ARM-Based NAS Is A Low Cost, Low Power Beauty

A NAS is always a handy addition to a home network, but they can be a little pricey. [Blake Burkhart] decided to create his own, prioritising budget and low power considerations, with a secondary objective to produce some router and IoT functionality on the side.

A Banana Pi R2 was a good choice to meet these requirements, being a router-based development board that also sports dual SATA connectors and gigabit Ethernet. [Blake] had some retrospective regrets about the performance of this particular SBC, but it does just fine when functioning purely as a NAS.

The enclosure for the device is a three bay hot-swap HDD module, with one of the bays gutted and used for the Banana Pi. It’s a simple idea, elegantly executed, which looks great. To access the ports of the Banana Pi, a custom acrylic side panel was laser cut, which also allowed LEDs to shine through – obligatory for any DIY server/computer build. When mounting this panel to the existing enclosure, [Blake] was reluctant to take his chances tapping the brittle acrylic, instead opting to melt the threads into the plastic with a pre-torched screw. We find that tapping acrylic is usually okay if you take it slow, but heat-tapping does sound fun.

The 12 V fan that came built into the hot-swap enclosure was too loud and awkwardly came in a non-standard size with a non-standard connector. What’s more, a buzzer alarm was triggered any time the fan was disconnected and 0 RPM was detected. [Blake]’s solution was to rewire the power pin of the connector to a 5 V rail; he found that running the fan at 5 V led to much quieter performance whilst keeping the HDDs sufficiently cool.

We find that when it comes to DIY network gear and routers, there are two approaches. Either create your own bespoke solution that perfectly fits your needs, like this perfect home router, or work around your current gear and build some tech to automatically reboot it for you.


FOSSCON 2018: Developing the FreedomBox

The modern Internet can be a dangerous place, especially for those who might not have the technical wherewithal to navigate its pitfalls. Whether it’s malware delivered to your browser through a “drive-by” or online services selling your data to the highest bidder, its gotten a lot harder over the last decade or so to use the Internet as an effective means of communication and information gathering without putting yourself at risk.

But those are just the passive threats that we all have to contend with. What if you’re being actively targeted? Perhaps your government has shut down access to the Internet, or the authorities are looking to prevent you from organizing peaceful protests. What if you’re personal information is worth enough to some entity that they’ll subpoena it from your service providers?

It’s precisely for these sort of situations that the FreedomBox was developed. As demonstrated by Danny Haidar at FOSSCON 2018 in Philadelphia, the FreedomBox promises to help anyone deploy a secure and anonymous Internet access point in minutes with minimal user interaction.

It’s a concept privacy advocates have been talking about for years, but with the relatively recent advent of low-cost ARM Linux boards, may finally be practical enough to go mainstream. While there’s still work to be done, the project is already being used to provide Internet gateways in rural India.

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$99 Pinebook Gets KDE Neon Port

If you’re the kind of person who likes small and cheap Linux devices, you’re definitely alive in the perfect moment in history. It seems as if every few months we’ve got another tiny Linux board competing for our pocket change, all desperate to try to dethrone the Raspberry Pi which has already set the price bar exceptionally high (or low, as the case may be). We’ve even started to see these Linux boards work their way into appropriately cheap laptops, though so far none have really made that great of an impression.

But thanks to the efforts of Blue Systems and Pine64, the situation might be improving: they’ve worked together on a build of KDE Neon for the $99 Pinebook. The fact that they’ve gotten Plasma, KDE’s modern desktop environment, running on the rather mediocre hardware at all is an accomplishment by itself. But they’ve also set out tailor the entire system for the Pinebook, from the kernel and graphics drivers all the way up to Qt and Plasma tweaks.

In a blog post announcing the release candidate of the OS, Neon developer [Jonathan Riddell] says that these top-to-bottom improvements show that you can turn a super cheap Linux laptop into a practical computer if you’re willing to really get in there and optimize it. He also says the project has been something of a two-way street, in that improvements made for the Pinebook build have also been applied to upstream development.

The last time we looked at the Pinebook, we came away cautiously optimistic. It wasn’t great, but it was about as good as you could possibly expect given the price. If more developers are willing to go out on a limb and start optimizing their software for the device, it might become a very promising platform for low-cost mobile hacking.

FCC Filing Reveals Tasty Hardware McSecrets

If you’ve visited a McDonald’s recently, you might have noticed something of a tonal shift. Rather than relying on angsty human teenagers to take customer orders, an increasing number of McDonald’s locations are now using self-serve kiosks. You walk up, enter your order on a giant touch screen, and then take an electronic marker with you to an open table. In mere minutes your tray of nutritious delicious cheap food is brought to you by… well that’s still probably going to be an angsty teenager.

Thanks to a recent FCC filing pointed out to us by an anonymous tipster, we now know what kind of tech Ronald has packed into the electronic table markers (referred to as “tents” in McDonald’s parlance). It turns out they are Bluetooth Low Energy beacons powered by the Nordic nRF52832 chipset, and include some unexpected features such as an accelerometer to detect falls.

The Nordic nRF52832 features a 32-bit ARM Cortex M4F processor at 64 MHz with 512 KB flash and 64 KB SRAM. Quite a bit of punch for a table marker. Incidentally, this is the same chip used in the Adafruit Feather nRF52 Pro, so there’s already an easily obtainable development toolchain.

A image of the backside of the PCB shows a wealth of labeled test points, and we imagine figuring out how to get one of these table markers doing your own bidding wouldn’t be too difficult. Not that we condone you swiping one of these things along with your Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Though we are curious to know just why they need so much hardware to indicate which table to take a particular order to; it seems the number printed on the body of the device would be enough to do that.

This isn’t the first time we’ve taken a peek behind the Golden Arches. From reverse engineering their famous fries to hacking the toys they give out with Happy Meals, there’s more to do at the local McDonald’s than get thrown out of the ball pit again.

ARM Programming with Bare C

We confess. When starting a microcontroller project, we often start with the last one we did for that environment, copy it, and just make changes. And the first one? It — ahem — might have been found on the Internet. There’s a lot more than just your code that goes into this. If you want  to do (and understand) absolutely everything yourself on an ARM development project, you could use an all-in-one walkthrough. It just so happens [Jacob Mossberg] has a from scratch guide of what you need to do to get your C code running on ARM.

Starting with an ARM Cortex M3, he writes a simple C program and gets the assembly language equivalent. What follows is a detailed analysis of the machine code, exploring what the compiler assumed would be set up. This leads to understanding of what the start up code and linker script needs to look like.

It is a great approach and reminded us of the old saying about “teach someone how to fish.” He even devotes a little time to talking about getting debugging working with OCD. Of course, the exact details are specific to the chip he’s using, but most of it would apply to any ARM chip. Even if you don’t use ARM, though, the thought process and methodology is itself quite interesting.

This post would be just the thing if you are using Blue Pills and ready to move away from the Arduino ecosystem. Of course, if you want to veer away from the Arduino system, but don’t want to go all the way to bare metal, there’s always mBed.

NanoPi Cluster Is Quiet, Cool And Has Blinky Lights

We’ve seen the supercomputer cluster work of [Nick Smith] from the UK before, but his latest build is quite lovely. This time around, he put together a 96-core supercomputer using the NanoPi Fire3, a Raspberry Pi alternative that has double the number of cores. His post takes you through how he built the supercomputer cluster, from designing the laser-cut acrylic case to routing the power cables.

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Vector Network Analyzer Uses SoC FPGA

If you are working with AC circuits a vector network analyzer (VNA) is quite handy. As an entry to the InnovateFPGA competition for students, [Evgenii Vostrikov], [Danila Nikiforovskii], and [Daniil Smirnov] created a VNA using a DE10-Nano, high-speed analog to digital and digital to analog converters, and a circulator. Most of the details are in the video below, and on the project’s GitHub page.

The DE10-Nano has a dual-core ARM processor and an Altera FPGA in one package. That allows you to use the CPUs where that makes sense and still leverage the FPGA where you need high performance.

The circulator uses an op-amp to allow the test signal to route to the device under test, while steering any reflected signal back to the device for measurement. The design also uses a lock-in amplifier, something we’ve talked about a few times recently. This allows less expensive converters to generate magnitude and phase information.

Judging by the fan in the video, we suspect the setup gets a little toasty. The GitHub page has a lot of Russian on it, so we aren’t sure how much we could puzzle out since our Russian skills were mostly from watching the Adventures of Moose and Squirrel.

If you are interested in a VNA, they aren’t as expensive as they used to be. Particularly, if you roll your own and already have some things in your junk box.

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