David Madore's WebLog: I feel ripped off by this GuruPlug thingy

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I feel ripped off by this GuruPlug thingy

[Une traduction française de cette entrée est à venir. En fait, non, désolé.]

The background: I leave my computers running 24 hours. Mostly because I'm a maniac, but also because they run a number of servers that I want to stay on all the time. The unfortunate thing is, computers make a hell of a noise. Even when I replace the fans by super-silent models, there seems to be a curse upon my boxen: silent fans become moderately noisy after a year, and super noisy the next year, and blowing the dust away just doesn't help. I yearn for fanless designs, but another facet of my curse is that I seem to always get the processor models which overheat enormously. So I thought I could look into mini-PC's like this one or that kind of boards, or something of the sort. One thing that always annoyed me, however, is that I couldn't ever find a mini-PC with dual gigabit LAN (or, at least, two Ethernet ports of which one is gigabit) : I don't want to mess with VLANs, so I really want two physically separate Ethernet ports. Well, it seems that mini-PC's aren't designed for routing, because one almost never finds two Ethernet ports on them, and never with gigabit speed; and extending them is rarely possible.

Anyway. One day I stumbled upon the GlobalScale GuruPlug Server Plus, and I was ecstatic: apart from the ridiculous name, it was exactly what I wanted. An ARM-compatible processor (yeah, non-Intel architectures are worth extra karma points), 512MB RAM and 512MB flash memory, dual gigabit Ethernet, external SATA connector, two USB connectors, µSD slot, Wifi b/g, all in a 95mm × 65mm × 48.5mm box which one plugs directly in a power socket and which uses just a few watts of power. So I rushed to order one. Nay, make that two. Now that was in May (2010-05-16, to be precise).

The device did not arrive for another five months. Not that I was in a hurry, and I understand that they were having technical difficulties (see below), but they could at least have kept their customers informed about the extra delays. I wrote to them in July and they apologized and said they'd be delivering by mid-August. Anyway, two months later, I was about to consider my money lost when, unexpectedly, I got note that my GuruPlugs were on their way, and I received them today.

Well, I think I would just as soon never have them: that would have spared me a moment of joy followed by bitter disappointment.

Apparently the technical difficulty that GlobalScale was having with their GuruPlugs is that they overheat. I guess they must have miscalculated the thermal envelope or something. Well, they responded in the obvious way: by adding a fan.

But that makes the whole thing useless. The whole point of the GuruPlug, as far as I was concerned, was to have a small and totally quiet server. The fan they added isn't just noisy: it's just unbearable. I think my Dyson vacuum cleaner is quieter! And I'm not the only one to think that.

I could, of course, open the device and try to replace the fan by a quieter one or a heatsink or change the casing altogether. That would invalid the warranty, which isn't much of a concern because returning the device, thanks to the scoundrels at FedEx, would probably cost me more in shipping and taxes than the device was worth; and also because the warranty is 30 days only (i.e., pointless). But ignoring that, I hate DIY tinkering: I've had enough blisters and headaches with full-sized PCs, which are made to be opened and modded, I have really no desire to try fiddling with small parts.

I hate fans with the burning hatred of a thousand suns.

And that's not my only grievance with the GuruPlug. There's no nice and easy way to flash it if you brick it (someday remind me to write another rant on how scandalously easy it is to brick computers or computer parts by flashing their BIOS/firmware in what-used-to-be-ROM-and-is-now-EEPROM): you have to use a very unfriendly-looking connector known as JTAG to access the internal flash memory or just to get a serial console. It seems that, even when the thing is working, changing the kernel or bootloader is a very tedious task that cannot be done simply from the network: although they use Debian, it's not a simple matter of apt-get dist-upgrade, were it only because they need various kernel patches and a non-standard Wifi driver (why, oh why is it that Wifi drivers always suck, always require inscrutable binary firmware, annoyingly hard-to-get sources and hideously unmaintained patches?). And anyway, the distribution may be based on Debian, but it's filled with ugly hacks and dubiously commented scripts.

When you plug the thing in the outlet, apart from making the noise of a jet engine, it starts to function as a wireless access point. Since Wifi sucks completely (that's not GlobalScale's fault: Wifi just never works), my Eee PC was unable to associate to that network; but apparently they barfed the default network setup, meaning you can't use Ethernet either, so I had to set up my desktop PC's wireless card (which normally functions as an access point itself) to get a shell on my GuruPlug. I didn't have time to fully investigate, but what I did see was mostly: a mess.

So, maybe if there were a way to remove the fan yet avoid the overheating problem, and if it turned out that JTAG weren't such a pain to work, and if I could find out how to replace GlobalScale's ugly mess of a distribution by a clean Debian setup, maybe the GuruPlug would be an interesting buy. But I think it's not worth the effort and I'm just going to leave the second one in its box and try to find another way to have a small and fanless PC with two gigabit Ethernet connectors.

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