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I'm thinking about this as a substitute for cheap little embedded systems like soekrises, used for lightweight server tasks.

The major advantages that I see over current tiny systems:

  • built in monitor + keyboard
  • built-in ups
  • more commoditization

You also get the low power, low noise, smallness, etc advantages. You lose the potential for multiple ethernet connections, but that's fine if you're not routing/firewalling or can use vlans or usb adapters. I expect speed and reliability will improve over the next few years as flash drives continue to improve and get cheaper.

Is this a good/bad idea? Has anyone else done this?

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5 Answers 5

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The advantage of a Soekris or similar solution is that it is purpose-built. The hardware is usually very stable and oriented at its exact role. Your netbook could not perform any of the tasks for which Soekrises are generally intended:

  • Router
  • Firewall
  • Bridge
  • Wifi AP
  • PBX Server
  • Light-use file server

The first three are not options because you only have a single NIC. The last three because you have no PCI expansion capabilities (for AP-capable wifi card, PRI/phone line termination, and RAID card, respectively). USB ethernet/wifi adapters are simply not feasible replacements for built-in capabilities.

A built-in monitor/keyboard is really not much of an advantage. Most embedded systems pump console ouptut out their serial port - you don't want to have to worry about a screen/keyboard/trackpad/etc in your rack or under the stack of hardware.

The built-in UPS is an interesting idea, but not compelling enough to overcome the other glaring deficiencies in a netbook.

Netbooks and laptops are best used for their original intent - portable end-user computing. Possibly there are a few minor niches where this might be useful (hobbyists who just need something running a particular OS permanently connected to their network), but I can't think of any within the scope of this forum (IT Pro/Sysadmin).

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Yeah, I'm definitely not thinking about this for a data-center, just light soho usage. As stated in the question, any reason routing/firewalling wouldn't work with vlans? I thought most chips were ap-capable if the drivers being used supported it. While a serial console is great, I think a monitor/keyboard has convenience advantages in a lot of situations. Again, this is really as a cheap "good enough" sort of thing, not as a do-all low cost server. It doesn't cover all scenarios, but I think for many there is a lot of potential value. Thanks for your input! –  Jeremy Huiskamp May 7 '09 at 21:43
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Your router/firewall is THE critical device in your network. If it dies, everything is inaccessible. Routing/firewalling would work with VLANs, but I would not trust the netbook's NIC (to be fair, the Soekris 5501 has terrifically bad NICs), nor would I trust it to perform well under high load or 24/7. In a SOHO environment you're much better off with a decent Linksys router flashed with DD-WRT. It'll cost you a lot less too. –  sh-beta May 7 '09 at 21:51

I suspect it may be usable in a few niches, but the few netbooks I have actually had an opportunity to play with don't look like they are a reliable/well-built device. I am not sure it would be wise to put anything of importance on one.

I guess if you keep good backups, and keep a spare around in case of a failure, and you can tolerate a short outage if there is a failure you could use one.

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You're right, reliability is the big question. Since these are meant as cheap consumer devices, they are likely to be a bit shoddy. At least designers of embedded machines meant to be used as servers have motivation to work on reliability. –  Jeremy Huiskamp May 7 '09 at 21:32

I'm running Ubuntu 9.04 with UNR on an Acer AspireOne. It works really nicely. The AA1 isn't the fastest machine, but it's not bad. It's hard to see downside in what you're suggesting.

I guess there is the question of longevity, but at the price, it's hard not to think it's worth a try. No RAID. If it's in a dusty area, you going to have to pull it apart to clean the fan once in a while.

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UNR wouldn't really be my first thought for a server ;) –  Jeremy Huiskamp May 7 '09 at 21:46
    
If you were going to do a server with no GUI, no. But I find it a lot nicer to use on a netbook than the std Gnome UI –  John McC May 7 '09 at 22:10
    
I'm personally only interested in the netbook's monitor/keyboard for the times that I can't use ssh anyway (for system-level upgrades or when the network is down for other reasons). But you're right, for graphical stuff, screen real-estate is precious and an optimized window manager is great. –  Jeremy Huiskamp May 7 '09 at 22:28
    
BTW if you're thinking of soekris, take a look here pcengines.ch. we've used the ALIX & WRAP boards and have been very happy with them –  John McC May 7 '09 at 22:32

This actually sounds like a reasonably good idea to me, at least for small tasks. The fact of having the display and keyboard built in as well as integrated battery backup I think seals the deal.

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Clustering a few netbooks (over wifi!) seems like a great idea... eh, I mean, hobby project anyway... let's get to it I say ^^

(Ahem, well yes, as you say, it got the major components; battery, flash drive and low noise and energy consumption. Wether the hardware itself is built to withstand 24/7 operation without ever entering sleep or being shut down is a different matter altogether)

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