April 11, 2007

Bubba makes an exciting SOHO server appliance

Author: Joe Barr

Have you considered setting up a server on your home LAN, but shied away from the idea because you didn't want to dedicate a machine to the task, or want to spend a lot of time setting it up and managing it? If so, you might be interested in Excito's Bubba, a cute little Linux-based server appliance from Sweden that makes running and managing a server easy and fun.

Bubba is both heavier and smaller than I expected, weighing roughly 3.5 pounds and yet scarcely larger than a typical 3.5-inch IDE drive. Four models are available, differing in the size of their hard drive from 80 to 750GB. The Bubba I tested had a 320GB drive. The device comes with a short Category 5 cable, power supply, and power cord.

Bubba is much more than auxiliary storage, though that it one of its many functions. It's a real server, perfect for home or small business LAN needs. Bubba serves mail, FTP, HTML, backups, streaming media, and printing. It can also handle HTTP/FTP/BitTorrent file downloads for you. If that's not enough, Bubba runs Debian Sarge and functions as a standalone computer.

What makes Bubba different from other servers? First, ease of use. You can do all of these things without being a system administrator. In fact, that's the whole point of Bubba -- to provide services to ordinary home users in a way they'll be comfortable with. Second, it's cute, and it has more functionality packed into a small space than ought to be street-legal.

Could such a small device really do server duty? I quickly followed the enclosed directions, connected Bubba to my OpenWRT-powered Linksys router, and powered it up.

Bubba sat there and blinked at me with its single LED for about a minute. When the blinking stopped, and the light remained steady, it was time for me to see if Bubba had connected to my LAN. Still following the instructions, I entered "bubba" as the URL in my Firefox browser and pressed Enter, and there I was, on Bubba's welcome page.

For those whose connection attempts are not that smooth, the Bubba documentation explains in detail how to connect to Bubba from a PC. In fact, the documentation explains it three times: once for Windows users, once for Mac users, and once for Linux users.

Administration and users

Photo by Excito

After logging in to Bubba for the first time as the administrator, change the default admin password. From Bubba's admin welcome screen click on Users, then on Edit user next to the admin account, then on Change Password.

Be sure to remember your admin password, because it's the only way to control Bubba. If you lose it or forget it, as I did, you'll have to download and reinstall the complete operating system image for Bubba, and lose any data or settings you haven't backed up elsewhere. You can easily avoid making the mistake I made by backing up Bubba's settings on a USB stick drive by inserting the USB stick into the USB connector on Bubba's backside, and then selecting Settings -> Backup after logging in as admin.

Excito recommends that you create a user account for each individual using Bubba. I created an account for myself, noted the password, and authorized SSH access for the account. Each individual account you create gets its own /home/username subdirectory, and only that user has write permissions for that directory. Users also get their own /home/user/private subdirectory which nobody else can read, as well as FTP and email accounts. This is all done automatically when you create a user account.

Music, files, mail, and more

One of Bubba's features is its ability to stream music to iTunes-compatible music players on your LAN, such as Banshee. All you need to do is to copy your music to /home/storage/music on Bubba and point your music player to that directory.

I copied my Eliza Gilkerson music collection from my desktop machine to Bubba using the command scp -r Eliza username@bubba:/home/storage/music. If you're a Mac or Windows user, or simply prefer a GUI to the command line, you can create a shortcut to Bubba on your desktop and drag and drop the folders containing your music to it. Then, from another machine on the LAN, I opened Rhythmbox, pointed it at Bubba's music directory, and began listening.

Bubba can also handle HTTP, FTP, and BitTorrent downloads for you. Log in through the friendly Web interface, click on Downloads, enter the URL for the download, and click Add. Then go on about your business while Bubba does the rest.

I've got half a dozen email accounts at various places, some on POP3 servers, some on IMAP. I use two different email clients to keep up with them. Bubba can help people like me get better organized, and make messaging easier for them where they are on the road.

To add an email account to Bubba, fill in the same account information that you would enter to configure an email client like Thunderbird or Evolution. Once that's done, Bubba will collect and store your email, and you can access it in Web mail by pointing your browser at Bubba/webmail. Alternatively, you use any email client to access Bubba's IMAP server as you would any other mail server on the Internet.

Want to share a printer from anywhere on the LAN? No problem, so long as the printer has a USB connection. Just plug it into Bubba and select Printing -> Add New from the admin menu. Then, for each system on the LAN that you wish to be able to use the printer, connect to Bubba, double-click on the printer icon, and follow the instructions for installing the printer driver.

Access from beyond the LAN

If you need to contact Bubba while you're away from the office LAN, you'll need to do some port forwarding, since Bubba lives on the LAN behind your router. In addition, you may run afoul of restrictions your ISP has in place on the use of servers on your Internet account. Neither of these is an insurmountable problem, of course, but be aware that the level of expertise necessary to enable access from afar may be higher than for other things you do with Bubba.

Bubba's User Manual explains which ports need to be forwarded in order to use the corresponding services, such as FTP, SSH, SMTP, HTTP, IMAP, HTTPS, and IMAPS. Of course, in addition to the port forwarding, you'll also need to know your IP address, and be aware of the fact that it may change if your ISP assigns the address dynamically.

Flashing a new image

Whether to repair a borked system or simply to recover from losing the admin password, reflashing the Bubba image is easy. Download the latest bubba.img file from Excito, copy it to a FAT32-formatted USB stick, and slip it into the USB connector on the back of Bubba. Then hold down the button in back while connecting the power supply. The LED on the front will start to blink as it usually does at power-on, but will keep blinking for a half hour or so, depending on the size drive it has to format. Remember, this process wipes Bubba clean, so save your data beforehand if you can.

The Bubba image contains the both the Debian file system and Bubba-specific software. Those last bits may or may not be the latest versions, but you can update the Bubba-specific bits at any time from the Admin interface by clicking on Settings -> Maintenance -> Update Software.


Can such a small appliance do the heavy lifting required of a server? Yes -- Bubba is the best Linux-based product I've tried. It's the best of both worlds: easy enough to use that Windows and Apple users can quickly harness it to do their bidding, and familiar enough to Linux users that they can use GUI and CLI alike to make it sit up and do tricks.

The hardware is solid and the documentation is excellent. The functionality provided is perfectly suited for the home office/small office environment. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 9. If Excito married Bubba to a router running in the same box with the same ease of use, I'd give it an 11.

You can order Bubba directly from Excito. Prices range from €264 to €476, depending on the drive size, plus shipping and tax.


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