Review of the Plat'Home OpenBlockS
By Ben Okopnik
Some months ago, Plat'Home sent us a press release detailing their new product, the Plat'Home Open Micro Server . The writeup seemed promising - lots of keywords designed to ping a geek's heart, warm his kidneys, and titillate his imagination:
> Hi Ben, > Wanted to introduce you to Plat'Home [www.plathome.com], the company > that introduced the fledgling Linux operating system to Japan in 1993 and > is now offering its flagship product, the OpenMicroServer, in the U.S. > Their current customer list is quite impressive * NTT, Japan's largest > company, KDDI, Sony, Fujitsu, and Toshiba, among others. > Plat'Home designed the customizable SSD/Linux operating system for the > OpenMicroServer. OpenMicroServers can be fully administered over the > network, and do not require a connection to display or I/O devices such as > a monitor, keyboard or mouse. > The neat thing about the OpenMicroServer is that it fits in the palm of > your hand, so it's quite portable. And thanks to integrated Power over > Ethernet (PoE) functionality, it can even work without a separate power > supply cable. This means no mangy cables and no need to be next to a > power outlet. Additionally, it does not contain a cooling fan, so it's > quiet, and has the ability to operate in super hot* 104+ > degree* conditions.
Since it sounded like a flexible and interesting gadget, I volunteered to review it (despite already having way too much to do, on the principle that one more task in the huge flood wouldn't be noticeable. :)
When I received it, my first reaction was "Whoa, that's a lot bigger than I expected!" Then I realized that I'd been misled by the hype. I quote, again:
The neat thing about the OpenMicroServer is that it fits in the palm of your hand, so it's quite portable.
Perhaps I'd misinterpreted the above statement, and "fits in the palm of your hand" actually means "in the palm of King Kong's hand" - although it's arguable whether this unit is smaller than Fay Wray's waist. I'd bet on Fay, myself. In reality, it's about half the size of an average laptop, although a bit lighter. Add in the cables and the power adapter (which, despite the claims about Power Over Ethernet (PoE), was indeed required - I, at least, could not get PoE to work), and the weight/size of the unit is something they should have buried in the documentation instead of boasting about it. On the other hand, I may be looking for restraint where only over-enthusiasm abounds...
(Doing a bit more digging on the Net turned up a reference in which they had indeed buried the size data, coyly mentioning a "1U rack mount size". This turns out to be 17.3" x 7.3" x 1.8" inches, a.k.a. 440x184x44mm overall! That same reference uses the term "tiny" in addition to "palm of your hand".)
Next, like a good lad, I attempted to read the documentation. Frankly, I felt like just plugging it in and having a go - this would be a certain sort of test of its own, since a stand-alone computer should work intuitively in many ways - but I was already getting a certain feeling about this, and decided to treat it with maximum latitude and circumspection.
A large number of the initial pages of the printed (actually, photocopied) manual were consumed in warnings. In fact, in a long life of reading equipment manuals for a variety of things - power tools, welding equipment, sailing gear, scuba gear, large power systems, computers, etc. - I've never seen anything like it; there were warnings about leaking capacitors as well as warnings about placing the unit on top of things (I was fascinated and read the details - it seems that it could actually fall and hurt someone. Who would have thought it???) Most people, after reading this part, would be too terrified to ever come near it again... but after many repetitions of a calming mantra, I was able to go on with the process - only to scratch myself on a badly-finished corner of the case. It seems that it's easier to write warnings than to make a metal case that won't attack the user.
Once past that initial hurdle, I started delving into the meat of the docs - which were written in Japanese. Actually, the words used were English, and so was the grammar - but the structure and the phrasing were pure 日本語 (Nihongo). The spelling was excellent, too - and yet, it was nearly incomprehensible; many of the paragraphs were repeated, and the structure was indefinite and vague (there was no hierarchy of any sort.)
However, I had a secret weapon: my wife happens to be of Japanese extraction, and so I had a ready-made translator and partner in exploration of this deep, dark cave. Take that, you manual-manglers! :) She read the Japanese version of the manual, translated it into English, and we went merrily rolling along - except in the many cases where the Japanese didn't make any sense either. Some of which could then be resolved by reading the English version. Woo-hoo, linguistic adventures Indiana Jones style!
To be completely fair about this, it really wasn't about the language - although that by itself would be a "do not pass 'GO', do not collect $200" factor. The problem was that the organization of the manual was so poor that no amount of translation would have made it work. E.g., if you wanted the password for logging in via the serial interface, you had to figure out that you should go forward a few chapters into the Ethernet section and use their web password to do so. On the other hand, if you had the facility for remembering every single fact in a manual, I suppose you could read the entire thing and somehow cross-reference everything in your mind. I will admit that I am explicitly not a paragon of such virtues; if I can't find it in the relevant section pointed to by the index, I tend to take 'strace' (or perhaps 'ldd', or sometimes an axe) to the thing. In this case, Plat'Home had supplied me with a 4" or so Ethernet cable, so I decided to try that route first.
Armed with the minimal amount of information that the two of us were able to glean, I went poking and prodding at the 'soft' end of this box. 'nmap' showed that the appropriate listeners (plus a few others - none of which were documented) were indeed running on it; however, plain old port 80 was not available - theoretically because you'd want to leave it available for standard HTTP service to the world from this box - and 880 was handling web administration logins. A technically odd choice, that, since 880 is still a low (i.e., privileged) port and requires root permissions to access; this is the common reason for using port 8080, or other ports above 1024, for similar situations. By the same token, the pre-allocated IP addresses for this box were a little unusual: "192.168.252.254" constrains you to either have your own address in the xxx.xxx.252.xxx IP range or to use an odd netmask - neither of which is normally necessary or desirable, and is certainly not common practice.
ben@Tyr:~$ nmap 192.168.252.254 Starting Nmap 4.20 ( http://insecure.org ) at 2008-04-14 14:02 EDT Interesting ports on 192.168.252.254: Not shown: 1692 closed ports PORT STATE SERVICE 21/tcp open ftp 23/tcp open telnet 37/tcp open time 111/tcp open rpcbind 880/tcp open unknown
Surfing over to http://192.168.252.254:880, I found a very crude, early-days-of-the-Web page - <FONT SIZE="-1"> tags and all, with no styling or anything resembling an attempt to make it pleasant or professional-looking - redirecting me to the Web interface. Which was just as crude looking, and - crowning touch - with all the link text written in Japanese. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that I could roll over the links and see the names of the links ('password.html', etc.), but except for that, it was a complete and perfect mystery. Doubly so, since I thought I was reviewing a computer. Perhaps I was mistaken, and it was a new puzzle game?
Since the web username was 'root' (at least somewhat startling, in the context of a box the services of which you're supposed to expose to the world), I decided to immediately change the password, and went to the 'パスワード' ('password') link... which contained nothing beyond the page title and a copyright bar. Looking at 'View source' revealed the reason - the page consisted of only the following HTML:
<h1>password</h1> <!--password--> <hr><B>© 2001-2005 Plat'Home CO., LTD., Heart Internet Service</B><BR><FONT SIZE="-1">OpenMicroServer Auto Configuration, Version: 4.00, Last Build: Sun Dec 18 15:47:39 JST 2005</FONT><BR> </body></html>
In other words, the page did exactly nothing useful - there wasn't even any form input HTML that would accept a new password.
Somewhat discouraged by now, I checked out the remaining links, guessing -
and sometimes being wrong about - their functions. The configuration
options for the servers, the DNS config, etc. were mostly either crude,
incomplete, ineffective, or all three. Just for comparison, a typical
Linksys router interface is slick, intuitive, and rather complete in its
functionality; if Plat'Home had simply
ripped it off used
it as an inspiration, they would have been much, much better off - even
before they made any changes or improvements. Given the many excellent
examples of router UI out there today, there's literally no reason for
anything this poor.
Just for kicks, I decided to see if the console interface was any better... and couldn't get in, even armed with the root password, and despite the fact that I'd just exchanged some email with their technical contact person.
ben@Tyr:~$ telnet 192.168.252.254 Trying 192.168.252.254... Connected to 192.168.252.254. Escape character is '^]'. Linux 2.6.12 (LinuxServer) (ttyp0) LinuxServer login: root Password: Login incorrect <Ctrl-C> ben@Tyr:~$ ftp 192.168.252.254 Connected to 192.168.252.254. 220 ssd-linux FTP server (tnftpd 20040810) ready. 530 User anonymous unknown. Login failed. Remote system type is UNIX. Using binary mode to transfer files. ftp> user root 331 Password required for root. Password: 530 User root may not use FTP. Login failed.
Contacting Plat'Home's technical experts didn't produce any good results - except, perhaps, a confirmation that I wasn't crazy and the interface was this bad (their attitude seemed to be "That's not a problem, sir - that's a feature!") They were quite nice, and very polite, but an excuse like "you can't log into FTP or telnet via Ethernet, only via the serial interface - that's a security feature!" indicates either a completely wrong-headed idea about what is necessary for a web server, or a stuck excuse mechanism. Again, there's no justifiable reason for either of these in a company in the computer field today.
As a last, vain hope, I tried connecting to the box via a serial interface. Due to my fairly extensive experience with serial/cellphone connections in my early days of mobile Linux connections, I consider myself quite knowledgeable about it... but this box defeated me; I could never get it to talk to me either via 'minicom', 'kermit', or any of my other serial configuration tools. (For the doubting Thomases among us - yes, the port was configured and enabled. Yes, I have serial support compiled in the kernel. Yes, "serial.o" was loaded.) I gave up, and shipped it back to Plat'Home.
In conclusion, I have to say that the Plat'Home OpenBlockS appears to be a prototype that's about 3/4 of the way through development rather than a market-ready product. I'd have enjoyed playing with it if it had been the nifty toy represented by their PR department... but I saw nothing that justified the hype. For the moment, my impression of this product is anything but positive.
 While I was waiting for the unit, Plat'Home contacted me to say that the Open Micro Server that they were originally going to ship had been superceded by the OpenBlockS and that they were sending me the newer unit; hence, the change from the original PR to the actual unit. The claims, however, didn't change much - except, perhaps, to become even more hyperbolic than the original.
Ben is the Editor-in-Chief for Linux Gazette and a member of The Answer Gang.
Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory (the recurring nightmares have almost faded, actually.)
His subsequent experiences include creating software in more than two dozen languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a hurricane, writing articles for publications ranging from sailing magazines to technological journals, and teaching on a variety of topics ranging from Soviet weaponry and IBM hardware repair to Solaris and Linux administration, engineering, and programming. He also has the distinction of setting up the first Linux-based public access network in St. Georges, Bermuda as well as one of the first large-scale Linux-based mail servers in St. Thomas, USVI.
After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is currently anchored in northern Florida. His consulting business presents him with a variety of challenges such as teaching professional advancement courses for Sun Microsystems and providing Open Source solutions for local companies.
His current set of hobbies includes flying, yoga, martial arts,
motorcycles, writing, Roman history, and
with his Ubuntu-based home network, in which he is ably assisted by his wife and son;
his Palm Pilot is crammed full of alarms, many of which contain exclamation
He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.