Walking the (Black) Dog


I've had my BlackDog device for a couple of weeks now and thought it was time I gave some more details about what it is, how it (sort of) works, and what it isn't. What it isn't

Let's start off here - simply because this is much easier to describe than "what it is".

  • It is not a "server" in the classic sense. While you COULD use it to run a mail server or other servers - that probably isn't the best idea - it's a flash device with a limited lifetime of memory writes - good for mostly static info, but not good for lots of file IO (more thoughts on this later).

  • It is not a standalone computer... it needs a "host" system with USB support and either a Windows XP or linux based OS.

  • It is not an "end user" solution/device. It is not very usable in it's current state - except as a concept platform. Note: This is likely to change in the next 12 months as more projects and ideas bear fruit.

How it works

When you first plug the device into a Windows XP box it appears as a USB CD-ROM Drive. If you have autorun enabled it will run an auto-start program (Realm-autorun.exe), which will run various programs which will:

  • configure networking for the device

  • start an X Session on your host computer

  • start the user Authentication program, which, after it's trained, will use the bio-metric scanner on the device to authenticate you via your thumb print. (By default you can choose to skip the whole authentication routine.)

  • Once you have passed authentication a small program is started called the "launcher" (a small, configurable X Windows application launcher).

  • Finally the USB CD-ROM is disconnected.

The launcher isn't a bad little program, but it does have it's quirks:

  • It completely ignores the size of the desktop - opting, instead, for the resolution of your monitor when deciding where to place itself upon starting. This works fine, unless your running an alternate shell that shrinks the size of the desktop to something less than the full screen.

  • The launcher also ignores the standard X -geometry argument, which means you can't correct this flaw.

  • Finally, the launcher also chokes and ignores configuration items which contain the plus "+" symbol as part of thier command line arguments.

Warning: If you decide you want to change the arguments to the xterm program, make a copy of it's configuration and modify your copy. That way if you screw it up you can still get into the box to fix it. I speak from experience here.

There isn't much in the way of software on the device to start - but a few "must haves" (dillo - a browser, slypheed - email client, and irssi - a chat client) have already been ported and are available from the Blackdog website: The Dogpound.

What it is

  • A PowerPC Based Linux Box (running a debian distribution).

  • An embedded device, that uses only USB power (and an internal battery)

  • A platform for lots of (possibly) cool stuff - but you have to build most of it yourself.

  • A (possibly) secure device that uses a practical biometric scanner for authentication.

  • A very cool (mostly open source - see Other Annoyances below) gadget!

  • An inexpensive, programmable embedded linux device.
What it has
Other annoyances:

  • While some of the source code for the custom software is available the build enviroment, prerequistes, and dependencies are not documented well enough that you can build or modify them. Most notably the source for Realm-networking.exe is not buildable in it's current state. This isn't a simple ./configure, make type build. It involves cross compilers, dependencies, and a specific (undocumented) development environment.

  • The provided emulator (QEMU based) uses up every available CPU cycle on your PC - rendering it mostly useless for other tasks.

Support from Realm Systems

Support for the device is provided via a website, Project Blackdog. The support staff answer most questions quickly, and actively participate in the discussion forums.

My first BlackDog was defective (the biometric scanner didn't work) - the company worked closely with me to get me a replacement in a minimal amount of time (this doesn't mean overnight - the initial demand was pretty high so they were on back order).

First Impressions

  • So far I like the way support has been responsive to my requests for information.

  • Some stuff (sample source) is only half-baked and not ready for primetime - even if only for other developers - if your going to release code you should at least provide enough documentation so that it can be rebuilt!

  • The device itself functions as it should. I've been through 100 or so reboot/restart cycles without a problem. No moving parts is a very good thing!
  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

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