Geek Foibles

The big project

I’m half-way through the largest personal tech project I’ve ever undertaken. Its purposes are varied: improve, simplify and make more efficient. Nearly every aspect of my home technology situation is affected.

Here are the general goals:

  1. I want an HDTV.
  2. I want a PlayStation 3.
  3. I want a simpler, more efficient network setup.
  4. I want my data stored centrally on my network.
  5. I want to be able to browse my media library on said HDTV.

Now, this seems relatively simple, but each of these simple things entail numerous additional undertakings.  I have tons of little ideas I’ve coddled and developed over the past few years, and this is basically an excuse to try them all out.  This project touches all my favorite topics: networking hardware, A/V hardware, multiple operating systems, virtualization, the works.

The HDTV and PlayStation 3 are pretty self-explanatory, but the network setup is where things get interesting.  Currently my network consists of a DSL connection from the venerable running into a Linksys WRT54G running DD-WRT.  That, in turn, is connected to an Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (Gigabit), which then has a Pentium III-powered Dell mini-tower hanging off it.  The Dell runs FreeBSD and hosts web and mail services.

This is obviously an overcomplicated setup.  The Dell is big, power-hungry and, while not exactly loud, not as quiet as I’d like it to be.  The Linksys and AirPort are each fine in those regards, both being small and comparatively low-power, but they are clearly redundant, as they are both WiFi-enabled routers with built-in switches.  The devil is in the details, though: I use the Linksys as my perimeter firewall because it is much more configurable than the AirPort.  I can use QoS to keep BitTorrent from saturating my connection when I’m trying to do something else (especially useful with services that are sensitive to latency, like VoIP or gaming) and I can fine-tune the firewall rules much more specifically than the AirPort allows.  I use the AirPort because it has a gigabit Ethernet switch, and because it can provide 802.11n wireless, both abilities the Linksys lacks.  If I want to add a multimedia PC like an Apple TV or a MythTV box into the mix in order to satisfy goal 5, this just clutters things even more.  It’ll draw additonal power, require additional cables and require additional shelf space.

But what if I could combine three of those devices into one?  Here’s the idea: Have a Mac mini running two Parallels virtual machines.  One VM runs pfSense and takes over duties for the Linksys, handling firewall and Internet routing duties, and the other VM runs FreeBSD, handling the web and mail hosting that the Dell currently handles.  Thus the Linksys and Dell are replaced by the Mac mini, accomplishing goal 3.  Then have the mini’s host OS, Mac OS X Leopard, launch Front Row (as there isn’t really any need for Parallels to be visible), connect it to the HDTV with a DVI cable and you’ve got 90% of the functionality of an Apple TV on top of all of this.  Goal 5 accomplished.  Finally, for goal 4, I can just connect some external storage to the mini and share it via Mac OS X file sharing, which will even allow me to do Time Machine backups via the network.

So: Simple goals, but a pretty complex solution.  Lots of new ideas to play with, and plenty of things to learn about along the way.  I’ll spend the next few posts catching up to where I am with this currently, and then it’ll just follow the developments as they happen.


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