Microsoft would like you to think that their new Home Server products are something new; affordable devices that sit quietly in the corner of your home, providing network backup for your most important files, and streaming your media around your home. While Home Server is definitely a new approach for Microsoft, it's a niche that their nemesis Linux has been filling for some time. If Microsoft wanted a masterclass on how to craft their latest assault of consumers' homes, they should look to Excito and their Bubba Mini Server.
Bubba is an endearing little beast. In many ways it looks like an external hard disk with a very nice finish, but knowing that the device packs so much extra functionality into its metal casing gives it a certain extra cuteness. It's extremely well built, and feels far heavier than I expected. It's got a single, unassuming LED on the front (which stops flashing when the device is ready), and an Ethernet, USB (x2, one for printer sharing and one for a USB pen drive), and power socket on the back. I was happy to note that it's got a single-pin power socket; most of my external hard drives sport multi-pin connectors, which always feel flimsy. Not so with Bubba.
Inside its metal chassis lies Bubba's hard disk drive, and a variety of sizes are available from Excito (Bubba is currently offered without a drive, or with an 80, 320, and 500 gigabyte version). Care has been taken when selecting their drives, and it shows: Bubba is very, very quiet. Plug the little box of tricks into both the wall socket and your network, wait for the LED to stop blinking, and you're done. All that remains is to connect to Bubba over your network, by visiting "http://bubba" with your web browser.
And that's the beauty of it all. It just works. Plug it in, turn it on, and connect to it. If you'd like to copy files across to Bubba, you simply map a drive or connect via its network path ("\\bubba \storage" if you're curious). Each user on your network can have their own password-protected account, and they're all managed through the previously mentioned web interface. It's fast, and extremely handy.
When you're signed in to Bubba as a named user, it's possible to start a number of downloads. This is neat; it keeps everything in one place, saves running your PC, and means you can (with a little firewallconfig) queue up downloads while you're out and about (for example at the office, or on the road with a mobile device). These downloads can be http, ftp, or BitTorrent downloads, which is extremely clever. Paste the address of a torrent file into the web administration console's text field, and Bubba automatically does its stuff. Give it a zip file from a website, it'll cheerfully download the file for you.
I tested the Torrent download functionality with the Ubuntu 7.04 release, and it hurtled down. The status page updates in real time too, so there's no need to keep hitting the refresh button.
The little box has a few more tricks up its tiny, metal-clad sleeve. It can act as an email server, for example, and would be especially handy for backing up your Gmail account, or similar server-based email setup, for anyone who's cautious enough to want to back up all their Gmail/email data. Another of its features took me by surprise: Bubba had been obediently (and quietly, did I mention it's quiet?) doing its thing on my network for a day or so, when I opened iTunes to add a couple of CDs to my library. Automatically (which means "without doing anything", just so I'm totally clear) iTunes picked up the Firefly shared library on Bubba. Curious, I dragged a few MP3s across to Bubba's automatically (there's that word again) created Music share, and as if by magic (you could say, automatically) they appeared in iTunes, all ready for playback. Slick.
Bubba's manual is astonishingly detailed. It covers pretty much every angle (including multiple operating systems), and offers both simplistic and advanced takes on many subjects. There's even a section on "hacking Bubba". For the curious, hacking Bubba involves connecting to it with a command line session and having your wicked way with it. You see, Bubba runs an embedded flavour of Linux, and as a result its potential is limited only by your imagination. Well, more accurately: its potential is limited by your imagination, your Linux hacking skills (again, for the curious: Debian Sarge), and how much the embedded ARM CPU can cope with.
During my time with Bubba, I didn't take advantage of any of the flexibility of running on the Linux platform, but the potential is there. Excito's web forums are populated by an enthusiastic audience, and their own helpful developers. It's a real joy to read through some of the discussions; you get the impression that if there was something you wanted the box to do, someone would have the answer. I submitted one or two feature requests while I had the device, and although I didn't get a response, Bubba is actively supported by its creators. A new firmware update was released in mid-April, which enables a number of media sharing options (including support for Nokia's Internet tablets, using Mediatomb), and fixes a number of bugs. Not that I ever noticed any.
While Microsoft's Home Server is looking like a very nice product, its pricing is still unknown, and it's potentially not going to be a great fit for non-Windows environments. Linux desktops, or even Mac OS based computers, would probably get along much better with Bubba. Philosophically at least, I can see Mac and Linux users being happier with Bubba sitting under their desk than a Home Server (it's a Microsoft product, after all). In fact, it surprises me that Apple haven't made anything like Bubba as of yet; a device that plugs straight into your network and offers you easy file backups, email, and all Bubba's other features would make a lot of sense. That said, there's a good chance it would be a lot less flexible than Bubba. However, Home Server does have its own brand of fault tolerance in its favour, which is something that Bubba doesn't have. If you store a set of files on Bubba and the disk dies, chances are you're going to lose that data. As a result, Bubba is perhaps best used for storing non-essential files, and as a second home for your most important data such as family photos, videos, and documents.
To achieve this, it's easy to use a tool (such as Microsoft's free SyncToy) to automatically mirror folders from your computers onto Bubba. Used like this; as a transparent, invisible backup of your most essential documents, Bubba could save your bacon. I tested this configuration during my time with the device, and it worked flawlessly.
Bubba doesn't do anything a full-sized PC can't; you can implement every single feature, including all the web management, by installing a Linux distribution and throwing in a few apps. But there are a few important things to consider: the first I've already mentioned; Bubba does all of this out of the box, with little or no config. There's no setup to work through, no packages to install, and no command line to master (unless you want to).
I've mentioned the second thing too: it's quiet. Whisper quiet would probably be an accurate way of describing it.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, Bubba does all this while consuming under 10 watts of power. While downloading a few torrents, my Bubba was using about 8 watts. To put this in perspective: my desktop computer, a Core 2 Duo Intel machine, uses about 150 watts of power while doing the same thing. My old Dell 8400 uses more. And my server (a big old IBM beastie) consumes 200 – 250 watts of power while doing its thing. That's a huge difference, with serious environmental and financial implications. I've convinced myself in the past that I need that IBM monster for a variety of things, most significantly Push Email, but knowing that Bubba can do many of the same things using so little power has really made me start to re-evaluate the situation. In other words, I've started to think about ways to get rid of the power hungry beast in my garage.
I love this piece of hardware; I want to put one in every room in the house, and make them all replicate data backwards and forwards to each other. I want to wave them in people's faces when they visit my house, and hop up and down with glee until they understand just how very bloody clever I think Bubba is.
I had a genuinely heavy heart as I packed Bubba away in his little box, ready to send it back to Excito. It's such a stunningly efficient piece of hardware that every home should have one (no, really, every home should have one – you need to be backing your files up onto something). Now I just need to figure out how to raise the cash to get one of my own.
The Bubba Mini Server is available online from Excito and, just in case you hadn't guessed, is highly recommended.