Plat'Home OpenBlockS: Made in Japan

Plat'Home OpenBlockS: Made in Japan

Summary: Embedded Linux devices have always fascinated me, because besides on the server, it's where I think the Open Source OS is going to make the most impact. From 2002 to 2004, I worked for SHARP as a developer liaison consultant on the very much before its time ZAURUS Linux/Java PDA, so I'm very much familiar with the ins and outs of developing and supporting embedded Linux products.


openblock1.jpgEmbedded Linux devices have always fascinated me, because besides on the server, it's where I think the Open Source OS is going to make the most impact. From 2002 to 2004, I worked for SHARP as a developer liaison consultant on the very much before its time ZAURUS Linux/Java PDA, so I'm very much familiar with the ins and outs of developing and supporting embedded Linux products. When I had heard that Japan-based Plat'Home had announced a low-cost embedded Linux developer platform for "micro-servers" for sale in the US I immediately asked for a review sample to take a look at.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

The basic OpenBlockS266 is a palm-sized, single-core, low power solid-state, fanless AMCC 266Mhz PowerPC-based device with 128MB of RAM, 16MB of Flash ROM, and 1GB of DMA CompactFlash internal storage. When shipped in this configuration, it sells for $499. It has two Ethernet ports, 1 serial interface, an "aux" port to connect to a DNB9 serial converter as well as an expansion bus for connecting to a 2.5" external hard drive bay, which is sold separately. (EDIT: A 2.5" ATA disk can also be attached to the internal storage bay if the CF daughtercard is removed.) Plat'Home also sells more expensive units such as the OpenMicroServer which also includes USB host connectivity and DIO.

Also See: Plat'Home OpenBlockS266 Gallery

Out of the box, the OpenBlockS is pretty much a clean slate. It boots from ROM to its default configuration, which has a basic thttpd server running that allows you to switch the unit's IP configuration over a simple web interface, which is displayed entirely in Japanese. The CD which ships with the unit that contains the source code for the Linux OS on the device  as well as the PDF documentation for Setup, Hardware, the User's Guide and the Developer's Guide are also all in Japanese. (EDIT: It appears the review sample I was sent was older stock and the newer units ordered from the US site have English firmware.)

Fortunately, Plat'Home's US subsidiary has prepared complete translated documentation on how to set up the device with a usable Linux configuration as well as a basic LAMP setup for running Apache/PHP/MySQL apps, including how to set up a cross-compiler on your Linux PC to build PowerPC binaries that will run on the device. It is also possible to compile software directly on the device provided the compilers are installed during the distro setup on the CF card, but compared to your PC, it's obviously not going to build software anywhere near as fast with such a low clock speed and a single core. Be advised, however, the English documentation on is from circa 2003, so it reflects an older version of the software -- the current kernel is 2.6.16 and includes an automated configuration script called cfinst that makes the entire setup process much easier -- so you'll still want to glance at the commands in the Japanese documentation, as painful as that might be.

To interact with the device, you'll want to use a PC that has a working serial port, and connect it with the included pass-thru Cat-5 cable using the serial to RJ-45 adapter that ships with the unit to the OpenBlock's serial connection. You'll also want to connect at least one of the unit's Ethernet interfaces to a network switch or SOHO router. Since the OpenBlockS is a "headless" device with no video, you need to use a serial communications program such as minicom on Linux or HyperTerminal on Windows XP (it's built into every copy of XP in the Accessories folder, but if you have Vista, you'll want to get yourself a copy) to interact with the console interface.

Remember the good 'ol modem days? You'll need it to talk at 9600 baud, 8 bits, no parity and 1 stop bit with flow control disabled, or "9600, 8N1" for short, using VT-102 terminal emulation. That will allow you to log into the device using "root" and "root" as the default password. Once logged in, you can then fdisk the /dev/hda device to partition the CF storage with a primary partition and swap, mke2fs -j /dev/hda1 to build a ext3 filesystem, swapon /dev/hda2 and then mount /dev/hda1 /mnt to mount the filesystem. Then you can run the cfinst command which is a scripted setup which will download and install the latest version of the Debian-based Plat'Home Linux distro from the company's Japan-based FTP servers onto the CF card. Once that process is complete, you can then run the flashcfg -c hda1 command that switches the device from ROM boot mode to flash boot mode, reboot the device, and then configure the network interfaces and enable services like TELNET and FTP.

So what is this thing good for? Well, just about anything. If you want to build a specialized solid state mission critical appliance that runs a custom PHP/MySQL application, or want to develop VPN gateways and Asterisk VOIP routers, or just like to hack around with a low-power Linux machine under your desk at work, this is the geek's equivalent of a Linux Heathkit. Plat'Home has also recently started a contest where you can win a Microserver if you can come up with some great application that beats the living hell out of it. TheOpenBlockS is also a very power-miserly system -- it consumes an average of 4 watts of power when used with CF storage and only 7 watts with a 2.5" HDD.

Plat'Home could really make a go of the Microserver in the US, but I would the suggest that the company quickly get its English documentation and firmware up to date, and make the developer cross-compiler setup easier, perhaps by distributing a pre-baked Debian Linux virtual machine for VMWare Player or VirtualBox that is already set up to be a Microserver development environment. I'd also seriously consider setting up a pre-built Debian APT repository on the Plat'Home site with the top 100 Linux server applications all set and ready to go, as well as pre-baked cfinst images for LAMP and other popular embedded applications. I'd also suggest setting up developer forums so that users and developers can help each other out. This way, developers and end-users can get up and running with their OpenBlockS much more quickly than I did.

Does the OpenBlockS suit your developer fancy? Talk Back and let me know.

Topics: Mobility, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Interesting

    Interesting, but why so expensive? 500.00 for a really simple piece of hardware seems to be overpriced by a factor of 4 or 5 at least. You could easily build a single board computer for a fraction of the cost with much more processing power and with all the "missing" features. Or even a "conventional" low-end system for maybe 200 or 250. So what am I missing? How is this a good deal at all, even with english language support?
    • RE: Interesting

      That was also my first impression. Why that expensive?

      • Cost

        They are designed to work under much more severe tolerances than regular PCs or even netbooks.They are fully solid state, low wattage, ruggedized construction.
        • So other than ...

          ... industrialized applications is there a real advantage to using one of these devices versus a small form factor PC, netbook or even a PS3. You have to remember a PS3 is classified as a super computer for export regulations. Check out this array:

          • Correct

            However again remember this is solid state and fanless and low power. You could certainly go with an eeepc, but I wouldn't expect the MTBF of an eeepc to be even cloe to one of these things.

            A PS3 also hardly qualifies as a low power device. Its got a traditional hard disk. At 600 bucks you might as well go for one of the mini-itx systems and develop on x86 if its not environmenally hardened or power miserly.
          • On the PS3 ....

            [i]A PS3 also hardly qualifies as a low power device. Its got a traditional hard disk. At 600 bucks ..[/i]

            I wasn't thinking about the power consumption, but only the form factor. Anyway the PS3 can be gotten over at Beast Buy for $400.00 for the 40B and $500 for the 80GB model. Gotta keep up with the times bro. ;)

            BTW your blog is a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work. :)
  • RE: Plat'Home OpenBlockS: Made in Japan

    I don't see how you could build one that is palm-sized, solid state, power miserly and fanless with that much memory and processing power and expansion for much less than that. You could probably find an x86 board with a Transmeta or Cyrix Media GX, but the power and cooling requirements will be significantly higher. It certainly wouldn't fit on your hand.
  • I have read of projects similar to this where

    People modify wireless routers that are Linux based. Cheaper, but routers don't have the specs you listed and are not considered a good development platform.
    Mac Hosehead
    • SOHO routers like Linksys WRT54GL

      Do not have the processing power or memory of a general purpose embedded Linux device nor are they designed to be used in anything but a SOHO environment, and that includes controlled temperature ranges. The WRT54GL has 8MB RAM and 2MB of flash. Sure, its $60, 1/10th of the price of the upper end Microserver, but you get what you pay for.

      The Plat'Home people are very serious about their contest where they expect you to beat the hell out of their machine. I don't think a WRT54GL would last very long in either extreme cold or extreme heat.

      Now something like THIS, however, may be more usable, but not nearly as ruggedized as the OpenBlockS:
  • Low Power, Inexpensive Systems

    Here are some x86-based units from a company out in California. They also sell Intel Atom based motherboards.

    None of these, however, are going to be as power efficient as the OpenBlockS. They will also not be as tolerant to temperature ranges nor are they solid state. However, they do run on X86 chips, so you can run stock Ubuntu Server or whatever you want on them.

    I'm wondering if they can throw the Intel Atom mainboard in any of these systems pre-assembled. You certainly have the ability of custom ordering one with a case.
    • Wow, the Atom MB is cheaper than I would have expected.

      Couldn't you boot and run from a USB stick and be totally solid-state? There is a fan but I hear the Atom can use passive heat sinks. The OpenMicroServer with PoE & USB looks nice and probably worth the extra $100. I've heard that cross-compiling can be tricky.
      Mac Hosehead
      • As I understand

        You can run that Atom MB with SSDs or boot from CF cards.
  • Too expensive

    For $500 I build my own real Linux Server (just need to add another $100 for a HD).
  • Make it hardware extensible

    Combine this device with one of the many hardware H.264
    encoder/decoder chips available on the open market and you
    have a great platform on which you could build a home-
    theater media client, e.g. MythTV client.
  • RE: Plat'Home OpenBlockS: Made in Japan

    Price: This unit at the margin competes with older, used laptops for the do it myself'er. It is half again the price point. Need two DNS servers, two routers (on each side of a DMZ, two email servers (possibly a third for final delivery) for your self-managed internet environment? Buy Piii laptops at $300 a pop (with 10mbit PCMCIA card for second Ethernet) or these at $500 a pop? Hmm.
  • Netbook would be better ...

    You can pick up a new netbook on the low end for $200-$300 and have capacity for expansion through SD/USB slots, even run external storage without a problem. When they start hitting under $200 the units start to become disposable.
  • I remember these

    From a few years ago. This is the second marketing attempt to bring these into the US. I was expecting a price point around the $100 to $200 range, not $500. I guess "cheap" is relative.
  • to MisterMeister

    I'm still looking for an excuse to get a PS3 because I want a blu-ray player. When they get it down to $300, I'll grab one.
  • Too much for most DIY projects

    I?ve been entertaining the idea of some DIY projects that this might work for? except for the price. Something I wanted to experiment with was a DIY iSCSI target: you need a HBA device (a motherboard of some type), a bunch of drives (SATA for typical DIY), and something to go between them (Linux). A small form factor, bare bones system like this might fit the bill, until you hit the price tag. I want something small enough that it could fit inside of a external SATA rack / box.

    Admittedly, the solid state aspect of the unit are intriguing, but to use the quote? ?not in this economy!?
  • RE: Plat'Home OpenBlockS: Made in Japan

    Another reader mentioned the WRT54GL and a similar device would be Atmel's ATNGW100 reference design,
    which, I'm sure, could be built in quantity for far
    less than the $100 they get for it these days.

    SD is the only IO on that design, but I'm sure that
    could be fixed.

    I really think if someone took a platform like that and used it in a mini-server environment, you could make some really compelling devices for almost no money.

    $500 is pretty steep, even for a PPC platform. I would think $200-$250 would be much more reasonable.