderfully small size of the NUC, I had to find something like it to replace the one I had just gotten rid of. Well, after little debate, I ordered a new Intel NUC again, this time armed with a higher clock speed and the wondrous Core i5 badge. System memory was boosted to the full 16GB allowed by the board and off I went. Just like its Core i3 counterpart, this NUC performed flawlessly in all regards. Stable, fast, and truly affordable.

If you are looking for low power (as in electricity consumption), high performance, and physically small and beautiful package for your home lab test machine/hypervisor, be sure to take a serious look at the Intel NUC. Just imagine a shoe box full of Intel NUCs acting as a full on Proxmox cluster! Aside from the physical memory constraints inherent to this platform, I have seriously considered putting a handful of these into client networks as small foot print Proxmox clusters.

Pros: Tiny system, low energy usage, high performance.
Cons: Usually a tad more expensive than a comparable i3/i5 SFF desktop PC with the same specs. Requires mSATA and low voltage memory, both of which you probably do not have laying around.

A final note, unless you are doing CPU intensive tasks, which you probably are not, then skip the i5 variant. While it works great, I noticed zero performance increase over my Core i3 NUC. Obviously, this varies from workload to workload so be sure you know what you need.

I hope this helps any perspective home lab enthusiasts out there and be sure to stay tuned for my next build which I just finished ordering…


FreeNAS on the Lenovo TS440

With a recent build fresh on the brain I figured I’d share some thoughts on the hardware used as I hope it helps others. I googled and tried to find information ahead of time and found sparse info.

Recently, I set out to replace my current small office FreeNAS box. From a performance standpoint the box looked great on paper: AMD 8core @ 3.4Ghz, 32GB of “good” memory, an expensive Seasonic power supply, and 16 drives attached to a pair of Dell PERC H200 controllers packed into a high end Lian Li full tower. The tower had a SAS backplane and the 5.25″ bays had two 4 disk SATA enclosures installed. The towering behemoth worked like a champ for quite sometime. Day in and day out, the trusty homebrew served up NFS exports to ESXi, Proxmox, and numerous other LAN hosts ranging from RaspberryPi’s to FOG imaging VMs and things of that nature.


Once or twice while physically away from the box, meaning out of town, I received alerts from an external monitoring service that some of my VMs were down. Of course this only happens when you are away, and only to systems that DON’T have a hardware level remote access solution like IPMI, Intel vPro, HP iLO, or Dell DRAC. But I digress for surely it is OK to just have your entire FreeNAS box just mysteriously power off. Not a UPS failure, just an old fashioned “who knows”. Take all that plus the frustration of not being able to power the box on remotely and you begin to see why the homebrew had to go.

Some cursory searches online and a quick check with the fine folk over in #freenas got me thinking about custom vs prebuilt boxes. After comparing prices of various boards and form factors I determined that the Lenovo TS series of towers servers might be a good fit. Several people on #freenas and the internet in general had info on the TS140 which is the smaller and cheaper of the two, but I wanted at least 8 drive bays. The TS140 looks nice if you only need 1-4 cabled drives, hot swap isn’t an option on the little guy.

Armed with what seemed like proper info at the time, I ordered the 4bay variant of the TS440 since it was on sale for a meager $299.99 with free shipping. My plan was to test the system as it came and then add the secondary drive cage and backplane for a grand total of 8 hard drives. As it turns out, my plan was ill conceived as I could not locate any vendor selling the hardware I needed. I reached out to a well known IT and Lenovo vendor to get the info I needed. Much to my dismay, I was informed that Lenovo does not sell the parts needed to take the 4 bay all the way up to 8 drives. This detail is quite frustrating since the documentation I found stated that the system can be used with a 4 or 8 bay config. That is technically true, but only if you order the right SKU/Lenovo specific part number in the first place.

I am happy to report that the TS440 with XUX SKU is humming along happily now. The XUX model comes with the drive cage, backplane, and add-on controller necessary to run 8 drives. The RAID controller included in the system happily recognized my 4TB SATA disks and 3TB SAS disks. The controller supports RAID levels 0/1/10 out of the box but defaults to exporting disks as JBOD as long as you don’t manually set them up in a RAID array, perfect for ZFS. An option that I also decided to go with was the second power supply. The TS440 comes with a single hot swap supply and a spacer/blank slot for the second.

Hope this helps you with your small office NAS builds if you are condering a Lenovo TS440.


SwiftKey Flow Public Beta Available

I personally have used the Swype keyboard on my android phones since it was in beta. It was exciting to see SwiftKey launch its own variation on this type of keyboard. Swype has always had issues differentiating between “if” and “of” and other similar letter combinations. It was a nuisance to go back over every message and proof it for these typographical errors. I used SwiftKey 3 for a few days to test it out a few months ago. Their prediction is vastly superior to Swypes built in dictionary and word prediction. SwiftKey learns from your writing style and increases it prediction accuracy over time. There are even options to scan your text messages, emails, and facebook posts to learn your writing style. I didn’t mind letting it scan my text messages, but I was not interested in it reading my emails and facebook posts. A major difference between Swype and SwiftKey Flow is the option to never lift your finger until your done typing. Using Flow you simply move your finger across the space bar and move on to the next word. Being used to lifting a finger to either allow Swype to insert a space or manually hitting the space bar, it took some time getting used to swiping down to the space bar and continuing on. Once you get used to this method of typing you will notice a nice boost in your typing speed.

Being a Beta (the first Public release) there are still some issues to be worked out. Currently once SwiftKey predicts the incorrect word the only way to change it is to stop typing and delete it. There are ideas being thrown around in the VIP forum on how to fix this. The two methods I liked are either you swipe left from the delete key to remove the last word typed, or be able to swipe up to the prediction bar to the word you want, then continue on with your message. SwiftKey also has problems properly predicting words that have two of the same letter together like “too” and “fell” which becomes “feel”. It is also currently having issues with words that incorporate an apostrophe. Surely the SwiftKey team is working on ironing these issues out and the release version of this keyboard will be fantastic.

Overall I can see myself using this keyboard going forward. Even in its Beta form it is more fun, and more accurate than Swype. If you do not currently own SwiftKey 3, now is a good time to grab it. It is on sale for $2.00 in the PlayStore at this LINK!

The Flow Beta can be found HERE!

HP ProLiant MicroServer Flexibility

I’ve been meaning to put some of my thoughts on the HP MicroServer N40L for quite some time and just haven’t made the time to do it, so here goes.

Long ago I was searching for a reason to purchase and play with HP’s MicroServers and got my chance when a client asked for an affordable backup device. I jumped at the chance and ordered one of the N40L’s. These units are listed as part of the ProLiant family of servers which sounded promising, but being the skeptic that I am, I didn’t expect much for the seemingly measly $350 price tag.

The unit comes with an AMD dual core CPU, 2GB of RAM, 250GB HDD, and a 1Gbps NIC. The system has a mini-PCIe slot for a remote access/iLO/DRAC type card, and a second standard PCIe slot. Although the system ships with only a single drive, all four bays have “hot swap” trays/carriers, making adding additional disks no problem. I say “hot swap” because I am pretty sure that the backplane/controller do not allow actual hot swapping in its true sense, YMMV. Another note on the hardware; the motherboard can be easily removed from the system by disconnecting a few cables and backing out two thumb screws. The board is on a simple and quite brilliant tray assembly which makes removal, upgrade, and insertion simple. Do yourself a favor when you purchase the system by maxing out the RAM at 8GB(DDR3/ECC) and adding the optional iLO/remote access card. For basic NAS and low end Linux server duties the 2GB will work fine and you will have no regrets, but going to 8GB really opens the doors, more on that next.

Before I jump into exactly what it can do, it is worth mentioning what YOU should not do with it. For instance, don’t try and be a hero to your clients by touting this as an ultra affordable server solution. I have read of several people putting SBS on this box and then using it as the primary file and mail server for 20+ users. Don’t be a dummy, if you’re trying to service your clients properly get them a truly redundant system with hardware RAID, dual PSU’s and things of that nature. You are providing a disservice to your clients if you use this in a place it should not be used. Responsibility rant over…

With the remote access card, 8GB of RAM, and a couple of SATA drives, you are ready to play. This is the little server that could and it shows. The thing runs VMware ESXi5, Linux, Windows, FreeBSD(FreeNAS) and many other things. An important thing to remember is that the included disk controller uses fake RAID/driver assisted RAID so don’t expect RAID support outside of Windows. With that limitation in mind, this makes the ideal small business backup device, home virtualization lab, or any other number of roles you can through at it.

Fast forward to today and the device has served me and many others quite nicely. Although not a comprehensive list of installs, I can confirm successful installation on the following operating systems:

  • Debian Lenny (i386/AMD64)
  • Debian Squeeze (i386/AMD64) Currently Debian stable release
  • Debian Wheezy (i386/AMD64) Currently Debian testing release
  • Ubuntu 10.04 (i386/AMD64)
  • FreeNAS 0.7 (i386)
  • FreeNAS 8 (i386/AMD64)
  • VMware ESXi 4.1
  • VMware ESXi 5.0
  • Windows Server 2008 R2
  • Windows Small Business Server 2001
  • Whew! What a list and that just touches the surface of what you can run. Those just happen to be the configurations that I have tested with success. My current configuration consists of the base system running 8GB of RAM, iLO card, 1x64GB SSD and 4x1TB RAID edition drives. I’ve got Debian stable AMD64 running on / and have 4x1TB RE drives using Linux md RAID in level 5 mounted on /home. This acts as my internal NFS server and virtualization lab. The system runs vm guests well through KVM although you will have to watch the CPU. Being a dual core 1.5GHz, the system will usually run out of CPU before you hit any other bottlenecks.

    In conclusion, if you need a flexible and affordable storage device for most small business or home needs, a cheap virtualization lab in a box, or similar configuration, you will not be disappointed by this device.


    Windows 8 First Look

    Most of the news from Microsoft these days surrounds Windows 8 desktop OS which is anticipated to be released to the general public as early as October this year.
    In support of the new OS, Microsoft has updated many of its development tools including Visual Studio. This new version of VS allows development of the metro-style apps that make Windows 8 so exciting. One caveat – you need to load Visual Studio on Windows 8 to develop the metro-style apps. The installer identifies the host OS and configures appropriately.
    With Windows 8, Microsoft has really embraced the touch-based functionality. This OS was clearly designed for the tablet space and to compete with the iPad.
    I loaded the Consumer Preview when it released at the end of February. I used an old Mobile Computing pen tablet, Virtual Box vm and a brand new Samsung Series 7 slate. Clearly the Samsung was the winner, but I was impressed that the pen tablet worked as well as it did. All components were detected and configured. The Virtual Box vm performed very well as would be expected.
    At the end of May, Microsoft released the Windows 8 Release Preview. There has clearly been a lot of work under the covers in this latest version. I did an in-place migration and it went very smoothly. The only option was to perform a reload and ‘keep nothing’. As with other Microsoft OS upgrades, the installer moved the previous version to Windows.old folder. I was easily able to retrieve downloads, etc. that had been saved. Initial thoughts are that the latest version is more stable and feels like a finished product. The App Store works well and there are quite a few games, news readers, etc. available. The included Mail app works well connected to Gmail or an Exchange server. Note: annoying feature – the preview of the Mail app does not allow the mail account password to be changed. You must remove the account and re-add. I am sure this will be fixed in the final release.
    As mentioned, Microsoft has updated Visual Studio in parallel with Windows 8. This has now been announced as Visual Studio 2012 and will be available in several favors as in the past. This includes Blend for Visual Studio which is an app design tool focused on creating the UI. Visual designers should find this more friendly than working directly in VS.

    Windows 8 vs. iOS
    To be fair, it is tough to compare all tablet/slate devices to an iPad. I will certainly try…
    First off, this release from Microsoft seems to be the first real touch-based desktop OS. While there is a ‘real’ traditional desktop behind the start screen the real magic is in the metro-style start screen. This has been referred to as NUI or natural user interface. It takes about 5 seconds to get used to the swipe-able start screen. The icons are either static or live tiles. The live tiles show app data, for lack of a better word in the tile before the app is opened. For example, new emails will cycle through on the tile. Kinda cool. Windows 8 is also designed to be more ‘connected’. You can choose the option to associate your Microsoft Live account to the OS login. Users of SkyDrive or OneNote, to name a few apps, will find this helpful.
    I believe where Windows 8 departs from the typical tablet OS is that it is still a fully functioning desktop OS. By selecting the appropriate tablet, corporate IT departments could offer this as a desktop/laptop replacement. While the original Samsung Series 7 Slate does not have 3/4G, other and future models will. There are USB slots available, front and rear cameras, SD card reader, HDMI output and other useful functions that are not available on the iPad (today). iOS 6 which is scheduled to be released this fall appears to offer a lot of new functionality, but the hardware is still what it is. The Samsung Series 7 is also a bit more expensive. A 64GB Samsung is about $950 and a 64GB iPad 3 is $849.

    Bottom line thoughts: for the mobile user that carries a laptop and an iOS device today, a Windows 8 tablet could be a suitable replacement.


    Monday (6/18/2012) Microsoft announced that the company will be releasing an in-house developed tablet designed for Windows 8. With this move, MS is officially targeting the iPad market.

    – habanero_joe

    UPDATE: 12/30/2012

    I have been using the Samsung Slate 7 with the general release on Windows 8 since it was released in October. I have MS Office 2013 installed as well. The application performance is very good. I am working to get my hands on tablet hardware designed specifically for Windows 8. I still would not rush out and load it on standard desktop (non-touch screen) hardware. It has been very interesting to be part of a team that is working to develop a mobile touch app.

    – habanero_joe

    Product Review: Cowon O2PMP

    Note: to achieve the appropriate reverent tone, read this post in the same manner as a Catholic priest holding Mass in Latin

    There are many, many PMP (personal media player) devices on the market today and many are pretty decent and get the job done. Good or bad, the iPod seems to be the gold standard against which all others are compared. And to be honest, the interface is pretty easy to use one-handed while driving.

    That notwithstanding, there is another device that deserves serious consideration; the Cowon O2PMP.

    Cowon Systems (South Korea) was started in 1995 with a primary focus on software development. The company released their first audio player in 2000, the CW100. A key component of the Cowon PMP is the JetAudio software application. The Cowon O2PMP was first produced in. Device specifications include a 4.3″ screen, flash-based storage (8GB, 16GB, 32GB), USB 2.0, TV output, SD card slot (up to 16GB), voice recorder and several other features. The device comes preloaded with a very diverse support of audio and video codecs; FLAC, MKV, MP3 among the most common in use. Advertising claims battery life of 8 hours for video playback and 18 for audio playback.

    Unfortunately Cowon O2PMP production has been discontinued. This is a tragedy… However, there are still decides to be found on the used market for under $150. When you get a device, go to the Cowon website and make sure you load the latest firmware.
    I have owned two of the 32GB models. Still not sure what happened to the first unit, after flawless performance for over a year I had completely drained the battery on a long red-eye flight. I ran through all the troubleshooting steps and it has not worked since. Unit #2 has been working as I expected for about six months. I travel a bit for work and this makes the flights bearable. I watch movies, TV shows and listen to music and audiobooks. For anyone used to watching video on an iPod, the Cowon screen seems huge by comparison. Much closer to an iPhone display. Battery performance is as advertised and it easily charges completely overnight while you are sleeping. Media management is as easy as you please. Unlike Apple devices which require iTunes, the Cowon devices work with any OS (I have tested various Linux and Windows). Plug the included USB cable in to any available port and the OS recognizes the device as a removable storage device. You will quickly find folders for Music and Video, and a few others. Simply copy your media to the appropriate folder, wait for the file operation to complete and eject the device. You are ready to go. The built-in speaker is good for low noise environments, but a good set of headphones will make the experience that much better.
    As stated, there is amazing codec support. If you have never used the FLAC format, it is better quality that a typical MP3, by far. As for video, AVI and MKV work flawlessly. Note: resolutions above 720p will not render well and the video and audio will almost certainly be choppy and unviewable. Another big benefit over an Apple device is that you can load media from any source. No pesky messages about your library, computer not authorized, etc.
    The only issue I run into form time to time is navigating on the touch screen. While the layout is very intuitive, I occasionally have a hard time scrolling through the media lists. Certainly the pros outweigh this.

    Final thoughts, the device size, battery life, storage capacity, and available playback formats make this an excellent device for the frequent traveler as well as the casual home user.

    – habanero_joe

    Product Review: Lenovo Mini Wireless Keyboard N5091

    I have a home project to replace the DirecTV satellite boxes with PCs. So far so good. To make it easy to use I needed a wireless keyboard and mouse. The first box ended up with a Gyration Media Center Remote. For the next box I found a Lenovo Mini Wireless Keyboard with trackball. I purchased it new from the local CompUSA for less than $40.

    Upon opening the box I was impressed with the product. It fits in the hand well and is easy to use. The keyboard includes basic media player controls, essential for pausing the movie to grab another drink. Installation was a joke, plug in the micro dongle to an available USB port, install the two (included) AAA batteries and switch on the keyboard. In less than 15 seconds Windows 7 recognized the device and it began working. I removed the wired keyboard and mouse and put em back in the parts locker.

    Holding the device in the palm of my right hand I can reach most of the keyboard with my thumb. The shape makes it very comforable to hold. The small power switch is located on the underside of the device and it out of the way so it will not be accidentally shut off. Turning the keyboard will save battery life considerably when not in use. Turn the switch back on and I reconnects immediately. My typical use is from about ten feet away and it works great. Being wireless instead of infrared makes operation painless. I did some testing and was able to use over 25 feet away from the PC in a different room. Good enough for me.

    Anyone used this before? Leave a comment.


    – habanero_joe

    Update: 06212011
    A couple things about this device that are lacking; 1) no backlighting of the keypad 2) no trigger finger mouse buttons 3) current trackball/mouse button configuration makes it a little difficult to ‘click and scroll’


    Still using this little guy. Battery life is pretty respectable. Would love to hear of any similar (read that as better) devices.