dear lazyweb: looking for a little nas/router combo

I’m getting ready to write up events of the Birmingham QA Hackathon. One of the outcomes was that I ended up really wanting the device I am about to describe. Bear with me.

On the first day of the event, we discovered that the wireless at the venue was totally worthless. There was a wired computer, but we had bizarre problems trying to use its wired connection to share. Several man-hours were lost in these endeavors. Instead, for the first day and a half, we did a lot of USB keystick trading. Once again, Git saved the day.

I’d talked about setting up a Linux virtual PC with Samba set up so everyone could have a shared space to push to and pull from – and everyone could have read-only access to everything, to make remotes easy. David Golden went ahead and did this, using his own already-Ubuntu machine. In the end, we didn’t use it. We found out that my laptop worked with the wired connection, and I became the router. (The theory was that I was the only person with GigE to give it a try.) This worked just fine… well, until GitHub was unavailable for nearly a whole day. Oops!

At any rate, it occurred to me that it’s very, very rare that a conference or hackathon has a great network connection. Last year at Oslo was probably the best I’ve ever seen, as we were hosted by a tech company and worked in their office. Apart from that, it’s usually hit or miss. At a “normal” conference, this isn’t the end of the world. For one thing, I’m usually in the US and I can use my EVDO modem. For another, network access is just for goofing off.

At a hackathon it’s a bigger issue. Everyone wants to share their work as quickly as possible, and the repository is usually remote. Git makes it easy to share across an intranet, but generally we don’t have our laptops set up to act as publishing git servers. Since the two QA Hackathons have been in Europe, I’ve also had to deal with the fact that neither my iPhone nor my EVDO modem were of any use.

I realized that the perfect hackathon appliance would be a little hunk of junk that you can stick in your carry on. It would be a wireless router with the ability to share an attached USB drive. One quick solution would be to use an Apple Airport Extreme, but there’s a big problem – and I don’t mean the price. Every time you add or alter a user on the Airport, you have to reboot the darn thing. Ugh!

I figure these are the requirements:

  • provide each user with rw access to his own space and ro access to others
  • adding or changing settings (users) should not restart the device
  • it should be able to plug into a wired network and share it wirelessly
  • it should be able to join a wired or wireless network as a normal node
  • it would be pretty cool to support gitjour
  • supporting some kind of local dyndns wouldn’t be so bad, either

I thought about running a FreeNAS virt on my laptop, but if the machine is operating in “share a wired connection” mode, you’re stuck sitting near the outlet. That’s why you really want something you can plug in and leave more or less unattended.

I only would use this thing a few times a year, so it needs to be cheap.

Right now, contenders seem to be the Marvell Linux wall-wart (which would need external storage and wireless) or a fit-PC, or a Asus Eee PC laptop. These are all a bit more than I would want to spend, though. For me, the best price would be about $50 - $75.

David found an ASUS wireless router with a USB port, and it can run DD-WRT – but I don’t know much about DD-WRT or what it can do. How does it compare to FreeNAS, for example? It looks, for example, look it has no NAS component. That’s a big bummer. Flashing a cheap device with some stock OS to get a web-configurable NAS router would be “turnkey enough” for me.

So, all I wonder is: who already has something like this working, with an easy-to-reproduce setup? Suggestions?

Written on April 5, 2009
hardware   lazyweb   programming