Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Adventures in EchoLink

In my ongoing quest to upgrade our family communication network (and avoid the cell phone trap) I have recently gotten an EchoLink node going at my QTH. This will allow me to call back to the house when I'm out on the road, especially when I take business trips up to the Twin Cities.

For hardware, I'm using a garbage-picked Toshiba laptop; most of the keycaps are popped off of it, so somebody dropped it into the dumpster. I got it up and going using an external keyboard, but now I don't really need the keyboard at all. More on that later. A homebrewed sound card interface and 2 meter transceiver completes the package.

I've set up the node in my shack for the moment, running to a simple copper pipe J-pole up on my roof. This has let me play around with different hardware and software configurations without too much stress. The Linksys router you see there is a WRT54G-TM running the extremely cool Tomato firmware (actually, it's running the Tomato VPN firmware because I hope to have a personal VPN connection going soon.) This was the result of one more excellent bit of advice from Chris, KF9OP. I was going to buy a dedicated wireless card for the laptop, but he suggested spending just a bit more and getting a router that can be flashed with new software to do any number of sophisticated wireless tasks. Great idea. I picked up a few of them for pretty cheap off of EBay. One is configured as my main Internet wireless access point, with gain antennas on it so the signal is available throughout the whole house. But then I've connected another, configured to operate as part of a Wireless Distribution System (WDS), to the computer running EchoLink.

It needs to be wireless because ultimately, when I have all the bugs worked out, the whole shebang is going up on my silo. The rig, computer, router, and power supply will sit just under the dome and I'll extend a mast above the dome with a nice 2 meter gain vertical on top. Then I should really get out like gangbusters. I've also got a gain vertical for 2.4 GHz that will be connected to the router, to boost the wireless path back to the house.

Since it's going to be at the top of the silo, I don't really want to have to climb up there every time I want to tweak a setting on the computer. So I installed the TightVNC server on the laptop. It allows me quick and easy remote access to that PC from my shack. In fact, there's even a TightVNC client for Puppy Linux, so I can access the laptop running Windows and EchoLink from my Linux machines. Now how cool is that?

I have not used the EchoLink much for family communications, although I have a business trip in the near future that should be a nice time to try it out. But I have had some delightful QSOs from hams who have just decided to "drop in". One afternoon I chatted with a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, connecting through their W9HHX node. Then later that evening, Al (W6AAX) called from Simi Valley, CA. He has family in the area and was wondering about the ham radio activity here.

And about fifteen minutes after I signed off with Al, Daryl (N5SCA) called from Lampasas, TX. It turns out he grew up in the La Crosse, WI area and was, again, wondering about ham radio activity in the area prior to a trek to a family reunion here later this year. Again, we had a nice chat and hopefully will be able to meet when he visits the area.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Puppy Linux

I have long yearned to cut the umbilical cord with Micro$oft, forsaking their operating systems forever. Why? Basically, because the ever-increasing thirst for computer resources (CPU, RAM, hard drive space, etc.) in exchange for little or no significant benefit in what I'm actually able to do with the computer drives me nuts. Let's face it, if you don't play some of the more resource-intense games (which I don't) then you simply don't need the vast majority of the horsepower of our current PCs. The main reason we need to keep upgrading hardware all the time is because Micro$oft orphans its older OSs. And each new OS from Redmond hogs more and more hardware resources in order to keep from running glacially slow.

Several years ago I set about building two PCs for our home use. I was highly motivated to utilize one of the many available Linux distros for the operating system. I had read and had been told that Linux was ready for prime time and that installation was simple, as was maintenance. And that is precisely what I needed because, while I am fairly PC savvy, I do not have a lot of time to waste horsing around trying to get things to work. An operating system needs to find all my hardware and work, with no muss and no fuss. Period.

Well, I tried Mandrake (now Mandriva) Linux, the Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Xbuntu line-up, and Knoppix. Each time there was something wrong, at least one thing (and sometimes more than one thing) that just made it a no go. So, in the end, I held my nose and forked out the $$ for two licenses of Windows XP (which hands down is the best OS that Micro$oft has ever released.)

But the desire to cut that cord has stayed with me. And I think maybe I've found the knife that's going to let me do it in the form of Puppy Linux. Puppy is not the most capable release. It's not the flashiest release. I tried it because several hams have chosen it specifically for their amateur radio-related software. And guess what? It works.

I have installed Puppy on six computers so far, from a 300 MHz Celeron with 128 MB of RAM up through a 2.2 GHz multi-core something-or-other with 2 GB of RAM. So far, Puppy has found and installed everything as it should. It has even found and installed a couple of rather obscure wireless adapters. Each time, I've been able to get onto my home network and out onto the Internet, which makes finding and fixing any little glitches much easier.

Its ability to install on really minimal hardware is the thing that thrills me the most. Puppy installs itself completely into RAM, so its performance even on minimal computer hardware is impressive. How totally stupid is it to be sending perfectly good desktops and laptops to the dump, when at least a significant percentage of them are still perfectly useful if all you want to do is surf the Web, do a little word processing, maybe keep track of your finances? And there are tons of ham radio tasks that can still be handled readily by lower-end hardware like this. Michael Barnes captures my thoughts exactly:

Using Puppy Linux brings back many memories of my early years using computers. Seeing Puppy Linux perform so well as a desktop Linux and taking up only 60 MB storage, one is reminded of how elegant programming used to be when computing used to be fun and useful with very little RAM and very little storage.

While some will argue that disk and RAM are cheap, generations of computers are being orphaned and the end user isn't seeing any improvements in either the application or environment. Puppy Linux not only provides the means to bring older computers back to life, it also provides the tools to create dedicated devices that can operate without a hard disk. It is possible to create media players, web terminals, email terminals, thin clients, x-terminals, and even Skype VoIP stations with very minimal hardware.

Thanks to a small distribution like Puppy Linux, it is possible to set up a fully functional workstation with a motherboard, low-cost processor, power supply, case, 128 MB DRAM and either a 128 MB thumb drive or a CDROM drive, at a cost of about $150 (USD) without a monitor.

No, forget $150. How about free? There are computers capable of running Puppy being thrown away all the time. Monitors too.

I think I'm going to use Puppy to resurrect two lower-end laptops I have kicking around the place, so my kids can use them for their school work. In fact, since it is a snap to get Puppy to boot from an inexpensive USB stick, I think it might be a nice idea to snarf a higher-end laptop off of EBay that's selling cheap because it has no hard drive and no operating system, then give it new life by running Puppy off of an 8 or 16 GB flash drive.

Specific ham radio groups and individuals like the West Australian Repeater Group and the creators of the digital mode software package FLDigi seem to have glommed onto Puppy Linux as a particularly appropriate platform. As I said, that's what got me looking into it in the first place.

It may very well be that other Linux distros would now perform much better for me than they did a few years ago. But I'm hooked on Puppy.