Still Livin' La Vida Linux

Still Livin' La Vida Linux

Summary: It's been over a year since I wrote about my conversion to a Linux based digital media environment. This time I guess it's the MPAA who would be calling me a criminal, rather than the (RIAA) but other than that it's the same thing I've been doing with my music for my own enjoyment, so I don't feel bad about it.

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[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my current employer.]

It's been over a year since I wrote about my conversion to a Linux based digital media environment, and since it's the holiday season (or just after) I thought it was time to update the story, and describe some new Linux-based devices I'm using that others might find useful.

In the original essay I spoke about converting all my physical CD's to digital files into the patent-free FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format. At the time I was looking at the Sonos multi-room music system to play the files. I took the plunge and ended up buying a four room system last year. They aren't cheap, but they're the most robust devices I own. They never crash (and for a device as sophisticated as this, that's a real pleasure). I've owned televisions that fail more often than the Sonos boxes. The Sonos platform is based on an embedded Linux kernel, but the user interface is completely custom, using separate Linux-based controller devices to select play lists (although you can also use an iPhone). This is embedded Linux done right. It is incredibly easy to use. My wife, who is an avowed technophobe, finds it simple to program the music she wants. I'm trying to find excuses to buy more of these devices as it's such fun to have all your music available anywhere you want, or even listen to Chinese traffic radio broadcasts (available on the Sonos over the Internet) – although I'm running out of rooms to put them in :-).

I was so impressed with the ease of use of the Sonos that I ended up buying one of their all-in-one (including amplifier and speakers) S5 systems and giving it to my brother in the UK for Christmas. Bear in mind this is someone who would call me if his desktop background on Windows got accidentally changed and scream down the phone “my computer is broken!”, so I really didn't want to give him a system requiring any kind of technical support. I had converted him from his old Windows XP system to a desktop Linux system running Ubuntu earlier this year, and had only one support call since then (involving OpenOffice) and I really wanted to keep that score. So far it's been a complete success, although I did have one tech support call caused by him resting his chessboard  on top of the “volume minus (-)” button on the unit, and wondering why he couldn't hear any sound or turn up the volume using the controller. As I explained to his wife later, just when you think something is foolproof, the universe gives birth to a better fool. In order for the Sonos to play the music, the files need to be available on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. Now this is where my Samba experience becomes useful, as Samba is a core component of most home NAS devices. As the total amount of music I have is under 200Gb, I was able to re-use an old HP Media Vault NAS box I had spare at home. The HP Media Vaults are Linux and Samba based NAS units. This is one of the original units, not the modern versions they're selling now. It's so old it still uses ReiserFS as its primary file system, which gave me some concern before using it, but it's been fine as a mirrored 200Gb storage unit. It's really easy to set up with any client as it has a web-based administration interface, and as a basic music store it's given me no trouble. Point the Sonos devices at a Samba share on the box, give them a user name and password to use, and they'll go off and index all your music with no troubles at all. A few minutes later you're listening to anything from your complete collection.

I had to set up a NAS server for my brother as well, in order for them to encode their CD's for their Sonos unit. This is where I got lucky. I was given a modern Netgear ReadyNAS NVX NAS server with two 500GB mirrored drives. It's a Linux-based NAS, using Samba to provide Windows network storage and I'm very familiar with the developers. It's built like a tank (which I didn't appreciate whilst having to carry it in my luggage from San Jose, California to Sheffield in the UK) and is incredibly robust. It's really easy to set up and use. It has a modern web interface that is very intuitive to use, has two gigabit ethernet interfaces and hot swappable slots for four more drives. I was sorely tempted to keep it for myself but my brother also needed something to back up his work so his needs ended up being greater than mine. The fan was a little too noisy for them to tolerate it sitting in their kitchen so I ended up hiding it in the attic room connected via a D-Link Powerline Ethernet-over-power setup. It made me weep to see the gigabit network port throttled by that bottleneck (the ethernet over power speed doesn't get close to gigabit) but it works well enough in their environment. I expect after a while they'll forget the server exists, as it just sits there silently doing its job in the best traditions of an appliance.

Last year I spoke about tackling the problem of my ever growing DvD movie collection. I managed to solve that problem this year with the help of a really clever new device. After looking at all the options available I settled on the SageTV HD Theater system. At under $200, they're cheap enough to get one for each television and they're completely silent. They play anything. They can play disk based DvD images, DvD images stored as an .ISO file, AVI files, music in any non DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) format, files in the the Open Source Matroska Media format, and any variant of MPEG format I've ever seen. They also play video directly off the Internet and allow you to watch YouTube videos directly on your TV. Makes you realize how bad flash video encoding is when you see it that large :-).

They have HDMI and digital audio outputs (both coaxial and fiber optic), and are small enough that they're pretty unobtrusive next to a big screen TV (except for a really annoying blinking ethernet light that everyone ends up covering with black tape). When not in use they default to a really nice slideshow application displaying all your photographs that they have detected on the NAS storage.

Again, these devices are Linux and Samba based, and you can even telnet into the box as the root (super) user and mess around. The user interface is really nice (written in Java), with an easy set up, and they also connect to a NAS server via the Linux kernel CIFS/SMB (Common Internet File System protocol – the protocol that Samba implements) to play movies and music. I only use them for movies, as I have the Sonos boxes for music. My only problem with them is they're not as robust as the Sonos boxes, and occasionally I find I have to reboot one of them that seems to have gone to sleep all by itself. It's not often enough to be irritating, but I wish they were as reliable as the Sonos boxes.

One thing I love about them is that the developers at Sage are really fast at fixing any problems you report. It's a matter of a few minutes to update to a new version over the Internet (and just like a Linux distribution you are in control of when you update, not them) and new versions are posted very regularly. So far they've fixed a problem I found navigating a certain DvD menu, an issue with aspect ratio display, and rather embarrassingly for me they found a bug in the latest version of the Samba server by the way they were driving the Linux client. I always test the latest Samba versions on my home server (“eating our own dogfood” as the saying goes) so hopefully I catch issues like these before regular customers and vendors get to see them.

Back in the original story I rather quaintly estimated I'd need “one or two terabytes of storage” to cope with my DvD collection. Ha. Ha. Ha. I severely underestimated my squirrel-like tendencies with movies. So far I have about 20 terabytes worth of movies on those annoying physical disks, and that's just with regular DvD's. I haven't moved to BluRay yet as the DRM on this format is so offensive that I know of no reliable way (yet) to copy the data from these disks onto network available storage.

I have a perfectly serviceable Ubuntu desktop at home (with 8GB of memory) running Linux so I decided to turn that into my movie media server. I bought an eight bay hot-swappable eSATA TowerRaid box from the local Frys Electronics in San Jose, and eight 1.5 Tb disks. That gave me 12 Tb of storage total, but given the failure rates of large drives I ended up using the TowerRaid box as a JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks) tower and using the Ubuntu Linux kernel software RAID5 code instead of the custom Linux RAID driver code that came with the TowerRaid controller card. I formatted it with ext4 and set up the latest Samba code (from our git tree) to provide NAS service for the 9.5 Tb available after the RAID formatting. Other than the problem I reported earlier that the SageTV boxes found it's been a completely reliable setup, and all for under $1,500.

I still don't have enough space for all my movies, so I've been migrating them onto the NAS server as I want to watch them. It seems to work, and hopefully by the time I'm running out of space on the array I'll be looking at upgrading to 4TB disks (or maybe even Solid State Disks by then). I've been using a combination of the Linux “vobcopy” command or the excellent KDE created “k9copy” command to copy the DvD's onto my home server, both of which seem to deal nicely with the evil CSS (content scrambling system) DRM that DvD's are encoded with. This time I guess it's the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who would be calling me a criminal, rather than the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) but other than that it's the same thing I've been doing with my music for my own enjoyment, so I don't feel bad about it.

Let me know how you have been solving your music and movie storage problems as you too move to “La Vida Linux”, I'd love to hear from you!

Topics: Linux, Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Open Source, Operating Systems, Servers, Software, Storage

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67 comments
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  • Glad to hear things are well

    I couldn't be more pleased with my combination of Windows 7, Windows Home Server, Zune, and MediaPortal. It all "Just Works". :)
    NonZealot
    • I was thinking the same thing

      nothing against his setup, but it sounds like an awfull lot of work for something I setup in no time right out of the box with Windows Media Center.

      Oh well, to each his own, and as long as we're all happy, well, such is the way the world should be.

      :)
      John Zern
      • ummm... He's doing more sophisticated stuff

        He's not just piping mp3s around you know...

        You'll have to tell me how to backup my DVDs using Windows Media Player sometime.
        urbandk
        • Right

          [i]He's not just piping mp3s around you know...[/i]

          Neither am I. You do realize that 99% of what he talked about was using Samba to make all of his peripherals think they were dealing with Windows file shares, right? Everything he did works fine with Windows, it is actually Linux that needs to pretend to be Windows for any of this to work. :)

          [i]You'll have to tell me how to backup my DVDs using Windows Media Player sometime.[/i]

          Why would you try to use WMP to backup your DVDs? Your question makes as much sense as asking how to change the oil in your car with iTunes.
          NonZealot
          • Linux emulating windows is understandable.

            If a superior intelligence can emulate the mental processes of an inferior one why should it be any different in this case.
            The Mentalist
          • Figures

            Up until this point, no one had said anything negative about anyone else's choice in OS. It figures that you would be the first. Congrats.

            As to the "content" of your post, Allison and his team did what needed to be done: copy Windows in order to create a functional system. If it could possibly have been done another way, something tells me that someone as brilliant as Allison would have found a way. :)
            NonZealot
          • In reference to Jeremy's use case

            "did what needed to be done: copy Windows in order to create a functional system. If it could possibly have been done another way, something tells me that someone as brilliant as Allison would have found a way"

            Your statement is as silly as the Mentalist's statement.

            It is clear from the post, Jeremy uses SAMBA on his home media center shares for debugging reasons, as it is popularly called - dogfooding. He didn't "copy" Windows to create a "funtional" system for himself. He reverse engineered a proprietary Microsoft protocol to allow Linux and Mac computers to integrate and share information with Windows computers and their locked down communications protocol. And for those of us who use non-Microsoft operating systems (about 12% of home computer users), we are eternally grateful.

            From a technical standpoint, since he is storing the media on a Linux computer with Ext4 (superior in many ways to Microsoft NTFS), and playing it on native Linux devices (Sonos and Sage), it would make more sense to use NFS (native Unix/Linux sharing protocol) rather than SAMBA (native Windows sharing protocol). That is if Sonos and Sage were forward thinking enough to activate the NFS code in their Linux devices. Though for Jeremy, he would probably want to stay with SAMBA for his dogfooding purposes.
            colinnwn
          • Actually all the clients I use are Linux too....

            But they're designed to work with a Windows file server, as that's what most people have in their home for their Windows desktops.

            So I'm sorry but no Windows was used in the making of this article at all :-).

            That's why it's called "La Vida Linux" :-).

            Jeremy.
            JeremyAllison
          • Why would you be sorry?

            [i]So I'm sorry but no Windows was used in the making of this article at all[/i]

            Why would you be sorry? Good for you that you managed to get all of this to work without Windows! Kudos! I managed to get all of this to work with Windows. Some, like Richard Flude below, would have us believe that my job was more difficult than yours. Huh, I wonder what that says about our skill levels. :)

            I'm kidding of course, Samba came in very handy when I ran a mix of Windows and Linux in my home. If I have you to thank for that, then I thank you. You see, unlike others, I don't take pride in accomplishing anything while placing arbitrary restrictions on myself like "It must be accomplished without using [insert OS]". My job, both at home and at work, is to get tasks completed and goals accomplished as efficiently as possible. In my experience, that tends to be by using Windows although I've used Linux where it made most sense. And of that, I'm not in the least bit sorry. :)
            NonZealot
          • Re: Why would you be sorry?

            I don't think that "It must be accomplished without using [insert OS]" is a fair statement. While there are plenty of zealots out there for sure, I think some people (myself included) would rather say "It must be accomplished without spending too much". If Windows wasn't so darn expensive I would just use it everywhere. But when you think that for every little 'server' you're going to setup at home you have to pay $100-300 (depending on whether you buy OEM or not) in a Windows license, then it really adds up. For those of us that want to keep it legal anyway.

            Now, if Microsoft would do licensing like Apple, where one OS license costs $129 and a family pack of 5 costs $199, it'd be more affordable.
            arodriguez@...
          • Efficiently as possible? Define

            [i]My job, both at home and at work, is to get tasks completed and goals accomplished as efficiently as possible. In my experience, that tends to be by using Windows although I've used Linux where it made most sense. ~NonZealot[/i]

            A public company CIO colleague aims to get corporate technology spend down to 1% of Gross Revenues (that's for [b]all technology[/b] including telecoms). He's pretty good at getting it below 2.8%.

            Technology can be done 1) Well 2) Low cost 3) Fast. Pick any two.

            In today's corporate environment, cost reduction is a goal. That is very hard to do if you take a Windows everywhere approach.
            paulzag
        • ummm...I'm doing a little more then shuffling MP3's around

          I use the unit as a DVR, Media Library, Centralized Hub for Extender units.
          I can rip DVD's to the HD with a different software package, but that's not what I bought it for.

          I'll just rent/download/On Demand a movie if I want to see a movie. It doesn't make sense (for me) to purchase a DVD for 14 bucks, watch it, rip it, and store it away because I "might" want to see it again.
          John Zern
          • Do you have kids ?

            Wait until you see what an eager 3 year old can do to a "Bob the Builder" disk :-). The "kids" folder on my server has the most content right now :-).

            Jeremy.
            JeremyAllison
          • seconded!

            My wife is pushing (softly, as I'm highly in favor of the idea) me to buy an Xbox to use as a media extender in the living room. She wants our 30+ (and growing) kids DVD collection ripped and accessible in a few clicks on our Harmony remote.

            The Xbox will also act as an extender for the digital TV tuner I recently installed in my Windows 7 desktop to complete our DVR setup.

            In the mean time Windows 7 + Windows Media Center makes an old laptop a simple stand-in HTPC out of the box. Unfortunately the laptop doesn't have any digital or HD connections, so it's not a permanent solution. But Homegroups makes sharing content from the Desktop to the laptop a snap!
            ericesque
          • I did something similar...

            Setting it up was Apple-like in it's simplicity :-)
            Tom-Tech
          • I second that for kids

            Years back (before DVD), my young son was enthralled with McGuver episodes which I had recorded off the TV onto a VHS tape(s). He actually wore the coating off the tape in spots by watching the tape over and over and over...
            rattlesnake0407
    • I'm sorry?

      Windows HS RAID 1 (OS and Data) & 5? Uptime measured in years?
      DVD ISO images?

      In 2009 I completed a distributed digital signage solution for a client,
      scaleable to hundreds of thousands of players. The solution is built
      entirely on Linux (sorry Jeremy no Samba, uses HTTP). Solid state
      fanless x86 players using kernel.org, busybox and mplayer. Content
      management systems on RHEL & Java EE 5 with terrabytes of storage
      (ext3, LVM, Software RAID) and a RIA interface using Flex (to an open
      SOA interface).

      It's most popular application is to replace windows based solutions. In
      the real world they don't "Just Work" as their fanboys maintain
      (typically 15-25% player network down).

      I'm confident NonZealot has the appropriate skills to keep his home
      media solution working as well as Jeremy's. Jeremy saved himself
      license fees, draconian EULA conditions and gained significant
      flexibility.
      Richard Flude
      • Good for you!

        I guess that by showing Linux works, you just proved that Windows doesn't. Wait, or maybe you just proved that Linux worked in your specific situation? Yeah, thought so.

        Here is a thought that is going to [b]blow[/b] your mind. Both Linux [b]and[/b] Windows can "Just Work" in certain scenarios and can be "Made to Work" in others. That you propose Linux working and Windows working are mutually exclusive shows that it is you that is the fanboy. :)

        The incredible irony is that while I'm typing this response on my Windows 7 computer, I'm installing Ubuntu on another. Ahhh, I [b]love[/b] not being restricted by zealot superstitions!!! :)

        PS I have to add that of all the comments posted so far, it is the Linux people who have shown more signs of zealotry by extolling a "must not use Windows no matter what" approach and the "Windows" zealots (as I've been erroneously called before) that have the more "use what works no matter the OS" attitude. When you look at it that way, it isn't difficult to tell who the real zealots are. :)
        NonZealot
        • Nice work

          "I guess that by showing Linux works, you just proved that Windows
          doesn't."

          No, just your Windows HS solution doesn't support all the features
          Jeremy blogged about, windows based solutions aren't reliable in
          the real world (not when require to run unaided for years).

          "That you propose Linux working and Windows working are mutually
          exclusive shows that it is you that is the fanboy."

          It's not that they're "mutually exclusive", your claim not mine, it just
          one doesn't work as claimed.

          Windows failings have nothing to do with Linux.

          "When you look at it that way, it isn't difficult to tell who the real
          zealots are. "

          Have you read your response to Jeremy's post about his use of Linux
          for a media solution?

          It'll be interesting to hear how Ubuntu goes. Given your "NonZealot"
          understanding of Mac OS X I suspect it will be deleted when c:\ isn't
          accepted at the "DOS" prompt;-)
          Richard Flude
          • Funny

            [i]No, just your Windows HS solution doesn't support all the features Jeremy blogged about[/i]

            Yes it does. The beautiful irony is that you have Linux clients pretending to be Windows clients talking to Linux servers pretending to be Windows servers. That makes me laugh.

            [i]windows based solutions aren't reliable in
            the real world[/i]

            Nice generalization. My Archos 605, while a [b]fantastic[/b] Linux based video player, crashed about once a week. More often, I might add, than my Zune and my Windows Mobile phone. [b]Therefore, Linux based solutions aren't reliable in the real world.[/b] /sarcasm

            [i]Have you read your response to Jeremy's post about his use of Linux for a media solution?[/i]

            Yes, I congratulated him on it.

            [i]It'll be interesting to hear how Ubuntu goes.[/i]

            Considering I first used Linux in the early '90s while I was in University (I didn't pull the "graduate from University knowing nothing other than *nix" comment from thin air, that is from personal experience), and I got LFS (Linux From Scratch) up and running, I don't think I'll have a problem with Ubuntu. Thanks for the concern though.

            [i]Given your "NonZealot" understanding of Mac OS X[/i]

            It really pisses you off that I know Windows, Linux, and OS X, and my least favorite by far is OS X. Sorry Richard but you can't accuse me of hating OS X because I "love" Windows (which I don't, Windows is a tool). I hate OS X because OS X sucks. Deal with it. Or don't. I don't care. :)
            NonZealot