Tony Pearson is a Master Inventor and Senior IT Architect for the IBM Storage product line at the
IBM Executive Briefing Center in Tucson Arizona, and featured contributor
to IBM's developerWorks. In 2016, Tony celebrates his 30th year anniversary with IBM Storage. He is
author of the Inside System Storage series of books. This blog is for the open exchange of ideas relating to storage and storage networking hardware, software and services.
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Continuing my series on a [Laptop for Grandma], I thought I would pursue some of the "low-RAM" operating system choices. Grandma's Thinkpad R31 has only 384MB of RAM.
All of the ones below are based on Linux. For those who aren't familiar with installing or running the Linux operating system, here are some helpful tips:
Most Linux distributors allow you to download an ISO file for free. These can be either (a) burned to a CD, (b) burned to a DVD, or (c) written to a USB memory stick.
The ISO can be either a "LiveCD/LiveDVD" version, an installation program, or a combination of the two. The "Live" version allows you to boot up and try out the operating system without modifying the contents of your hard drive. Windows and Mac OS users can try out Linux without impact to their existing environment. Some Linux distributions offer both a full LiveCD+Installer version, as well as an alternate text-based Installer-only version. The latter often requires less RAM to use.
When installing, it is best to have the laptop plugged in to an electrical outlet, and hard-wired to the internet in case it needs to download the latest drivers for your particular hardware.
A CD can hold only 700MB. Many of the newer Linux distributions exceed that, requiring a DVD or USB stick instead. If your laptop has an older optical drive, it may not be able to read DVD media. Some older optical drives can only read CD's, not burn them. In my case, I burned the CDs on another machine, and then used them on grandma's Thinkpad R31.
To avoid burning "a set of coasters" when trying out multiple choices, consider using rewriteable optical media, or the USB option. If you don't like it, you can re-use for something else.
The program [Unetbootin] can take most ISO files and write them to a bootable USB stick. On my Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 laptop, I had to also install p7zip and p7zip-plugins first.
The BIOS on some older machines, like my grandma's Thinkpad R31, cannot boot from USB. The [PLoP Boot Manager] allows you to first boot from floppy or CD-ROM, and then allows you to boot from the USB. This worked great on my grandma's system. The PLoP Boot Manager is also available on the [Ultimate Boot CD].
While I am a big fan of SUSE, Red Hat, and Ubuntu, these all require more RAM than available on grandma's laptop. Here are some Low-RAM alternatives I tried:
Damn Small Linux 4.11 RC2
The Damn Small Linux [DSL] project was dormant since 2008, but has a fresh new release for 2012. This baby can run in as little 16MB or RAM! If you have 128MB of RAM or more, the OS can run entirely from RAM, providing much faster performance.
Of course, there are always trade-offs, and in this case, apps were chosen for their size and memory footprint, not necessarily for their user-friendliness and eye candy. For example, the xMMS plays MP3 music, but I did not find it as friendly as iTunes or Rhythmbox.
Boot time is fast. From hitting the power-on button to playing the first note of MP3 music was about 1 minute.
Installing DSL Linux on the hard drive converts it into a Debian distribution, which then allows more options for applications.
Next up was [MacPup]. The latest version is 529, based on Pupply Linux 5.2.60 Precise, compatible with Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin. While traditional Puppy Linux clutters the screen with apps, the MacPup tries to have the look-and-feel of the MacOS by having a launcher tray at the bottom center of the screen.
Both MacPup and Puppy Linux can run in very small amounts of RAM and disk space. Like DSL above, you can opt to run MacPup entirely in 128MB of RAM. Unfortunately, the trade-off is a lack of application choices.
Installation to the hard drive was quite involved, certainly not for the beginner. First, you have to use Gparted to partition the disk. I created a 19GB (sda1) for my files, and 700MB (sda5) for swap. I had troubles with "ext4" file system, so re-formatted to "ext3". Second, you have to copy the files over from the LiveCD using the "Puppy Universal Installer". Third, you have to set up the Bootloader. Grub didn't work, so I installed Grub4Dos instead.
The music app is called "Alsa Player", and I was able to drag the icon into the startup tray. time-to-first-note was just over 1 minute. Fast, but not as "simple-to-use" as I would like.
SliTaz 4.0 claims to be able to run in as little as 48MB of RAM and 100MB of disk space. Time-to-first-note was similar to MacPup, but I didn't care for the TazPanel for setup, and the TazPkg for installing a limited set of software packages. I could not get Wi-Fi working at all on SliTaz, and just gave up trying.
All three of these ran on grandma's Thinkpad R31, and all three could play MP3 music. However, I was concerned that they were not as simple to use as grandma would like, and I would be concerned the amount of time and effort I might have to spend if things go wrong.
For the longest time, people thought that humans could not run a mile in less than four minutes. Then, in 1954, [Sir Roger Bannister] beat that perception, and shortly thereafter, once he showed it was possible, many other runners were able to achieve this also. The same is being said now about the IBM Watson computer which appeared this week against two human contestants on Jeopardy!
(2014 Update: A lot has happened since I originally wrote this blog post! I intended this as a fun project for college students to work on during their summer break. However, IBM is concerned that some businesses might be led to believe they could simply stand up their own systems based entirely on open source and internally developed code for business use. IBM recommends instead the [IBM InfoSphere BigInsights] which packages much of the software described below. IBM has also launched a new "Watson Group" that has [Watson-as-a-Service] capabilities in the Cloud. To raise awareness to these developments, IBM has asked me to rename this post from IBM Watson - How to build your own "Watson Jr." in your basement to the new title IBM Watson -- How to replicate Watson hardware and systems design for your own use in your basement. I also took this opportunity to improve the formatting layout.)
Often, when a company demonstrates new techology, these are prototypes not yet ready for commercial deployment until several years later. IBM Watson, however, was made mostly from commercially available hardware, software and information resources. As several have noted, the 1TB of data used to search for answers could fit on a single USB drive that you buy at your local computer store.
Take a look at the [IBM Research Team] to determine how the project was organized. Let's decide what we need, and what we don't in our version for personal use:
Do we need it for personal use?
Yes, That's you. Assuming this is a one-person project, you will act as Team Lead.
Yes, I hope you know computer programming!
No, since this version for personal use won't be appearing on Jeopardy, we won't need strategy on wager amounts for the Daily Double, or what clues to pick next. Let's focus merely on a computer that can accept a question in text, and provide an answer back, in text.
Yes, this team focused on how to wire all the hardware together. We need to do that, although this version for personal use will have fewer components.
Optional. For now, let's have this version for personal use just return its answer in plain text. Consider this Extra Credit after you get the rest of the system working. Consider using [eSpeak], [FreeTTS], or the Modular Architecture for Research on speech sYnthesis [MARY] Text-to-Speech synthesizers.
Yes, I will explain what this is, and why you need it.
Yes, we will need to get information for personal use to process
Yes, this team developed a system for parsing the question being asked, and to attach meaning to the different words involved.
No, this team focused on making IBM Watson optimized to answer in 3 seconds or less. We can accept a slower response, so we can skip this.
(Disclaimer: As with any Do-It-Yourself (DIY) project, I am not responsible if you are not happy with your version for personal use I am basing the approach on what I read from publicly available sources, and my work in Linux, supercomputers, XIV, and SONAS. For our purposes, this version for personal use is based entirely on commodity hardware, open source software, and publicly available sources of information. Your implementation will certainly not be as fast or as clever as the IBM Watson you saw on television.)
Step 1: Buy the Hardware
Supercomputers are built as a cluster of identical compute servers lashed together by a network. You will be installing Linux on them, so if you can avoid paying extra for Microsoft Windows, that would save you some money. Here is your shopping list:
Three x86 hosts, with the following:
64-bit quad-core processor, either Intel-VT or AMD-V capable,
8GB of DRAM, or larger
300GB of hard disk, or larger
CD or DVD Read/Write drive
Computer Monitor, mouse and keyboard
Ethernet 1GbE 4-port hub, and appropriate RJ45 cables
Surge protector and Power strip
Local Console Monitor (LCM) 4-port switch (formerly known as a KVM switch) and appropriate cables. This is optional, but will make it easier during the development. Once your implementation is operational, you will only need the monitor and keyboard attached to one machine. The other two machines can remain "headless" servers.
Step 2: Establish Networking
IBM Watson used Juniper switches running at 10Gbps Ethernet (10GbE) speeds, but was not connected to the Internet while playing Jeopardy! Instead, these Ethernet links were for the POWER7 servers to talk to each other, and to access files over the Network File System (NFS) protocol to the internal customized SONAS storage I/O nodes.
The implementation will be able to run "disconnected from the Internet" as well. However, you will need Internet access to download the code and information sources. For our purposes, 1GbE should be sufficient. Connect your Ethernet hub to your DSL or Cable modem. Connect all three hosts to the Ethernet switch. Connect your keyboard, video monitor and mouse to the LCM, and connect the LCM to the three hosts.
Step 3: Install Linux and Middleware
To say I use Linux on a daily basis is an understatement. Linux runs on my Android-based cell phone, my laptop at work, my personal computers at home, most of our IBM storage devices from SAN Volume Controller to XIV to SONAS, and even on my Tivo at home which recorded my televised episodes of Jeopardy!
For this project, you can use any modern Linux distribution that supports KVM. IBM Watson used Novel SUSE Linux Enterprise Server [SLES 11]. Alternatively, I can also recommend either Red Hat Enterprise Linux [RHEL 6] or Canonical [Ubuntu v10]. Each distribution of Linux comes in different orientations. Download the the 64-bit "ISO" files for each version, and burn them to CDs.
Graphical User Interface (GUI) oriented, often referred to as "Desktop" or "HPC-Head"
Command Line Interface (CLI) oriented, often referred to as "Server" or "HPC-Compute"
Guest OS oriented, to run in a Hypervisor such as KVM, Xen, or VMware. Novell calls theirs "Just Enough Operating System" [JeOS].
For this version for personal use, I have chosen a [multitier architecture], sometimes referred to as an "n-tier" or "client/server" architecture.
Host 1 - Presentation Server
For the Human-Computer Interface [HCI], the IBM Watson received categories and clues as text files via TCP/IP, had a [beautiful avatar] representing a planet with 42 circles streaking across in orbit, and text-to-speech synthesizer to respond in a computerized voice. Your implementation will not be this sophisticated. Instead, we will have a simple text-based Query Panel web interface accessible from a browser like Mozilla Firefox.
Host 1 will be your Presentation Server, the connection to your keyboard, video monitor and mouse. Install the "Desktop" or "HPC Head Node" version of Linux. Install [Apache Web Server and Tomcat] to run the Query Panel. Host 1 will also be your "programming" host. Install the [Java SDK] and the [Eclipse IDE for Java Developers]. If you always wanted to learn Java, now is your chance. There are plenty of books on Java if that is not the language you normally write code.
While three little systems doesn't constitute an "Extreme Cloud" environment, you might like to try out the "Extreme Cloud Administration Tool", called [xCat], which was used to manage the many servers in IBM Watson.
Host 2 - Business Logic Server
Host 2 will be driving most of the "thinking". Install the "Server" or "HPC Compute Node" version of Linux. This will be running a server virtualization Hypervisor. I recommend KVM, but you can probably run Xen or VMware instead if you like.
Host 3 - File and Database Server
Host 3 will hold your information sources, indices, and databases. Install the "Server" or "HPC Compute Node" version of Linux. This will be your NFS server, which might come up as a question during the installation process.
Technically, you could run different Linux distributions on different machines. For example, you could run "Ubuntu Desktop" for host 1, "RHEL 6 Server" for host 2, and "SLES 11" for host 3. In general, Red Hat tries to be the best "Server" platform, and Novell tries to make SLES be the best "Guest OS".
My advice is to pick a single distribution and use it for everything, Desktop, Server, and Guest OS. If you are new to Linux, choose Ubuntu. There are plenty of books on Linux in general, and Ubuntu in particular, and Ubuntu has a helpful community of volunteers to answer your questions.
Step 4: Download Information Sources
You will need some documents for your implementation to process.
IBM Watson used a modified SONAS to provide a highly-available clustered NFS server. For this version, we won't need that level of sophistication. Configure Host 3 as the NFS server, and Hosts 1 and 2 as NFS clients. See the [Linux-NFS-HOWTO] for details. To optimize performance, host 3 will be the "official master copy", but we will use a Linux utility called rsync to copy the information sources over to the hosts 1 and 2. This allows the task engines on those hosts to access local disk resources during question-answer processing.
We will also need a relational database. You won't need a high-powered IBM DB2. Your implementation can do fine with something like [Apache Derby] which is the open source version of IBM CloudScape from its Informix acquisition. Set up Host 3 as the Derby Network Server, and Hosts 1 and 2 as Derby Network Clients. For more about structured content in relational databases, see my post [IBM Watson - Business Intelligence, Data Retrieval and Text Mining].
Linux includes a utility called wget which allows you to download content from the Internet to your system. What documents you decide to download is up to you, based on what types of questions you want answered. For example, if you like Literature, check out the vast resources at [FullBooks.com]. You can automate the download by writing a shell script or program to invoke wget to all the places you want to fetch data from. Rename the downloaded files to something unique, as often they are just "index.html". For more on wget utility, see [IBM Developerworks].
Step 5: The Query Panel - Parsing the Question
Next, we need to parse the question and have some sense of what is being asked for. For this we will use [OpenNLP] for Natural Language Processing, and [OpenCyc] for the conceptual logic reasoning. See Doug Lenat presenting this 75-minute video [Computers versus Common Sense]. To learn more, see the [CYC 101 Tutorial].
Unlike Jeopardy! where Alex Trebek provides the answer and contestants must respond with the correct question, we will do normal Question-and-Answer processing. To keep things simple, we will limit questions to the following formats:
Who is ...?
Where is ...?
When did ... happen?
What is ...?
Host 1 will have a simple Query Panel web interface. At the top, a place to enter your question, and a "submit" button, and a place at the bottom for the answer to be shown. When "submit" is pressed, this will pass the question to "main.jsp", the Java servlet program that will start the Question-answering analysis. Limiting the types of questions that can be posed will simplify hypothesis generation, reduce the candidate set and evidence evaluation, allowing the analytics processing to continue in reasonable time.
Step 6: Unstructured Information Management Architecture
The "heart and soul" of IBM Watson is Unstructured Information Management Architecture [UIMA]. IBM developed this, then made it available to the world as open source. It is maintained by the [Apache Software Foundation], and overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards [OASIS].
Basically, UIMA lets you scan unstructured documents, gleam the important points, and put that into a database for later retrieval. In the graph above, DBs means 'databases' and KBs means 'knowledge bases'. See the 4-minute YouTube video of [IBM Content Analytics], the commercial version of UIMA.
Starting from the left, the Collection Reader selects each document to process, and creates an empty Common Analysis Structure (CAS) which serves as a standardized container for information. This CAS is passed to Analysis Engines , composed of one or more Annotators which analyze the text and fill the CAS with the information found. The CAS are passed to CAS Consumers which do something with the information found, such as enter an entry into a database, update an index, or update a vote count.
(Note: This point requires, what we in the industry call a small matter of programming, or [SMOP]. If you've always wanted to learn Java programming, XML, and JDBC, you will get to do plenty here. )
If you are not familiar with UIMA, consider this [UIMA Tutorial].
Step 7: Parallel Processing
People have asked me why IBM Watson is so big. Did we really need 2,880 cores of processing power? As a supercomputer, the 80 TeraFLOPs of IBM Watson would place it only in 94th place on the [Top 500 Supercomputers]. While IBM Watson may be the [Smartest Machine on Earth], the most powerful supercomputer at this time is the Tianhe-1A with more than 186,000 cores, capable of 2,566 TeraFLOPs.
To determine how big IBM Watson needed to be, the IBM Research team ran the DeepQA algorithm on a single core. It took 2 hours to answer a single Jeopardy question! Let's look at the performance data:
Number of cores
Time to answer one Jeopardy question
Single IBM Power750 server
< 4 minutes
Single rack (10 servers)
< 30 seconds
IBM Watson (90 servers)
< 3 seconds
The old adage applies, [many hands make for light work]. The idea is to divide-and-conquer. For example, if you wanted to find a particular street address in the Manhattan phone book, you could dispatch fifty pages to each friend and they could all scan those pages at the same time. This is known as "Parallel Processing" and is how supercomputers are able to work so well. However, not all algorithms lend well to parallel processing, and the phrase [nine women can't have a baby in one month] is often used to remind us of this.
Fortuantely, UIMA is designed for parallel processing. You need to install UIMA-AS for Asynchronous Scale-out processing, an add-on to the base UIMA Java framework, supporting a very flexible scale-out capability based on JMS (Java Messaging Services) and ActiveMQ. We will also need Apache Hadoop, an open source implementation used by Yahoo Search engine. Hadoop has a "MapReduce" engine that allows you to divide the work, dispatch pieces to different "task engines", and the combine the results afterwards.
Host 2 will run Hadoop and drive the MapReduce process. Plan to have three KVM guests on Host 1, four on Host 2, and three on Host 3. That means you have 10 task engines to work with. These task engines can be deployed for Content Readers, Analysis Engines, and CAS Consumers. When all processing is done, the resulting votes will be tabulated and the top answer displayed on the Query Panel on Host 1.
Step 8: Testing
To simplify testing, use a batch processing approach. Rather than entering questions by hand in the Query Panel, generate a long list of questions in a file, and submit for processing. This will allow you to fine-tune the environment, optimize for performance, and validate the answers returned.
There you have it. By the time you get your implementation fully operational, you will have learned a lot of useful skills, including Linux administration, Ethernet networking, NFS file system configuration, Java programming, UIMA text mining analysis, and MapReduce parallel processing. Hopefully, you will also gain an appreciation for how difficult it was for the IBM Research team to accomplish what they had for the Grand Challenge on Jeopardy! Not surprisingly, IBM Watson is making IBM [as sexy to work for as Apple, Google or Facebook], all of which started their business in a garage or a basement with a system as small as this version for personal use.
If we have learned anything from last decade's Y2K crisis, is that we should not wait for the last minute to take action. Now is the time to start thinking about weaning ourselves off Windows XP. IBM has 400,000 employees, so this is not a trivial matter.
Already, IBM has taken some bold steps:
Last July, IBM announced that it was switching from Internet Explorer (IE6) to [Mozilla Firefox as its standard browser]. IBM has been contributing to this open source project for years, including support for open standards, and to make it [more accessible to handicapped employees with visual and motor impairments]. I use Firefox already on Windows, Mac and Linux, so there was no learning curve for me. Before this announcement, if some web-based application did not work on Firefox, our Helpdesk told us to switch back to Internet Explorer. Those days are over. Now, if a web-based application doesn't work on Firefox, we either stop using it, or it gets fixed.
IBM also announced the latest [IBM Lotus Symphony 3] software, which replaces Microsoft Office for Powerpoint, Excel and Word applications. Symphony also works across Mac, Windows and Linux. It is based on the OpenOffice open source project, and handles open-standard document formats (ODF). Support for Microsoft Office 2003 will also run out in the year 2014, so moving off proprietary formats to open standards makes sense.
I am not going to wait for IBM to decide how to proceed next, so I am starting my own migrations. In my case, I need to do it twice, on my IBM-provided laptop as well as my personal PC at home.
Last summer, IBM sent me a new laptop, we get a new one every 3-4 years. It was pre-installed with Windows XP, but powerful enough to run a 64-bit operating system in the future. Here are my series of blog posts on that:
I decided to try out Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.1 with its KVM-based Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization to run Windows XP as a guest OS. I will try to run as much as I can on native Linux, but will have Windows XP guest as a next option, and if that still doesn't work, reboot the system in native Windows XP mode.
So far, I am pleased that I can do nearly everything my job requires natively in Red Hat Linux, including accessing my Lotus Notes for email and databases, edit and present documents with Lotus Symphony, and so on. I have made RHEL 6.1 my default when I boot up. Setting up Windows XP under KVM was relatively simple, involving an 8-line shell script and 54-line XML file. Here is what I have encountered:
We use a wonderful tool called "iSpring Pro" which merges Powerpoint slides with voice recordings for each page into a Shockwave Flash video. I have not yet found a Linux equivalent for this yet.
To avoid having to duplicate files between systems, I use instead symbolic links. For example, my Lotus Notes local email repository sits on D: drive, but I can access it directly with a link from /home/tpearson/notes/data.
While my native Ubuntu and RHEL Linux can access my C:, D: and E: drives in native NTFS file system format, the irony is that my Windows XP guest OS under KVM cannot. This means moving something from NTFS over to Ext4, just so that I can access it from the Windows XP guest application.
For whatever reason, "Password Safe" did not run on the Windows XP guest. I launch it, but it takes forever to load and never brings up the GUI. Fortunately, there is a Linux version [MyPasswordSafe] that seems to work just fine to keep track of all my passwords.
Personal home PC
My Windows XP system at home gave up the ghost last month, so I bought a new system with Windows 7 Professional, quad-core Intel processor and 6GB of memory. There are [various editions of Windows 7], but I chose Windows 7 Professional to support running Windows XP as a guest image.
Here's is how I have configured my personal computer:
I actually found it more time-consuming to implement the "Virtual PC" feature of Windows 7 to get Windows XP mode working than KVM on Red Hat Linux. I am amazed how many of my Windows XP programs DO NOT RUN AT ALL natively on Windows 7. I now have native 64-bit versions of Lotus Notes and Symphony 3, which will do well enough for me for now.
I went ahead and put Red Hat Linux on my home system as well, but since I have Windows XP running as a guest under Windows 7, no need to duplicate KVM setup there. At least if I have problems with Windows 7, I can reboot in RHEL6 Linux at home and use that for Linux-native applications.
Hopefully, this will position me well in case IBM decides to either go with Windows 7 or Linux as the replacement OS for Windows XP.
In my presentations in Australia and New Zealand, I mentioned that people were re-discovering the benefits of removable media. While floppy diskettes were convenient way of passing information from one person to another, they unfortunately did not have enough capacity. In today's world, you may need Gigabytes or Terabytes of re-writeable storage with a file system interface that can easily be passed from one person to another. In this post, I explore three options.
(FCC Disclaimer: I work for IBM, and IBM has no business relationship with Cirago at the time of this writing. Cirago has not paid me to mention their product, but instead provided me a free loaner that I promised to return to them after my evaluation is completed. This post should not be considered an endorsement for Cirago's products. List prices for Cirago and IBM products were determined from publicly available sources for the United States, and may vary in different countries. The views expressed herein may not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of either IBM or Cirago.)
I took a few photos so you can see what exactly this device looks like. Basically, it is a plastic box that holds a single naked disk drive. It has four little rubber feet so that it does not slip on your desk surface.
The inside is quite simple. The power and SATA connections match those of either a standard 3.5 inch drive, or the smaller form factor (SFF) 2.5 inch drive. However, to my dismay, it does not handle EIDE drives which I have a ton of. After taking apart six different computer systems, I found only one had SATA drives for me to try this unit out with.
The unit comes with a USB cable and AC/DC power adapter. In my case, I found the USB 3.0 cable too short for my liking. My tower systems are under my desk, but I like keeping docking stations like this on the top of the desk, within easy reach, but that wasn't going to happen because the USB cable was not long enough.
Instead, I ended up putting it half-way in between, behind my desk, sitting on another spare system. Not ideal, but in theory there are USB-extension cables that probably could fix this.
Here it is with the drive inside. I had a 3.5 inch Western Digital [1600AAJS drive] 160 GB, SATA 3 Gbps, 8 MB Cache, 7200 RPM.
To compare the performance, I used a dual-core AMD [Athlon X2] system that I had built for my 2008 [One Laptop Per Child] project. To compare the performance, I ran with the drive externally in the Cirago docking station, then ran the same tests with the same drive internally on the native SATA controller. Although the Cirago documentation indicated that Windows was required, I used Ubuntu Linux 10.04 LTS just fine, using the flexible I/O [fio] benchmarking tool against an ext3 file system.
Sequential Write - a common use for external disk drive is backup.
Random read - randomly read files ranging from 5KB to 10MB in size.
Random mixed - randomly read/write files (50/50 mix) ranging from 5KB to 10MB in size.
Random Mixed (50/50)
Latency (msec) read
Latency (msec) write
Bandwidth (KB/s) read
Bandwidth (KB/s) write
For sequential write, the Cirago performed well, only about 15 percent slower than native SATA. For random workloads, however, it was 30-40 percent slower. If you are wondering why I did not get USB 3.0 speeds, there are several factors involved here. First, with overheads, 5 Gbps USB 3.0 is expected to get only about 400 MB/sec. My SATA 2.0 controller maxes out at 375 MB/sec, and my USB 2.0 ports on my system are rated for 57 MB/sec, but with overheads will only get 20-25 MB/sec. Most spinning drives only get 75 to 110 MB/sec. Even solid-state drives top out at 250 MB/sec for sustained activity. Despite all that, my internal SATA drive only got 16 MB/sec, and externally with the Cirago 14 MB/sec in sustained write activity.
Here is the mess that is inside my system. The slot for drive 2 was blocked by cables, memory chips and the heat sink for my processor. It is possible to damage a system just trying to squeeze between these obstacles.
However, the point of this post is "removable media". Having to open up the case and insert the second drive and wire it up to the correct SATA port was a pain, and certainly a more difficult challenge than the average PC user wishes to tackle.
Price-wise, the Cirago lists for $49 USD, and the 160GB drive I used lists for $69, so the combination $118 is about what you would pay for a fully integrated external USB drive. However, if you had lots of loose drives, then this could be more convenient and start to save you some money.
IBM RDX disk backup system
Another problem with the Cirago approach is that the disk drives are naked, with printed circuit board (PCB) exposed. When not in the docking station, where do you put your drive? Did you keep the [anti-static ESD bag] that it came in when you bought it? And once inside the bag, now what? Do you want to just stack it up in a pile with your other pieces of equipment?
To solve this, IBM offers the RDX backup system. These are fully compatible with other RDX sytems from Dell, HP, Imation, NEC, Quantum, and Tandberg Data. The concept is to have a docking station that takes removable, rugged plastic-coated disk-enclosed cartridges. The docking station can be part of the PC itself, similar to how CD/DVD drives are installed, or as a stand-alone USB 2.0 system, capable of processing data up to 25 MB/sec.
The idea is not new, about 10 years ago we had [Iomega "zip" drives] that offered disk-enclosed cartridges with capacities of 100, 250 and 750MB in size. Iomega had its fair share of problems with the zip drive, which were ranked in 2006 as the 15th worst technology product of all time, and were eventually were bought out by EMC two years later (as if EMC has not had enough failures on its own!)
The problem with zip drives was that they did not hold as much as CD or DVD media, and were more expensive. By comparison, IBM RDX cartridges come in 160GB to 750GB in size, at list prices starting at $127 USD.
IBM LTO tape with Long-Term File System
Removable media is not just for backup. Disk cartridges, like the IBM RDX above, had the advantage of being random access, but most tape are accessed sequentially. IBM has solved this also, with the new IBM Long Term File System [LTFS], available for LTO-5 tape cartridges.
With LFTS, the LTO-5 tape cartridge now can act as a super-large USB memory stick for passing information from one person to the next. The LTO-5 cartridge can handle up to 3TB of compressed data at up to SAS speeds of 140 MB/sec. An LTO-5 tape cartridge lists for only $87 USD.
The LTO-5 drives, such as the IBM [TS2250 drive] can read LTO-3, LTO-4 and LTO-5cartridges, and can write LTO-4 and LTO-5 cartridges, in a manner that is fully compatible with LTO drives from HP or Quantum. LTO-3, LTO-4 and LTO-5 cartridges are available in WORM or rewriteable formats. LTO-4 and LTO-5 cartridges can be encrypted with 256-bit AES built-in encryption. With three drive manufacturers, and seven cartridge manufacturers, there is no threat of vendor lock-in with this approach.
These three options offer various trade-offs in price, performance, security and convenience. Not surprisingly, tape continues to be the cheapest option.
Well, it's that Back-To-School time again! Mo's thirteen-year-old reluctantly enters the eight grade, still upset the summer ended so abruptly. Richard's nephew returns to the University of Arizona for another year. Natalie has chosen to move to Phoenix and pursue a post-grad degree at Arizona State University. They all have two things in common, they all want a new computer, and they are all on a budget.
Fellow blogger Bob Sutor (IBM) pointed me to an excellent article on [How to Build Your Own $200 PC], which reminded me of the [XS server I built] for my 2008 Google Summer of Code project with the One Laptop per Child organization. Now that the project is over, I have upgraded it to Ubuntu Desktop 10.04 LTS, known as Lucid Lynx. Building your own PC with your student is a great learning experience in itself. Of course, this is just the computer itself, you still need to buy the keyboard, mouse and video monitor separately, if you don't already have these.
If you are not interested in building a PC from scratch, consider taking an old Windows-based PC and installing Linux to bring it new life. Many of the older PCs don't have enough processor or memory to run Windows Vista or the latest Windows 7, but they will all run Linux.
(If you think your old system has resale value, try checking out the ["trade-in estimator"] at the BestBuy website to straighten out your misperception. However, if you do decide to sell your system, consider replacing the disk drive with a fresh empty one, or wipe the old drive clean with one of the many free Linux utilities. Jason Striegel on Engadget has a nice [HOWTO Erase your old hard disk drive] article. If you don't have your original manufacturer's Windows installation discs, installing Linux instead may help keep you out of legal hot water.)
Depending on what your school projects require, you want to make sure that you can use a printer or scanner with your Linux system. Don't buy a printer unless it is supported by Linux. The Linux Foundation maintains a [Printer Compatability database]. Printing was one of the first things I got working for my Linux-based OLPC laptop, which I documented in my December 2007 post [Printing on XO Laptop with CUPS and LPR] and got a surprising following over at [OLPC News].
To reduce paper, many schools are having students email their assignments, or use Cloud Computing services like Google Docs. Both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University use Google Docs, and the students I have talked with love the idea. Whether they use a Mac, Linux or Windows PC, all students can access Google Docs through their browser. An alternative to Google Docs is Windows Live Skydrive, which has the option to upload and edit the latest Office format documents from the Firefox browser on Linux. Both offer you the option to upload GBs of files, which could be helpful transferring data from an old PC to a new one.
Lastly, there are many free video games for Linux, for when you need to take a break from all that studying. Ever since IBM's [36-page Global Innovation Outlook 2.0] study showed that playing video games made you a better business leader, I have been encouraging all students that I tutor or mentor that playing games is a more valuable use of your time than watching television. IBM considers video games the [future of learning]. Even the [Violent Video Games are Good for Kids]. It is no wonder that IBM provides the technology that runs all the major game platforms, including Microsoft Xbox360, Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation.
(FTC disclosure: I work for IBM. IBM has working relationships with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. I use both Google Docs and Microsoft Live Skydrive for personal use, and base my recommendations purely on my own experience. I own stock in IBM, Google and Apple. I have friends and family that work at Microsoft. I own an Apple Mac Mini and Sony PlayStation. I was a Linux developer earlier in my IBM career. IBM considers Linux a strategic operating system for both personal and professional use. IBM has selected Firefox as its standard browser internally for all employees. I run Linux both at home and at the office. I graduated from the University of Arizona, and have friends who either work or take classes there, as well as at Arizona State University.)
Linux skills are marketable and growing more in demand. Linux is used in everything from cellphones to mainframes, as well as many IBM storage devices such as the IBM SAN Volume Controller, XIV and ProtecTIER data deduplication solution. In addition to writing term papers, spreadsheets and presentations with OpenOffice, your Linux PC can help you learn programming skills, web design, and database administration.
To all the students in my life, I wish you all good things in the upcoming school year!