Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Graphing Current Cost

After hooking up my Current Cost Meter to a database recently I've been logging my power usage so the next step is to look at what I can do with the data. As I mentioned when I introduced my meter lots of other people have been looking into this as well.

I like Dale's idea for creating a daily energy bill so I've decided to aim towards that but include a graph of the days usage and possibly a link to a web page where I can look at more details of that days use.

With the web page idea in mind I decided to look into what I could do graph wise in PHP since that's my web language of choice. After looking through a few options I plumped for the obvious library, that of PHP Image Graph as it's part of PEAR so should be fairly decent, complete, well used and flexible. Here's where I'm at so far:
That's just a small snipped of 1 days power usage when I was cooking dinner. You can see I turned on my steamer (approx 800 watts) at about 5:30pm then went on to turn on the oven which heated up then cut in and out while it was cooking before I turned it and the steamer off just before 6pm.

As you can see, I'm pretty much there with the graphing side of things. The only issue left is to sort out the X axis. While it might appear to be a bit crazy, the current cost meter only samples approximately every 6 seconds. Because of the different number of samples in each hour and with a few rounding errors, the X axis appears not to be linear. Hopefully, I'll solve this by ensuring a consistent number of samples in each time slot.

Overall, PHP Image Graph seems very powerful. You can graph pretty much anything with it in all sorts of formats and have relatively complete control over the way the graph looks. I'm not at all artistic so mine looks very plane! There is, however, a reasonable barrier to entry. Documentation for the API is relatively complete if you know where to start, but documentation in general seems really rather thin on the ground and very sketchy. But, thankfully someone produced a great set of demos for a PHP conference that really show off a lot of the features. The source is available too so it's easier to work out what to do with your own graphing and how to get started. I'll probably blog my source code at some point, it's not very long, but definitely requires some tidying before it's ready for a public outing.

What I want to do next is take the graph and produce some sort of daily "bill" e-mail. That will have a link back to a private area on my web site that would allow closer inspection of certain areas of the graph. This is just the next step in education for how to save electricity by learning how much different combinations of devices use together. For example, is it better to steam fish in a steamer, grill, oven cook, etc. Hopefully, I'll be able to apply those sorts of questions all around the house to work out how to be as green as possible.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Next Generation Linux

The folk following me on Twitter are probably sick of hearing about identity management, the main stay of my work this year. So I was glad to get out of the office last week to present at an IBM conference in London called "Next Generation Linux". A thank you note I received reminded me I should blog about it, always nice to receive those! Next Generation Linux is an event IBM are running in various worldwide locations this year looking at what comes next for Linux for businesses.

Being a Linux geek working in a software services organisation called Emerging Technology Services and with my contacts I like to think I was the natural choice for the pitch titled "Emerging Linux Technologies". I only had a short amount of time to present a vast field of topics so I narrowed it down to just five topics compelling for business and talked about the following:
  1. Virtualisation
    OK, not strictly an emerging technology as many businesses have already adopted it. But, it was a good opener setting the scene for some of my other topics and allowed the opportunity for me to briefly run through a few virtualisation technologies for Linux.
  2. Cloud Computing
    An exciting name and concept for what is essentially some very well thought out system administration. This technology has always been feasible but it's being made possible now with commodity hardware capable of remote management and some neat software ideas holding it all together. The really novel thing is the way applications can be deployed to run in the cloud environment and the fact we can actually package this up as a solution now. It's the realisation of "On Demand" computing.
  3. Project Big Green
    Green computing is becoming much more of a concern as business starts to run out of room in data centers, power requirements head skywards and running costs steadily increase. Last year IBM announced a re-investment of $1 billion into research towards green computing which gives business the opportunity to cut running costs and jump on the green band wagon at the same time. Green computing is essentially about consolidation of services, allowing spare compute power to be utilised elsewhere, and making sure equipment is environmentally produced and disposed of. It's those three words we hear in all good green campaigns, reduce-reuse-recycle, do it!
  4. Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux)
    One of my specialisms and a topic I could ramble on about for a long time, I'll try to keep it brief. In this short pitch I indicated security is still an issue in 2008 and it can cost you big time if your security is breached. Enter SELinux, an overview of what SELinux is and where it comes from and a comparison with other technologies such as AppArmour is a good start. To get to the crunch of SELinux though, I explain the differences between Discretionary Access Control (DAC) and Mandatory Access Control (MAC) and the ultimate advantages SELinux brings for security.
  5. Real Time Linux
    Real time really is an emerging area with both of IBMs current Linux partners, Red Hat and SUSE, bringing out offerings recently. Real time is built from the hardware up through the OS and in the case of hard real time into the applications too. IBM have certified some particular System X hardware to be real time capable and provide firmware and support for this now. Next comes the Linux piece where some of the firmware functionality removed from hardware must now be implemented in the kernel, there's loads of ways of doing this but to get support for it SUSE and Red Hat take care of that. IBM have also built some enhancements to Java, by introducing a modified garbage collector (Metronome) and providing ahead of time (AOT) compilation while complying with RTSJ, all of which add up to the ability to write real time Java apps - interesting! Now we can offer a full real time system on non-specialised hardware, using a commercially available operating system and a language loads of people can program, backed by IBM through Websphere Real Time. Boy that sounds like an advert, sorry about that, but it is a great idea, very cool!

This is all very much in brief, if you want to know more then get in touch or leave a comment.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Current Cost Monitor

A couple of guys at work have managed to lay their hands on a funky new device called a Current Cost meter. It's pretty simple to understand, it measures your household electricity usage and displays it on the screen (left). To do this it comes in two parts, you hook a plastic loop around the live feed going into your fuse box (mine is in the garage) which is connected to some electrical wizardry I don't understand to measure the current without interfering with the wire, and a wireless transmitter device to send the data to the unit you just plug in somewhere in your house.

I jumped at the chance to get one of these things and was one of the first batch to get them at work and a little community of current cost users has built up pretty quickly. That said, pretty much everyone else has beaten me to blogging about it with some very cool results. So here's the list (that I know of) right now, in no particular order we have...As an aside, Dale's just joined my department at work (horay), and Roo is leaving IBM (boo and much sobbing).

There's lots of other people looking into these things too, but those are just the blogs I know about. This type of device isn't exactly new, but what makes this one exciting is the data port and connectivity to a computer. With such a community there's been some cool work done such as graph power usage and send yourself a daily electricity bill. The device itself can't really save you money and definitely doesn't save energy (you have to plug it in) but what it does do a great job of is educating you about exactly what all your household devices like to eat for breakfast.

I'm just starting out at home having had the screen in the kitchen for a couple of months already with looking at what I can do with it while connected to a computer. I'm now logging all the data to a database so I guess one of the first things I'll be doing is graphing my own data. From that I hope to learn even more about what my house does with its power. For now though, the only graph I have (above) is that produced by sending my data via a Nanobroker to Andy Standford-Clark's server. This should hopefully be another fruitful little project for my new (and now you know why it's low power) home server.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Installing Ubuntu On A TinyTuxbox

With my new toy now in hand the time soon came to get it installed with Linux. At first glance it might appear to be tricky to install given the lack of CD or Floppy drives. However, it boots from just about anything you attach to it whether that's USB, Compact Flash or Network Boot. Setting up a one-time PXE server seemed a little over the top so I was planning to boot from a USB stick until I found someone at work with a USB CDROM.

Ubuntu IconUsually I like to run Fedora at home, it's the thing I'm most comfortable with having spent my career tinkering with Red Hat and SUSE based distributions so one of the things I wanted to do with this box was install the much hyped Ubuntu distribution. This wasn't to see what all the fuss is about (I'm familiar with Ubuntu having tried it a couple of times before but always gone back to Fedora) but really just so I can get to know it even better. This machine is going to be part desktop and part server so Ubuntu kind of makes sense too.

I installed the hard disk into the box myself and once I got over some initial hardware niggles (that I caused I should add) the installation was simple. Boot from USB CDROM with the Hardy Heron CD in it and the rest is history. It's amazing how such a small box can run a full whack desktop operating system and do all that on just 8 watts.

In these early days, I have three things in mind for the box. The primary use will be to serve my music collection to my stereo; next is to connect my current cost meter to allow some more in-depth analysis of our power usage at home; then there's simply using it as a desktop for the simpler day-to-day computer usage i.e. browsing the web.

Setting up the music streaming was pretty easy after transferring my collection to the hard disk. I added the apt sources for the SqueezeCenter software that operates with my SqueezeBox Duet, did an apt-get update and an apt-get install squeezecenter and job done. The TinyTuxbox can much better cope with running the MySQL server this is based on along with the web front end and the music collection scanning services associated with the software than the SLUG I tried previously. All in all, couldn't have been much easier.

I've not tried hooking up my current cost meter yet, ironically I've run out of power sockets near the computer with only a six-way adapter and plugs for the PC, TinyTuxbox, Printer, Monitor, ADSL Modem Router, and speakers although it shouldn't be a hard problem to rectify.

Last of all, one of the additional benefits of this low-power box is every day usage. It can easily run a web browser so instead of starting up a large PC just for this, we can switch to the TinyTuxbox desktop and browse there. This should add to our power saving, even though it's likely the TinyTuxbox will be run all the time soon to serve the current cost data. That reminds me, I really should discuss batch-uploading of current cost data so I can save even the 8 watts the TinyTuxbox uses most of the time too.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Introducing the TinyTuxbox

My second choice of home media server arrived on my doorstep last week after my unwillingness to maintain the painfully slow and awkward slug. This time around I've plumped for a TinyTuxbox Series 8 which seems to be a UK resold version of the e-Box 4300. It fits the extra requirements I made after parting with the SLUG, that is it's an x86 based machine and has lots more memory. I'm not the only one at work with one of these types of boxes either, James Taylor has the Netvoyager re-badged version of the previous box to my one, the e-Box 2300.

It is, in fact, a fully functional x86 PC but just a really small one, even smaller than the pretty tiny Fit-PC which I was also seriously considering and probably would have gone for were it not for the excellent pre-sales support of one of the TinyTuxbox staff over e-mail. That said, the excellent pre-sales was balanced with painfully slow delivery. It took 28 days to get it to my door which for a delivery cost of nearly £20 I consider poor. I've been left with a upward feeling though, post-sales support has been promising too as I initially had some problems installing the box, which it turned out were my fault and I solved quickly enough anyway. I'm not going to talk software here though, that's a story for another day. So how does my TinyTuxbox look and spec up....?

The workhorse of the TinyTuxbox is the 500MHz Via Eden ULV processor which provides a 32-bit x86 processor along with a built-in graphics processor with hardware MPEG decoding. The processor is an impressive bit of kit, it runs all that from just 1 watt of power, see the link for the full specs! Away from the processor we have 512MB RAM (some of which is shared for the video output), on-board Ethernet, 3 USB ports, VGA output, a PS/2 connector (supplied with PS/2 Y-Splitter cable to connect both keyboard and mouse), a compact flash slot, sound in and out, power button, and hard disk and power LEDs. The box is also fitted with an IDE connector and can house a 2½" laptop type hard disk in it. I ordered it without the hard disk and fitted my own as the supplied ones were not good value for money probably due to the services incurred from the fitting itself.

The TinyTuxbox site advertises the unit as consuming a maximum of 8 watts and I'm pleased to report that was absolutely accurate. According to my current cost meter, it uses 8 watts with the hard disk spinning so once I get it to spin down on idle it should use very little juice. Click the various images for a link to my Flickr page and some more notes.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Introducing Home Easy

One of the things I've been giving consideration to while choosing my media server is home automation. I don't want to go crazy about it and have everything in the house hooked up to a computer so curtains open when alarm clocks go off, or alarm clocks go off earlier if it's freezing outside (to give more time to scrape ice), etc. I'm more interested in a few subtle things to help be more green at home, and possibly to help with security, anything I can get that adds convenience is a bonus but not necessary for me.

The first simple step I've taken along this road is to get some stand-by power savers that are getting ever more popular these days. The one I went for was the introductory pack from the Home Easy range which are manufactured by Byron and retailed exclusively through B&Q.

The pack gives you three radio controlled sockets into which you can plug your devices at home, and a remote control to turn on/off the sockets. So, by plugging in my TV, DVD, Wii, and other devices to one of these via their 4-way extension lead I can turn off a whole bunch of stand-by with the click of a remote control button anywhere in the house.

The Home Easy range is relatively complete for a UK home automation solution not based on X10. The kit is reasonably priced too with the 3 sockets and remote costing £20, unlike X10 end points. One of the reasons for choosing Home Easy over another popular standy-by saver is that the range is more complete, but also the protocol is well known so third parties are starting to produce devices compatible with Home Easy too. For example, rfxcom have certified their transceiver to work with Home Easy so it's now possible to computer control Home Easy devices - nice!

The next tentative steps I'll be looking to take on this road are having a home on/off switch. It's annoying having a single remote control, it's small, you have to find it, and it might be upstairs/downstairs and probably not where you are. I want to take advantage of the home easy grouping facility to have a switch that basically turns my house on or off. We should be able to leave the house (or go to bed) and turn all the stuff we're not using off, and turn back on again when we get home (or wake up).

Just this one purchase can save me anywhere between 20 and 50 watts in stand-by power. At 10 pence per kilowatt hour (typical rate) I'll get my £20 back with just 6 months usage. So it's green and saves you some dosh too, bonus!