Reviving this Blog

Its been almost four years since I updated this blog and in that time I’ve been busy with life and family. I’ve still been working on blog worthy stuff, but all my spare time has been taken up with actual projects, rather than writing about them. Most likely this has just been a matter of priorities. I could have made time to blog, but wasn’t interested enough to do so. I’ve always kept the site running and software updated and I’ve watched the daily hits go down from several hundred to single digits.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I would like to get back into it. Its taken me a little while to set aside the time, but this post is the start of a new and (hopefully) sustained run of writing. How long this continues will really depend on the response I get, if I see people reading and responding to what I’m producing then I will feel justified in setting aside time for it.

I’m making this a little bit of a fresh start and with that in mind I’ve done some work on the site. All the old content will remain in place, since it still gets a few hits. However, I’ve updated the theme and added the option for readers to subscribe by email, since this seems pretty popular nowadays (you can still subscribe by RSS and that’s never going away). Also, the site is now only accessible by HTTPS thanks to Let’s Encrypt.

Content-wise I’ve tried to get a head start and currently have two further posts written and ready for publishing. These will be posted later this week and I’ll try to keep up the momentum. In terms of topics I’ll be covering there will be lots of stuff about self-hosting your own cloud services, some embedded stuff and general software and Linux stuff. I have a list of posts I want to write and I’m open to suggestions in the comments.

Let’s see how this goes…

Tiny MQTT Broker with OpenWRT

So yet again I’ve been really lax at posting, but meh. I’ve still been working on various projects aimed at home automation – this post is a taster of where I’m going…

MQTT (for those that haven’t heard about it) is a real time, lightweight, publish/subscribe protocol for telemetry based applications (i.e. sensors). It’s been described as “RSS for the Internet of Things” (a rather poor description in my opinion).

The central part of MQTT is the broker: clients connect to brokers in order to publish data and receive data in feeds to which they are subscribed. Multiple brokers can be fused together in a heirarchical structure, much like the mounting of filesystems in a unix-like system.

I’ve been considering using MQTT for the communication medium in my planned home automation/sensor network projects. I wanted to set up a heirarchical system with different brokers for different areas of the house, but hadn’t settled on a hardware platform. Until now…

…enter the TP-Link MR3020 ‘travel router’, which is much like the TL-WR703N which I’ve seen used in several hardware hacks recently:

It's a Tiny MQTT Broker!

It’s a Tiny MQTT Broker!

I had to ask a friend in Hong Kong to send me a couple of these (they aren’t available in NZ) – thanks Tony! Once I received them installing OpenWRT was easy (basically just upload through the exisiting web UI, follow the instructions on the wiki page I linked to above). I then configured the wireless adapter in station mode so that it would connect to my existing wireless network and added a cheap 8GB flash drive to expand the available storage (the device only has 4MB of on-board flash, of which ~900KB is available after installing OpenWRT). I followed the OpenWRT USB storage howto for this and to my relief found that the on-board flash had enough space for the required drivers (phew!).

Once the hardware type stuff was sorted with the USB partitioned (1GB swap, 7GB /opt) and mounting on boot, I was able to install Mosquitto, the Open Source MQTT broker with the following command:

$ opkg install mosquitto -d opt

The -d option allows the package manager to install to a different destination, in this case /opt. Destinations are configured in /etc/opkg.conf.

It took a little bit of fiddling to get mosquitto to start at boot, mainly because of the custom install location. In the end I just edited the paths in /opt/etc/init.d/mosquitto to point to the correct locations (I changed the APP and CONF settings). I then symlinked the script to /etc/rc.d/S50mosquitto to start it at boot.

That’s about as far as I’ve got, apart from doing a quick test with mosquitto_pub/mosquitto_sub to test everything works. I haven’t tried mounting the broker under the master broker running on my home server yet.

The next job is to investigate the serial port on the device in order to attach an Arduino clone which I soldered up a while ago. That will be a story for another day, hopefully in the not-to-distant future!

Smartclock Prototype

So as promised here are the details and photos of the Arduino project I’ve been working on – a little late I know, but I’ve actually been concentrating on the project.

The project I’m working on is a clock, but as I mentioned before it’s not just any old clock. The clock is equipped with sensors for temperature, light level and battery level. It also has a bluetooth module for relaying this data back to my home server. This is the first part of a larger plan to build a home automation and sensor network around the house (and garden). It’s serving as kind of a test bed for some of the components I want to use as well as getting me started with the software.

Prototype breadboard

The prototype breadboard showing the Roving Networks RN-41 bluetooth module on the left and the sensors on the right. The temperature sensor (bottom middle) is a TMP36 and the light sensor is a simple voltage divider using a photocell.

As you can see from the photos this is a very basic prototype at the moment – although as of this weekend all the hardware is working as well as the software drivers. I just have the firmware to finalise before building the final unit.

Time display

The (very bright!) display showing the time. I’m using the Sparkfun 7-segment serial display, which I acquired via Nicegear. It’s a lovely display to work with!

The display is controlled via SPI and the input from the light sensor is used to turn off the display when it is dark in order to save power when there is no-one in the room. The display will also be able to be controlled from the server via a web interface.

Temperature display

The display showing the current temperature. The display switches between modes every 20 seconds with it’s default settings.

Careful readers will note the absence of a real time clock chip to keep accurate time. The time is kept using one of the timers on the ATmega328p. Yes, before you ask this isn’t brilliantly accurate (it loses about 30 seconds every hour!), but I am planning to sync the time from the server via the bluetooth connection, so I’m not concerned.

The final version of will use an Arduino Pro Mini 3.3v (which I also got from Nicegear) for the brains, along with the peripherals shown. The Duemilanove shown is just easier for prototyping (although it makes interfacing with the RN-41 a little more difficult).

I intend to publish all the code (both for the firmware and the server) and schematics under Open Source licences as well as another couple of blog posts on the subject (probably one on the final build with photos and one on the server). However, that’s it for now.

Quick Update…

Well, I’ve not been doing great with posting more, especially on the quick short posts front. I guess it’s because I’m either too busy all the time or because I just don’t think anyone wants to read every last thought which pops into my head. Probably a bit of both!

Anyway, here’s a quick run-down of what I’ve been up to over the past couple of weeks:

  • I’ve been working on an Arduino project at home. I’ll post more on this over the weekend (with photos). For now I’ll just say that it’s a clock with some sensors on it – but it does a little more than your average clock. Although I’ve had my Arduino for a couple of years I’ve never really used it in earnest and I’m finding it refreshing to work with. Since I use PICs at work the simpler architecture is nice. Of course I program it in C so I can’t comment on the IDE/language provided by the Arduino tools.
  • The beer which I made recently is now bottled and maturing. It’ll need a couple more weeks to be ready to drink though (actually the longer the better really, but I can never wait!). I’ll report back on what it’s like when I try it.
  • I’ve been thinking about ways to get the ton of data I have spread across my machines in order. Basically I want to get it all onto my mythbox/home server/personal cloud and acessible via ownCloud and NFS. I also have a ton of dead tree (read ‘important’ documents) which need scanning and a ton of CDRs that need backing up. After that I have to overhaul my backup scheme. It’s a big job – hence why I’ve only been thinking about doing it so far.
  • I’ve also been thinking about upgrading my security with the recent hacks which have occured. Since I’m not hugely reliant on external services (i.e. Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon) I’m doing pretty well already. Also, I already encrypt all my computers anyway (which is way more effective than that stupid ‘remote wipe’ misfeature Apple have). I am considering upgrading to two factor authentication using Google Authenticator anywhere I can and I want to switch to using GPG subkeys and storing my master private key somewhere REALLY secure. I’ll be writing about these as I do them so stay tuned.

Well, hopefully that’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to (tech-wise) lately as well as what might be to come in these pages. For now, that’s all folks.