Groovy Gadgets For Network Gurus

Stuff your favorite networking nerd's stocking with these tech treats.

By Carla Schroder | Posted Dec 13, 2005
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One of the first things a hardworking Linux network admin learns is to never ever throw anything anyway, because somewhere, someway, someday, you might need it. Or even if you don't need it, you just never know what clever hacks you'll be inspired to perpetrate. Linux encourages this sort of thing–if you haven't spent happy hours browsing boxes of obsolete old stuff for inspiration, you're missing out.

Even more fun that re-purposing old stuff is finding clever new gadgets. (Gotta keep those boxes full–remember, old stuff was once new stuff.) Everything is getting smaller and more specialized. Sure, any Linux geek worth her geekcreds can take a standard old PC and effortlessly whip up any sort of device- network storage, RAID file server, firewall, authentication server, whatever is needful. But don't overlook the sleek new small specialized gadgets that are hitting the market.

Black Dog
Black Dog Linux Server, despite the gruff tuff name, is adorable. This little bugger packs a lot into a cigarette-pack sized device (oops, how bad of me, I shouldn't mention tobacco products. I should say it's about the size of a half-pint hip flask.) You can stuff a complete computing environment into this little puppy and take it anywhere. It comes loaded with Debian Linux, ready to use as an Apache Web server. To use it, simply plug into the USB port of any available PC. Black Dog takes over the PC–it's not just a USB storage device, but a complete tiny computer that commandeers the mouse, keyboard and monitor. Applications run directly from Black Dog. When you're finished, unplug it and everything (presumably) returns to normal.

Powered by a 400 MHz PowerPC processor, with 64 megabytes of RAM and up to 512 megabytes of built-in storage, it's not going to be your portable DOOM 3 station. But it has other enticing features, such as an MMC (multi-media card) expansion slot for more storage, and a biometric scanner. The biometric scanner calibrates to your thumbprint, then uses a PAM module to perform authentication. This presents all sorts of interesting possibilities for secure data management, portable network troubleshooting devices, and ultra-portable personal computing.

This little gadget is designed to be hackable; the Black Dog server folks encourage third-party development of applications and customizations, and are even sponsoring a $50,000 developer's contest. Ace coders can download the software developer's kit and guide for free.

Hard Drive Made of DRAM
HyperOs got a bit of attention when it released its DRAM-based hard drive this year, the HyperDrive III. That's right, a real physical RAM disk.No moving parts at all, it's 100% solid state.

It's not quite up to par with its old-fashioned mechanical cousins on capacity–it maxes out at 16 gigabytes. HyperOs claims that it is far more reliable and longer-lasting than mechanical drives, and it's blazing fast and completely silent. If you want super-duper speed, like for editing large graphics files, or any kind of multimedia or engineering, put this drive on a SATA interface and let 'er rip.

But what, you say, about preserving your data? When the lights go out, so do your data, right? No, because it comes with a 160-minute rechargeable backup battery. That's still a bit iffy- you want non-volatile backup storage somewheres. It's currently around $700, so be sure Santa knows how good you have been.

The Hackable WRT54GL
The latest incarnation of the Linksys WRT54G cut the memory and storage in half, to 2 megabytes and 8 megabytes respectively, which was a dash of cold water in the faces of all us Linux geeks who like to take innocent, unsuspecting blue boxes and flash new custom firmware on them. But Linksys has not forgotten us– the WRT54GL was released just to keep us happy. It has the same 4/16 megabytes of resources as earlier models. And if that's not enough, don't forget the WRT54GS model, which comes with 8/32.

LED Lights
Am I the last person on Earth to notice these? They're cool. LED flashlights throw out a lot of light from a tiny gadget, and are kind to battery life. The light is a solid beam like a spotlight, not the concentric circles that old-fashioned flashlight users are used to. My personal ultimate fave essential personal tool is the USB Swiss Army Knife with a built-in LED flashlight, USB flash drive, ballpoint pen, screwdriver and knife blades. I am not making this up! See here: Swiss Memory USB.

Worried about airport security taking away your USB Swiss Army Knife because of its lethal 1" scissors? Then get the model made with modern paranoia in mind: the Swiss Army tool for computer travelers. It has no cutting tools on it whatsoever. However, you could still poke someone in the eye with the ballpoint pen, so you won't be completely defenseless.

For folks burdened with an excess of money, Surefire flashlights are a good cure. They're great little lights–a two-cell AA is equivalent to a conventional two-cell D light, which is nice when you're crawling under tables and through crawlspaces trying to track down a cabling problem. Though I'm not quite sure what makes some of them worth their price tags. Call me square, but I think spending almost $400 on a flashlight a bit excessive. Especially a little one that is easier to lose. They come with cool names like "Devastator" and "Centurion", so maybe that's the answer. They also have models as low as $34, and you still get cool names.

Useful Electrical Thingies
Yes, I am one of those people who like to rant about stupid product designs that never seem to get fixed. Exhibit A: Big, fat wall warts. Would it kill the vendors to attach a little pigtail so you can plug more than two devices into a power strip? Sheesh. However, an entire industry has arisen to mitigate this deficiency, and happily accept our money to do so.

How about a rotating wall outlet for starters? That's right, this replaces ordinary two-port wall outlets with plugins that rotate 360 degrees. I should say it will replace them, if it ever makes it to market- at this point it's just a pretty Web site.

But some plugs are so freaking big even a rotating plugin won't help. There are a couple of ways to get around this. One is to use a PowerSquid, which gives you five grounded flexible power outlets. It is not a surge protector, just a different type of power tap. There are variations on this design; some are grounded A/C Y-Cables, some are singles.

Country Geeks Miss Out
I'm so far from civilization that even litter is scarce, so if you want to share your favorite newfangled hardware gadget I won't be offended. Just click my byline at the top of the article to drop me an email.

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