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Saturday, 1 January 2005

Slug [DrDave]

Desktop computers are so last century man. Oh sure, they're great for playing games and knocking up a quick letter and that, but these days they're just pure overkill 90% of the time. I'm finding more and more that my desktop machine is just a warm wrapper for a large amount of storage, or a BT server. I literally use it for nothing else other than keeping my music and videos and streaming these to my xbox, laptop or ipod. It is a stupid waste of power, and an extremely noisy one at that. I'm sick of having to power it down whenever we have guests, or finding that it isn't powered up when I want to watch a movie on the xbox. Frankly, its days have been numbered for a long while.
So I've been shopping around for a network storgage server for ages now, and finally settled on the LinkSys Network Storage device (link). This is a linux based, stripped-down server with an ethernet port and two USB ports. Out of the box, it is capable of nothing more than serving up files from connected USB hard drives or flash devices to your network as Samba shares. It is moderately competent at what it does, albeit with a fiddly web based administration service. Its big problem is that it is fairly slow (about 4Mb/s), even when accessed through wires. This is perfectly good for streaming movies or music, but no good if you want to fling large files around. However, it is extraordinarily small:
The NSLU2 (or slug, as they've become known) is the thing in the middle, standing next to a 250Gb Maxtor external USB drive on the right, and my watch for size comparison on the left. Despite the size, if that was the end of the slug's capabilities, I'd be somewhat reluctant to recommend it.
Luckily, the slug is capable of considerably more than this, but has been typically hamstrung by LinkSys.
See, the slug is nothing less than a Linux server running embedded linux on an Intel IXP420 cpu. It has about 32Mb of memory, most of which is used up when the root filesystem is copied into it at boot up. The key thing about it is that it has a Telnet interface exposed (off by default) which you can use to login and look around. This has triggered the sudden emergence of a slug user group (link) and the development of a complete replacement Firmware for it.
The replacement Firmware is easy to install and modifies the operation of the slug so that it no longer runs from memory (freeing up 10Mb) but from one of the connected HDs. So any OS changes are now persistent. It also allows you to install software onto the slug using "ipkg". The list of software is hardly massive, this is not redhat, but it covers everything you'd need from a Linux server.
My slug currently runs an ssh daemon (for access from work and port forwarding), an ftp server, a mail server, a web server. It operates as an iTunes server, allowing me to access MP3s across the network through iTunes. It has BitTorrent libraries installed and a command line BT download utility. And I've only just started playing around with it.
The USB ports are the real potential in this thing though. In its original state, the slug can only use USB HDs or flash drives. But there's nothing to stop you using any USB device once you free up the linux inside and start installing drivers. Webcam, printer, bluetooth dongles... or even connect to a USB hub so that you can massively increase the number of devices you can connect.
Basically, it is a miniature linux box that uses up hardly any power, makes no noise and is only 50 quid. Goodbye desktop.


  1. So basically, it's just like your external USB drive, except file transfers are crippled over Samba. Fab. How is it a desktop replacement if it doesn't run [insert Adobe app] or Autoroute or Quake 4... unless your PDA does that?
    I can't help thinking that mini-silent-server duties would be better done embedded in your router, because after all, we've all got one of those anyway.

  2. Beej, point is that it does far more than serving up files. For me, the SSH daemon is worth the price of admission alone. Then there's the ftp, web server, mail server and iTunes server. And since writing this blog, I've got perl going on it and started to use a Perl IRC client. For a person with limited work internet access, this is priceless.
    Okay, it's not going to replace your desktop if you want to run Autoroute or Quake 4, but if like me, your several hundred Watt power consuming, 60dB behemoth was only been used for the above things, then this is a 50 quid miracle machine. Praise Jebus!

  3. That's pretty damn cool. If it was just file storage and stuff, there are routers available that have USB ports to do that kind of thing. That Asus one I banged on about also runs Linux and there's a bit of a hacker community surrounding that although it's far too much hard work and it's still unstable. The concept is a solid one though. Don't think one will be taking over Wench's duties any time soon, mind.

  4. DrDave, looks like a nice appliction. Would it be possible to connect a usb phone to a slug and use the slug as a voice over ip gateway ?