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NohrTec Microclient Jr

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Just got myself a new toy: a micro-PC initially aimed for embedded applications. This little marvel comes from Thailand, from a company called NorhTec based in Bangkok. You can find all specifications on their web site:

To get directly to the point, the box I got has:

– One 200-MHz CPU (Bogomips: 400)
– 128 Mb RAM
– Diskless, fanless
– 10/100 Mbit NIC
– Wireless support
– Sound in/out
– VGA out

I plan to use this unit as a jack-of-all-trades on my network: print server, web server, e-mail, web cache, VPN connection from the outside, ssh server, etc. No need for a Graphical User Interface. This box will run daemons 24 hours/day.

First impressions on the hardware: the box is really tiny. It fits in the palm of my hand and does not feel too heavy given its packed contents. The connectors are all packed on the front and the rear, there is no square millimeter left for anything else.

Careful about one point though: the unit was delivered with a power supply that supports 110-240V at 50-60Hz, which means you can basically plug it into any power system on the planet. But: the plug is American (two flat plugs) and does not fit European plugs. Even worse: the plug is not at the end of a cable so that you cannot take of the US plug and replace it with its European counterpart. You really have to buy an adapter. Now, I understand NorhTec is trying to make these beasts as cheap as possible but fitting the power supply with an adequate (European for European shippings, or simply replaceable) plug would have definitely been a bonus.

Installing an OS without using an optical or hard drive is most unusual but really simple. I chose to install the latest Debian at that time (Etch) from the USB port, in this case a USB key. Booting the machine for the first time, you have to get into the BIOS (press DEL) and select USB-something for your boot drive. Plug your USB key in, reboot and you should end up in the Debian installation menu.

How to configure a USB key to act as a boot device for the first time to install Debian? I simply followed the instructions from the Debian install page:

Debian Etch install instructions

For the record: preparing a USB key to install Debian was simply a matter of dropping these files on the key (a single DOS partition):

– vmlinux
– initrd.gz
– syslinux.cfg
– netinst.iso

And then make the key bootable using syslinux. This utility is available both for Windows or Linux. All these files are easily retrieved from a Debian mirror. You can actually choose any iso image you want from the Debian distrib, I chose netinst which gives me just the basics and then enough to get whatever else I might need over the Net.

To act as a hard drive, I purchased a 2Gb Compact Flash card for 20€. Not really expensive for a hard drive, and largely enough for what I intend to do with it. Once the unit had booted I just inserted the flash into its socket to have it recognized by the install procedure. Careful with this socket: there is no mechanism to help you take the card out once it has been inserted in. You can still do it with a knife or pliers but it would have been nice to get something a little more convenient. Oh well…

Debian Etch installation was a breeze. The PC is pretty slow compared to today’s standards, a basic installation took me about 45 minutes, after which I had a fully operational PC. During the next boot, I had to go through the BIOS again and re-declare boot devices. This time there was no option for USB boot, only floppy so I selected that one and the machine now boots correctly off the flash.

Once the PC was booted and on the network, I just changed the Debian repositories to the country I live in, applied the standard apt-get update, apt-get upgrade mantra and that was it!

First package I was missing was openssh-server, which will soon become my only link to this machine. Since I do not plan to leave it connected to screen and keyboard, the network ability is crucial. At that point I could take the box and install it in its definitive place. The only cables going to/from it are network and power. As soon as the ssh server is running, I am able to log into it from my PC and continue the configuration.

Next thing I did was differentiate the prompts on my PC and on the NorhTec box. To avoid doing something stupid on one machine while thinking I am on the other, I went to Bash documentation and found out how to convert my prompt to bright red on the NohrTex box. This seems really trivial but believe me it helps.

For what it is worth, here is my prompt on the tiny box:

export PS1='[e[1;31m]h(u)-W&[e[m] '

Now is time to start the usual hunt for non-working hardware. First issue is the wireless, second is sound. Since I did not get to make any of these work for now, I will leave that for further posts.

My first impressions of this machine are excellent. It is great to finally have a tiny box that remains powered on 24 hours a day without using too much power. It basically means I am able to log into my home network any time of day and from anywhere on the planet and from there, wake up other machines at home as needed. Sure, a WRT54G-based router would give me some of these functionalities but I plan to do so much more with this tiny box…

Written by nicolas314

Thursday 14 June 2007 at 5:31 pm

Posted in junior

Tagged with ,

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