What’s the point of Docker on FreeBSD or Solaris?

Penguinisters are very keen on their docker, but for the rest of us it may be difficult to see what the fuss is all about – it’s only been around a few years and everyone’s talking about it. And someone asked again today. What are we missing?

Well docker is a solution to a Linux (and Windows) problem that FreeBSD/Solaris doesn’t have. Until recently, the Linux kernel only implemented the original user isolation model involving chroot. More recent kernels have had Control Groups added, which are intended to provide isolation for a group of processes (namespaces). This came out of Google, and they’ve extended to concept to include processor resource allocation as one of the knobs, which could be a good idea for FreeBSD. The scheduler is aware of the JID of the process it’s about to schedule, and I might take a look in the forthcoming winter evenings. But I digress.

So if isolation (containerisation in Linux terms) is in the Linux kernel, what is Docker bringing to the party? The only thing I can think of is standardisation and an easy user interface (at the expense of having Python installed). You might think of it in similar terms to ezjail – a complex system intended to do something that is otherwise very simple.

To make a jail in FreeBSD all you need do is copy the files for your system  to a directory. This can even be a whole server’s system disk if you like, and jails can run inside jails.  You then create a very simple config file, giving the jail a name, the path to your files and an what IP addresses to pass through (if any) and you’re done. Just type “service jail nameofjal start”, and off it goes.

Is there any advantage in running Docker? Well, in a way, there is. Docker has a repository of system images that you can just install and run, and this is what a lot of people want. They’re a bit like virtual appliances, but not mind-numbingly inefficient.

You can actually run docker on FreeBSD. A port was done a couple of years ago, but it relies on the 64-bit Linux emulation that started to appear in 10.x. The newer the version of FreeBSD the better.

Docker is in ports/sysutils/docker-freebsd. It makes uses of jails instead of Linux cgroups, and requires ZFS rather than UFS for file system isolation. I believe the Linux version uses Union FS but I could be completely wrong on that.

The FreeBSD port works with the Docker hub repository, giving you access to thousands of pre-packaged system images to play with. And that’s about as far as I’ve ever tested it. If you want to run the really tricky stuff (like Windows) you probably want full hardware emulation and something like  Xen. If you want to deploy or migrate FreeBSD or Solaris systems, just copy a new tarball in to the directory and go. It’s a non-problem, so why make it more complicated?

Given the increasing frequency Docker turns up in conversations, it’s probably worth taking seriously as Linux applications get packaged up in to images for easy access. Jails/Zones may be more efficient, and Docker images are limited to binary, but convenience tends to win in many environments.

Del FS12-NV7 and other 2U server (e.g. C6100) disk system hacking

(Photographs to follow)

A while back I reviewed the Dell FS12-NV7 – a 2U rack server being sold cheap by all and sundry. It’s a powerful box, even by modern standards, but one of its big drawbacks is the disk system it comes with. But it needn’t be.

There are two viable solutions, depending on what you want to do. You can make use of the SAS backplane, using SAS and/or SATA drives, or you can go for fewer SATA drives and free up one or more PCIe slots as Plan B. You probably have an FS12 because it looks good for building a drive array (or even FreeNAS) so I’ll deal with Plan A first.

Like most Dell servers, this comes with a Dell PERC RAID SAS controller – a PERC6/i to be precise. This ‘I’ means it has internal connectors; the /E is the same but its sockets are external.

The PERC connects to a twelve-slot backplane forming a drive array at the front of the box. More on the backplane later; it’s the PERCs you need to worry about.

The PERC6 is actually an LSI Megaraid 1078 card, which is just the thing you need if you’re running an operating system like Windows that doesn’t support a volume manager, striping and other grown-up stuff. Or if your OS does have these features, but you just don’t trust it. If you are running such an OS you may as well stick to the PERC6, and good luck to you. If you’re using BSD (including FreeNAS), Solaris or a Linux distribution that handles disk arrays, read on. The PERC6 is a solution to a problem you probably don’t have, but in all other respects its a turkey. You really want a straightforward HBA (Host Bus Adapter) that allows your clever operating system to talk directly with the drives.

Any SAS card based on the 1078 (such as the PERC6) is likely to have problems with drives larger than 2Tb. I’m not completely sure why, but I suspect it only applies to SATA. Unfortunately I don’t have any very large SAS drives to test this theory. A 2Tb limit isn’t really such a problem when you’re talking about a high performance array, as lots of small drives are a better option anyway. But it does matter if you’re building a very large datastore and don’t mind slower access and very significant resilvering times when you replace a drive. And for large datastores, very large SATA drives save you a whole lot of cash. The best capacity/cost ratio is for 5Gb SATA drives

Some Dell PERCs can be re-flashed with LSI firmware and used as a normal HBA. Unfortunately the PERC6 isn’t one of them. I believe the PERC6/R can be, but those I’ve seen in a FS12 are just a bit too old. So the first thing you’ll need to do is dump them in the recycling or try and sell them on eBay.

There are actually two PERC6 cards in most machine, and they each support eight SAS channels through two SFF-8484 connectors on each card. Given there are twelve drives slots, one of the PERCs is only half used. Sometimes they have a cable going off to a battery located near the fans. This is used in a desperate attempt to keep the data in the card’s cache safe in order to avoid write holes corrupting NTFS during a power failure, although the data on the on-drive caches won’t be so lucky. If you’re using a file system like that, make sure you have a UPS for the whole lot.

But we’re going to put the PERCs out of our misery and replace them with some nice new LSI HBAs that will do our operating system’s bidding and let it talk to the drives as it knows best. But which to pick? First we need to know what we’re connecting.

Moving to the front of the case there are twelve metal drive slots with a backplane behind. Dell makes machines with either backplanes or expanders. A backplane has a 1:1 SAS channel to drive connection; an expander takes one SAS channel and multiplexes it to (usually) four drives. You could always swap the blackplane with an expander, but I like the 1:1 nature of a backplane. It’s faster, especially if you’re configured as an array. And besides, we don’t want to spend more money than we need to, otherwise we wouldn’t be hot-rodding a cheap 2U server in the first place – expanders are expensive. Bizarrely, HBAs are cheap in comparison. So we need twelve channels of SAS that will connect to the sockets on the backplane.

The HBA you will probably want to go with is an LSI, as these have great OS support. Other cards are available, but check that the drivers are also available. The obvious choice for SAS aficionados is the LSI 9211-8i, which has eight internal channels. This is based on an LSI 2000 series chip, the 2008, which is the de-facto standard. There’s also four-channel -4i version, so you could get your twelve channels using one of each – but the price difference is small these days, so you might as well go for two -8i cards. If you want cheaper there are 1068-based equivalent cards, and these work just fine at about half the price. They probably won’t work with larger disks, only operate at 3Gb and the original SAS standard. However, the 2000 series is only about £25 extra and gives you more options for the future. A good investment. Conversely, the latest 3000 series cards can do some extra stuff (particularly to do with active cables) but I can’t see any great advantage in paying megabucks for one unless you’re going really high-end – in which case the NV12 isn’t the box for you anyway. And you’d need some very fast drives and a faster backplane to see any speed advantage. And probably a new motherboard….

Whether the 6Gb SAS2 of the 9211-8i is any use on the backplane, which was designed for 3Gb, I don’t know. If it matters that much to you you probably need to spend a lot more money. A drive array with a direct 3Gb to each drive is going to shift fast enough for most purposes.

Once you have removed the PERCs and plugged in your modern-ish 9211 HBAs, your next problem is going to be the cable. Both the PERCs and the backplane have SFF-8484 multi-lane connectors, which you might not recognise. SAS is a point-to-point system, the same as SATA, and a multi-lane cable is simply four single cables in a bundle with one plug. (Newer versions of SAS have more). SFF-8484 multi-lane connectors are somewhat rare, (but unfortunately this doesn’t make them valuable if you were hoping to flog them on eBay). The world switched quickly to the SFF-8087 for multi-lane SAS. The signals are electrically the same, but the connector is not.

Please generate and paste your ad code here. If left empty, the ad location will be highlighted on your blog pages with a reminder to enter your code. Mid-Post

So there are two snags with this backplane. Firstly it’s designed to work with PERC controllers; secondly it has the old SFF-8484 connectors on the back, and any SAS cables you find are likely to have SFF-8087.

First things first – there is actually a jumper on the backplane to tell it whether it’s talking to a PERC or a standard LSI HBA. All you need to do is find it and change it. Fortunately there are very few jumpers to choose from (i.e. two), and you know the link is already in the wrong place. So try them one at a time until it works. The one you want may be labelled J15, but I wouldn’t like to say this was the same on every variant.

Second problem: the cable. You can get cables with an SFF-8087 on one end and an SFF-8484 on the other. These should work. But they’re usually rather expensive. If you want to make your own, it’s a PITA but at least you have the connectors already (assuming you didn’t bin the ones on the PERC cables).

I don’t know what committee designed SAS cable connectors, but ease of construction wasn’t foremost in their collective minds. You’re basically soldering twisted pair to a tiny PCB. This is mechanically rubbish, of course, as the slightest force on the cable will lift the track. Therefore its usual to cover the whole joint in solidified gunk (technical term) to protect it. Rewiring SAS connectors is definitely not easy.

I’ve tried various ways of soldering to them, none of which were satisfactory or rewarding. One method is to clip the all bare wires you wish to solder using something like a bulldog clip so they’re at lined up horizontally and then press then adjust the clamp so they’re gently pressed to the tracks on the board, making final adjustments with a strong magnifying glass and a fine tweezers. You can then either solder them with a fine temperature-controlled iron, or have pre-coated the pads with solder paste and flash across it with an SMD rework station. I’d love to know how they’re actually manufactured – using a precision jig I assume.

The “easy” way is to avoid soldering the connectors at all; simply cut existing cables in half and join one to the other. I’ve used prototyping matrix board for this. Strip and twist the conductors, push them through a hole and solder. This keeps things compact but manageable. We’re dealing with twisted pair here, so maintain the twists as close as possible to the board – it actually works quite well.

However, I’ve now found a reasonably-priced source of the appropriate cable so I don’t do this any more. Contact me if you need some in the UK.

So all that remains is to plug your HBAs to the backplane, shove in some drives and you’re away. If you’re at this stage, it “just works”. The access lights for all the drives do their thing as they should. The only mystery is how you can get the ident LED to come on; this may be controlled by the PERC when it detects a failure using the so-called sideband channel, or it may be operated by the electronics on the backplane. It’s workings are, I’m afraid, something of a mystery still – it’s got too much electronics on board to be a completely passive backplane.

Plan B: SATA

If you plan to use only SATA drives, especially if you don’t intend using more than six, it makes little sense to bother with SAS at all. The Gigabyte motherboard comes with half a dozen perfectly good 3Gb SATA channels, and if you need more you can always put another controller in a PCIe slot, or even USB. The advantages are lower cost and you get to free up two PCIe slots for more interesting things.

The down-side is that you can’t use the SAS backplane, but you can still use the mounting bays.

Removing the backplane looks tricky, but it really isn’t when you look a bit closer. Take out the fans first (held in place by rubber blocks), undo a couple of screws and it just lifts and slides out. You can then slot and lock in the drives and connect the SATA connectors directly to the back of the drives. You could even slide them out again without opening the case, as long as the cable was long enough and you manually detached the cable it when it was withdrawn. And let’s face it – drives are likely to last for years so even with half a dozen it’s not that great a hardship to open the case occasionally.

Next comes power. The PSU has a special connector for the backplane and two standard SATA power plugs. You could split these three ways using an adapter, but if you have a lot of drives you might want to re-wire the cables going to the backplane plug. It can definitely power twelve drives.

And that’s almost all there is to it. Unfortunately the main fans are connected to the backplane, which you’ve just removed. You can power them from an adapter on the drive power cables, but there are unused fan connectors on the motherboard. I’m doing a bit more research on cooling options, but this approach has promising possibilities for noise reduction.

Dell FS12-NV7 Review – Bargain FreeBSD/ZFS box

It seems just about everyone selling refurbished data centre kit has a load of Dell FS12-NV7’s to flog. Dell FS-what? You won’t find them in the Dell catalogue, that’s for sure. They look a bit like C2100s of some vintage, and they have a lot in common. But on closer inspection they’re obviously a “special” for an important customer. Given the number of them knocking around, it’s obviously a customer with big data, centres stuffed full of servers with a lot of processing to do. Here’s a hint: It’s not Google or Amazon.

So, should you be buying a weirdo box with no documentation whatsoever? I’d say yes, definitely. If you’re interests are anything like mine. In a 2U box you can get twin 4-core CPUs and 64Gb of RAM for £150 or less. What’s not to like? Ah yes, the complete lack of documentation.

Over the next few weeks I intend to cover that. And to start off this is my first PC review for nearly twenty years.

So the Dell FS12-NV7:

FS-12 looking at the back panel. Note the cowling across the CPUs

As I mentioned, it’s a 2U full length heavy metal box on rails. On the back there are the usual I/O ports: a 9-way RS-232, VGA, two 1Gb Ethernet, two USB2 and a PS/2 keyboard and mouse. The front is taken up by twelve 3.5″ hard drive bays, with the status lights and power button on one of the mounting ears to make room. Unlike other Dell servers, all the connections are on the back, only.

If you want to play with the metalwork, the rear panel is modular and can easily be unscrewed although in practice there’s not much scope for enhancement without changing the  motherboard.

The FS12 has a single 1U PSU

Speaking of metalwork, it comes with  a single 1U PSU. There’s space above it for a second, but the back panel behind the PSU bay would need swapping – or removing – if you wanted to add a second. The area above the existing unit is just about the only space left in the box, and I have thought of piling up a load of 2.5″ drives there.

Taking the top off is where the fun starts. Inside there’s large Gigabyte EATX motherboard – a Gigabyte GA-3CESL-RH. All the ones I’ve seen are rev 1.7, which is a custom version but its similar to a rev 1.4. It does have, of all things, a floppy disk controller and an IDE (PATA) connector. More generally usefully, there are two more USB headers, a second RS-232 and six SATA sockets (3Gb). At the back there’s either a BMC module, or a socket where it used to be. If you like DRAC, knock yourself out (you’re likely to be barely concious to begin with). Seriously, this is old DRAC and probably only works with IE 2.0 or something. (You can probably tell I haven’t bothered to try it). The BIOS also allows you to redirect the console to the serial port for remote starting.

The Ethernet ports are Marvel 88E1116 1Gb, and haven’t given me any trouble. The firmware supports PXE, and I’m pleased to say that WoL works with the FreeBSD drives.

Somebody has pinched the slots!

Unfortunately, while the original Gigabyte model sported twin PCI and three PCIe sockets, the connectors are missing from these examples. It’s hard to find anything with a bit of grunt that can also use with your old but interesting PCI cards. It should be possible to rework it by adding the sockets and smoothing caps and sockets; fortunately the SMD decoupling caps are already still there.  On the other had, you could find another motherboard with PCI sockets if that’s what you really want.

But grunt is what this box is all about, and there’s plenty of that.

This is board was designed for Opteron Socket-F processors; specifically the 2000 series (Barcelona and Shanghi). The first digit refers to the number of physical CPUs that work together (either 2 or 8), the second is a code for the number of cores (1=1, 2=2, 3=4, 4=6, 5=8). The last two digits are a speed code. It’s not the frequency, it’s the benchmark speed.  I’ve heard rumours that some of FS-12s contain six-core CPUs, but I’ve only seen the 2373EE myself. The EE is the low power consumption version. Sweet.

If I could choose any Opeteron Socket-F CPU, the 2373EE is almost as good as it gets. It’s a tad slower than some of the other models running at 2.1GHz , but has significantly lower power and cooling requirements and was one of the last they produced in the 45nm process. It would be possible to change it for a 2.3GHz version, or one with six cores, but otherwise pretty much every other Opteron would be a downgrade. In other words, don’t think you can hot-rod it with a faster processor – you’re unlikely to find a Socket-F CPU anyway. After these, AMD switched to the Bulldozer line in an AM3+ socket.

This isn’t to say the CPU is modern. It does have the AMD virtualisation instructions, so it’s good news if you want to run nested 64-bit operating systems or hypervisors. The thing it lacks that I’d like most are the AES instructions that appeared in Bulldozer onwards. If you’re doing a lot of crypto, this matters. If you’re not, it doesn’t. Naturally, it implements the AMD64 instruction set, as now used by Intel, and all the media processing bit-twiddle stuff if you can use it. AMD has traditionally been at the forefront of processing smarter, whereas Intel goes for brute force and cranks up the clock speed. This is why AMD has, in my opinion, made assembler programming fun again.

Eight very capable Opteron cores: a good start. This generation supported DDR2 ECC RAM, and these boxes have 16 sockets (eight per CPU). They should be able to support 8Gb DIMMs, although I haven’t been able to verify this. Gigabyte’s documentation on similar motherboards is inconclusive as the earlier boards were from an time when 4Gb was all you could get. Again, I haven’t tried this but they are designed to handle 512Mb DIMMs. 1Gb and 4Gb certainly work and these tend to be available with any FS-12 you buy. At one time DDR2 ECC RAM was rather expensive. Not now. It’s much cheaper than DDR3 because, to be blunt, you can’t use it in very much these days.

And this is what makes the FS12 such a good buy: For about £150 you can get an eight-core processor with 64Gb of RAM. Bargain! And that’s before you look at the disk options.

The FS12, like most Dell Servers, is set up to run Windows and as a result requires a separate volume manager, on hardware designed to pretend Windows is looking at a disk. So-called “hardware” RAID. This takes the form of two PERC6/i cards occupying both PCIe cards on a riser. Fine if you want to run Windows or some other lightweight operating system, but PERC cards are about as naff as you can get for anything Unix-like. They work in RAID mode only, hiding the drives from the OS, and these are just a bit to old to be re-flashed in to anything useful.

The drives fit into a front-loading 12-way array with a SAS/SATA backplane. This is built in to the case; you can’t detach it and use it separately. Not without an angle grinder anyway, although if you really wanted to this would be a practical proposition. Note well that this is a backplane; not an expander, enclosure or anything so complex. Some Dell 2U servers like this do have an expander, which takes four SAS channels of SAS on a single cable and expands them to twelve, but this is the 1:1 version. And it’s an old one at that, using SFF-8484 connectors. If you’ve been using SAS for years you may still never have seen an SFF-8484 (AKA 32-pin Multi-lane). These didn’t last long and were quickly replaced with  the far more sensible SFF-8487(AKA 36-pin Mini-SAS). However, if you can sort out the cables (as I will explain in a later post), this backplane has possibilities.

But as it stands you get a the PERCs and a 12-slot drive array that’s only good for Windows or Linux. Unless, that is, you remove the backplane and the PERCs and make use of the six 3Gb SATA sockets on the motherboard. You’ll have to leave the drives in place and connect the cables directly back, but how many drives do you need?

There is one unfortunate feature of these boxes that is hard to ignore: the cooling. It’s effective, but when you turn it on it sounds like a jet engine spooling up. And then it gets even louder. There a lot you can do about this and I’m experimenting with options, which I’ll explain in a later post, but in the mean time you need to give everyone ear defenders, or install it in an outbuilding and use a KVM extender. I’ve been knocking around data centres for over twenty years and I’ve never heard one this bad.

The cooling is actually accomplished by five fans. Two are 1U size in the PSU, and are probably as annoying as any other ~40mm fan. The real screamers are two 80mm and one 60mm fan positioned between the drive cage and the motherboard. A cowling directs the one 80mm fan across each CPU and its DIMMs and the 60mm gives airflow over the Northbridge and PCI slots. They all spin really fast – in excess of 10,000rpm, and although they have sense and control wires nothing seems to be adjusting them downwards to the required rate.

My suspicion is that either the customer didn’t care about noise but wanted to keep everything as cool as possible, or that whatever operating system was installed (ESX I suspect) had a custom daemon to control their speed via the SAS backplane. I shall be going in to cooling options later, but note that the motherboard has five monitored and software adjustable fan connectors that are currently not used.

So, in summary, you’re getting a lot for your money if its the kind of thing you want. It’s ideal as a high-performance Unix box with plenty of drive bays (preferably running BSD and ZFS). In this configuration it really shifts. Major bang-per-buck. Another idea I’ve had is using it for a flight simulator. That’s a lot of RAM and processors for the money. If you forego the SAS controllers in the PCIe slots and dump in a decent graphics card and sound board, it’s hard to see what’s could be better (and you get jet engine sound effects without a speaker).

So who should buy one of these? BSD geeks is the obvious answer. With a bit of tweaking they’re a dream. It can build-absolutely-everything in 20-30 minutes. For storage you can put fast SAS drives in and it goes like the wind, even at 3Gb bandwidth per drive. I don’t know if it works with FreeNAS but I can’t see why not – I’m using mostly FreeBSD 11.1 and the generic kernel is fine. And if you want to run a load of weird operating systems (like Windows XP) in VM format, it seems to work very well with the Xen hypervisor and Dom0 under FreeBSD. Or CentOS if you prefer.

So I shall end this review in true PCW style:

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Lots of CPUs,
  • Lots of RAM
  • Lots of HD slots
  • Great for BSD/ZFS or VMs

Cons:

  • Noisy
  • no AES-NI
  • SAS needs upgrading
  • Limited PCI slots

As I’ve mentioned, the noise and SAS are easy and relatively cheap to fix, and thanks to BitCoin miners, even the PCI slot problem can be sorted. I’ll talk about this in a later post.

 

ParentPay seriously broken (again)

400 Bad Request
ParentPay, the Microsoft-based school payment system that’s the bane of so many parents’ lives, has yet another problem. Since Saturday, every time I go to their web site I get a page back that displays as above. Eh? Where does this page come from – it’s not a browser message. A look at the source reveals what they’re up to:

<html>
<head><title>400 Request Header Or Cookie Too Large</title></head>
<body bgcolor="white">
<center><h1>400 Bad Request</h1></center>
<center>Request Header Or Cookie Too Large</center>
<hr><center>nginx</center>
</body>
</html>
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->

 

Okay, but what the hell is wrong? This is using Chrome Version 56.0 on a Windows platform. Can ParentPay not cope with its standard request header? If a cookie is too large, the only culprit can be ParentPay itself for storing too much in its own cookie.

I’ve given them three days to fix it.

Unfortunately, parents of children at schools are forced to use this flaky web site and hand over their credit card details. How much confidence do I have in their technology? Take a guess!

Solution

So what to do about this? Well they have the URL https://parentpay.com, so I tried that too. It redirected to the original site, with a slightly different error message sent from the remote server – one that omitted mention of cookies. So it was definitely Chrome’s header? Upgrade Chrome for 56.0 to 57.0, just in case…. No dice.

A look at the cookies it stored was interesting. 67 cookies belonging to this site? I know Microsoft stuff is flabby, but this is ridiculous! Rather than trawling through them, I just decided to delete the lot.

That worked.

It appears ParentPay’s bonkers ASP code had stored more data in my browser than it was prepared to accept back. Stunning!

 

Baofeng DMR handheld – the DM-5R

DM-5R PlusIn 2016 Baofeng released the DM-5R – what sounded like a fantastic DMR radio at a very attractive price. One of the best features was that it maintained the same form factor as the UV-5R, meaning accessories were cheap and plentiful. In fact it was completely compatible as an analogue transceiver, but with DMR too.

Only one huge problem – it only implemented Tier-1, which basically meant it could only talk to other DM-5Rs – not to the Motorola or Motorola-compatible Tier-2 units.

Suppliers insisted that Baofeng was going to release a software update for it. I’m on record elsewhere as being sceptical of this, as I’ve never seen a way to update the software on any Baofeng radios, even when they’ve introduced killer bugs in to the wild.

Apparently I was wrong(-ish), and a firmware update has appeared for the promised $10. Furthermore, a DM-5R Plus has also turned up on the market, with Tier-2 software already. I don’t have confirmed specifications (i.e. the unit in my hand) but there’s some question about the battery. Sometimes its listed as 1.5Ah, other time 2Ah. BL-5 battery packs (the UV-5R standard) are 1.8mAh. I really hope they haven’t been crazy enough to come up with a new battery format.

Battery aside, what’s not to like? If if’s Tier-2/Motorola compatible, then I’m sure I’ll love it. But how compatible is it? Questions remain. Take this announcement from DMR-UK (target likely to expire) quoting a Phoenix Repeater Keeper:

“I have now heard a station using the DM-5R on the Phoenix network. I can confirm that although the radio appeared to work (apart from having very low audio) it was actually occupying both time slots on the originating repeater. This confirms that even though the so-called Tier 2 update had been done it was still working as a Tier 1 radio.”

This is unattributed, and it’s not clear whether the transceiver was a DM-5R Plus or an upgraded DM-5R. I don’t even know if an upgraded DM-5R becomes identical to a 5R Plus. This will become clear over time.

That Baofeng didn’t get the complex firmware right first time would come as no surprise. But do I want to risk it? Only if they promised to offer a free fix; but they really don’t have a good track record there.

AO.com extended warranty – the hard sell

Our 1997 AEG Lavamat washing machine is demised. The motor finally gave up the ghost, and Electrolux (AEG) no longer stocks the spares – and even if they did, the cost of buying a new motor for such an old machine is debatable. AEG and Samsung make the machines that clean the best (according to Consumers Association tests), so another AEG it was. Unfortunately our local shop, Ruislip Appliances, is shut for the holidays so on-line shopping it was, and  AO.com had a suitable replacement that can be delivered next day. And helpfully, they agreed to take away an old dishwasher too, having paid to take away the old washing machine.

To get the latter deal, I had to order by telephone. After concluding this, the guy on the end launched in to explaining the fabulous after-care service they offered – at a price. Basically they’ll fix stuff that’s “not covered by the warranty”, such as accidental damage and bits wearing out – like bearings and door seals. Eh? Doesn’t the AEG warranty cover premature failure of non-consumable items? If a car was warranted for a year and you wheel bearings wore out just because you were driving it (reasonable distances) then you’d expect it to be fixed. Tyres are another matter; they’re consumable.

I checked the AEG warranty exclusions, and nothing like this was excluded. Basically commercial use, improper use and accidental damage. Anything else they’d fix. And their warranty lasts five years – which tells me they reckon their product won’t break down and have the data to prove it.

AO.com’s warranty excludes stuff covered by the manufacturers warranty, so that leaves very little to cover. “Ah yes, but if we can’t fix it we’ll give you a new comparable model!”. AEG would have to do the same, if it came to it. But if you read their T+C, AO.com will only do this as a last resort and they will automatically cancel your policy.

So for this little extra protection, how much did they want? Well to cover this £500 washing machine for five years it worked out at £450. Basically, where their warranty takes over from AEG’s, you’ll have already paid out the cost of a new one. If the machine was a write-off after ten years (reasonable for an AEG machine), you’d have paid for a new one twice over.

The warranties are actually called product protection plans internally, and they’re sold by AO on behalf of a third party – Domestic and General Services Ltd. They administer the plans, collect the money from the customers and pay a commission to AO

In Y/E 2014, AO.com sold £18m worth of these dubious warranties, and the value is increasing. They’ve been a bit coy about mentioning the figures in subsequent published accounts. If you’re the kind of person that’s totally unable to save up for a new appliance, it may be worth it as a saving scheme – a sort of pre-paid expensive credit option. If you pay up-front for what you buy it’s as much use as a cardboard washing machine.

I feel an OFT investigation coming on. Followed by “haveigotao.com” and similar sites.

One of the significant risks to AO Group’s future is desertion by customers (according to their Annual Report and Accounts 2015). I’m afraid the hard-sell of a dodgy product on the telephone during my first order left me questioning whether I wanted to deal with these people then, or ever again. They don’t have a price advantage over local independent dealers, and I don’t get taken for a fool by the locals either.

Other impressions of AO were good. But the washing machine hasn’t turned up yet!

Baofeng UV-5X vs UV-5R Review

Someone asked me today whether they should get a UV-5X instead of an UV-5R. The 5R is a bit of a legend in the handheld transceiver world – a very cheap and capable VHF/UHF unit covering Business Light and Ham bands on FM. It has a few flaws – for example you can’t disable the keypad and stop users doing stuff they mustn’t (a matter for Business Radio, but not a problem for ham use)

That said, if you can trust your users not to meddle, it’s a good piece of kit. And the UV-5X has an upgraded motherboard and chipset for about 25% more on a very low price – so what’s not to like? (Incidentally, it’s the same as the Baofeng FF-12P, but without the reversed display)

I’m assuming, dear reader, that you will know the Baofeng UV-5R and its variants so I won’t go into any detail on these. If you don’t, they’re extremely good kit for the money.

But if you’re considering a 5X over a 5R, which should you choose? In terms of features, the 5X appears to have similar firmware to the 5R 297 release – presumably not identical due to the new chipset, but you won’t notice a difference. When I get around to it, I intend to pull one apart to see if the chip-set really has changed, but for now I’ll take Beofeng’s word on it. CHIRP treats the 5X as a 5R, although current builds do list it as a separate model. It’s measured power output is around 3.5W on UHF and 4W on VHF, although I’ve no reason to believe this is going to be particularly consistent across examples. (Low power mode was 1.5-2W on both). Accuracy of frequency (objective) and sound quality (subjective) are very good on both units.

For what it’s worth, the 5X is (currently) shipping with a new antenna, not found on the newer 5Rs, and quite different to the longer ones found on slightly older examples. I’d hate to say one performed better than the other – I might run some tests if someone twisted my arm, but in real use I didn’t notice anything.

So what are the differences you will notice? Well, mostly cosmetic! The torch, that Baofeng seem to be so proud of on all their radios, has been upgraded from the simple LED and how has a parabolic reflector. It is thus a better torch. Quite why this is important is beyond me, but if you are a fan of radios with decent torches in, buy one and knock yourself out.

The volume knob is smaller (to make room for the torch beam, I assume). The PTT button is different. And the cover for the microphone is a fold-back job rather than hinged, but has a screw which means you can remove it completely and put it back later. This isn’t a bad thing if you’re using a microphone; the hinged cover on the 5R and similar was a bit vulnerable when open.

One improvement I did notice is that they’ve fixed the carrier squelch nonsense (on the UV-5R the setting made very little difference). However, the current build of CHIRP allows you to tweak this on other models anyway (it’s under Service Settings).

But, there is a killer reason why you may want to stick to the 5R – support. In some crazy move, the 5X uses a different (incompatible) battery and a different charger. If you’re already running 5Rs this is going to be a total pain; if you don’t have a Baofeng radio yet it’s going to limit your choice and availability of accessories. The DM-5R (the digital version) very sensibly kept compatibility with the 5R accessories, so why couldn’t this?

The 5X is, however, reputed to be splash-proof, if not waterproof. This is a good thing. The keypad also has bigger keys – that’s to say thicker with more travel, NOT as you might think, with a larger face. There’d be no room anyway, although The 5X is actually a bit taller. This means it won’t fit the rubber armour sleeves or any tight-fitting holster. Another problem is that I don’t think anyone can supply it with a UK charger as standard, although the US one will work with an adapter.

The UV-5X is not a bad radio, but to mind it’s not good enough to beat the UV-5R, where the ace is the range and availability of spare batteries. For my money, if I wanted to get more than the bog-standard UV-5R I’d go for the UV-5RHX or UV-5RTP – with upgraded (three setting) transmitter power. They’re accessory-compatible with the UV-5R, although internally (and to CHIRP) they appear as BF-F8HP and a BFP3-25 and both have NSR3409 firmware. The only difference is that the TP comes with the new rounded shorter antenna and the HX doesn’t appear to be available with a UK power adapter, although it does ship with the large battery. I don’t think anyone in the UK is selling it.

Doogee launches T5 Android, with newer technology than T6. What happened to T4?

I like Chinese mobile phone maker Doogee. Their kit is great. Their marketing sucks more than a Hoover.

Today’s global launch was for the T5 “business” handset, which looks very like my trusty T2 (aka Titan 2, aka DG700). Except it’s supplied with two different backs so you can switch it for a silicone-looking one instead of the crocodile skin effect. Actually, the T2 was supposed to have interchangeable backs. But if you’re worried about what it looks like you now have a choice. I don’t care for the leather look, but then mine is kept in a case anyway.

Doogee T5

Over the last few weeks it’s body has variously described as plastic (I don’t think so) or titanium, as opposed to the chromed steel of the T2. I suspect it’s really made of unobtanium, and I won’t believe otherwise until I see one for myself.

Confusingly, Doogee has been announcing lots of successors to the fantastic T2, but the cheaper plastic X5 has really taken off in a big way so perhaps they’re busy flogging those instead. As the T2 is pretty much indestructible (shock proof, waterproof and being used as a hammer-proof), I don’t think I’m going to have to replace it any time soon.

So it turns out T5 has a similar specification – IP67 waterproof and a sturdy metal case. I know, because I’ve dropped the thing from height on to concrete several times, that the floating screen is very hard to crack. There videos of YouTube of lorries running over it. But unlike all the toughened phones I’ve had, it doesn’t look out of place in a boardroom.

The T2 has a 4Ah battery, which keeps me going for a couple of days – or even a week if I’m careful how I use it. My kind of specification. And the T5 looks to be identical, but the battery holds slight more. Okay, it’s got a faster processor too (8-core, ARM Corex A53, if you please), 3G of RAM instead of 1G, and 32Gb of internal storage instead of 8Gb. And of course the cameras have a lot more megapixels, but it’s still a phone camera. The 5″ screen is also full HD this time, if you’re using an magnifying glass.

Enough to tempt me away from the T2? Well not really. The T2 is damn good, and the only criticism I have of it is that the chrome has worn out on the corner I hold it by. That, and the silly case. The greatest practical difference will probably be the use of Android 6.0; the T2 was stuck on 5.0. Depending on your point of view, Android 5 may be A Good Thing.

But what the new phone appears to lack is the NFC chip needed for Android Pay. And a finger printer reader. These were the only thing missing from the T2. Come on guys!

But Doogee has communication problems with the English speaking world. They announce a lot of things, not all of them turn up and some are better than described. There is also supposed to be a T3, which has a small screen on the top edge (where you’d expect to plug stuff in!) and a smaller battery. But not waterproof or hardened in any way. The internal hardware spec seems similar, but I have no idea if/when it will every be available. There’s also a T6, again not waterproof but with similar hardware specification to the T5, other than less megapixels on the cameras. It’s noteworthy for having a 6.5Ah battery – nice! But it’s Android 5.1. On the other hand, you can at least buy it for around £90.

(Footnote – mobile phone cameras are all bad in my eyes, but then I use lenses that cost twenty times the price of a smartphone).

BBC micro:bit finally launched

At verybbcmicrobit_s long last, the BBC micro:bit has been released. This is the educational embedded computer designed to inspire  kids to learn about real programming. A small board with a CPU, Bluetooth, two switches and some LEDs it’s ideal for… Well what? Obvious comparisons will be made with the established but overcomplicated Raspberry Pi.

The plan is to send these out to year 7 students over the Easter holiday. I’m involved in computer science education, but I can’t even buy one (although I can use the simulator). Quite how these will be received when they turn up during Summer term remains to be seen, but I suspect eBay will feature in getting them to those who are interested in this kind of thing.

Unfortunately, from it’s inception in 2012, those of us who have been watching events unfold have a one-word verdict in common: Fiasco.

I’ll let you know more if I actually get to see one.

TP-Link 8-Port Gigabit Smartswitch review

There’s a tendency with any well-designed network for someone to go and do something the designer didn’t expect. A single desk with a couple of wall ports suddenly needs three network printers and a couple of PCs and an IP camera, and you’ve run out of sockets. The easy answer is to bung in a desktop switch, but once you’ve done this you’ve lost control, and visibility, about what exactly is going on downstream of your managed switch port.

In recent years a few desktop managed switches have appeared, and I’ve been looking at a reasonably priced TP-Link 8-port Gigabit Easy Smart Switch (model TL-SG108E to be precise). TP-Link have an “Easy” smart switch, and a non-easy versions (such as the TL-SG2008). I’ve yet to get my hand on the latter. They also make a JetStream range of layer 2 “Light” Managed Switch, which have a couple of SPF slots even in the 8-port models. Confusingly, the “light” versions are actually the top-of-range models.

TP-Link kit started turning up in the UK several years ago, with appalling technical support and documentation. It did tend to work, and was keenly price. I’m happy to say that TP-Link has got its act together, with proper English documentation and apparent backup, although I have to say I’ve yet to invest in anything expensive enough to make calling on their customer service worthwhile.

Unpacking the Easy Smart Switch you find a the neatly made metal boxed switch, with a good quality feel about it. The PSU is the normal quality wall-wort type, delivering just under 1A. Cooling is by convection away from the metal box; there is no fan and no apparent need for one.

You can use this switch as self-configuring switch straight out of the box and it just works. Testing it unscientifically as a desktop switch, I’ve no complaints about the performance. I didn’t try aggregating the lines for an uplink or anything fancy, as chances are on a desktop you’ll only have one port talking to another at any one time.

After that it was time to manage it, and this is where I hit a snag. In spite of the box saying it was compatible with Windoze, Mac, Linux and so on, it turns out that you need to run some Windows-based software to do anything with it. Although it had port 80 open, the is no web management interface; and port 22 was there but lacked an SSH interface. In other words, it’s useless unless you are a Windows shop. According to TP-Link there is a version 2 of this switch which does sport proper web and SSH interfaces, but version 2 isn’t on sale  in the UK at time of writing.

If you find a Windows PC to run it, you can set the IP address over Ethernet or set it up for DHCP. Once it’s on the IP network the configuration utility can be used to configure various options and run diagnostics – and upgrade the firmware, which you may want to do immediately looking at the release notes on the TP-Link web site.

Useful features are port mirroring, rate setting and (if you can figure it out), various VLAN options in including port-based. You can throttle ports, view port statistics and run a cable diagnostic. One serious omission is that there is no way I could see to control the layer 2 routing – i.e. statically assign a MAC address to a particular port. Only dynamically learned MAC addresses are supported, which is what you get a dumb switch for.

There are a number of security and QoS options, such as storm control for ports. Whether this is going to be used on a small unstacked desktop switch is debatable. The VLAN options could be very useful as part of a more complex multi-switch network, giving granularity down to the desktop.

Another feature inherited from it’s larger siblings is link aggregation. You can bond up to four ports together for a high-speed uplink; but on a a 5 or 8-port switch, this really can’t be that useful, can it?

If you can live without the access control and incompatibility with anything non-Windows, the price of this switch makes it an excellent choice net to a dumb switch at about the same price. However, for a few pounds more you a get a TP-Link SG2008, which doesn’t seem to suffer these limitations – or indeed a D-Link model of similar specification. D-Link switches tend to be fast and trouble-free in my experience.

Pros: Have a managed switch at the same price as an unmanaged one.

Cons: Management features provided are less use on a small switch, especially as access control is missing. The management can only be done using a Windows utility – no web or SSH interface.

Conclusion: Spend a bit more on a better TP-Link model, or look at D-Link or Netgear.