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Hardware Review: Bubba|Two – Return of the Linux-Based Mini Server

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It's taken me an age to write this review. I really do have to thank the team at Excito for being so patient, because it seems like forever ago that they sent me their review unit and I got it all set up and plugged in.

At first, it was a simple case of comparing the new and improved Bubba|Two unit with Excito's previous model, Bubba. Two boasts an improved, faster processor and double the memory, not to mention faster ethernet speeds and hard drive connections. In theory Bubba|Two should make up for some of the deficiencies of its predecessor.

But then it became a case of pushing the new hardware to see exactly what it could do. And then we arrive here.

I'm getting ahead of myself. First, what exactly is Bubba?

Network Attached Storage (NAS) is nothing new. Think of it as one of those external hard disk drives, but instead of tethering it to one PC with a USB or Firewire cable, you feed it an Ethernet cable, thus making it a part of your network. As a result, potentially any machine on that network can access the files stored upon the disk. Bubba, at a very basic level, is a NAS device; you plug it into your network, and it lets you read and write files from any machine. Your daughter's netbook, your wife's laptop, and your desktop PC can all get to the chewy, moist data at the device's core.

But Bubba is a lot more. Because it runs a form of Linux (Debian, if you're curious) Bubba is smarter than your average piece of NAS. It can, in theory, be made to do anything a Linux computer can. But Bubba is more even than that, because this little box of tricks does everything in 7-12w of electricity.

Just think about that: 7-12w. I've got a small form factor system that uses 100w. My media center, and workstation computers use even more. If you leave a computer on all day doing any of the things that Bubba can do, chances are you're using 90% too much electricity. I've got light bulbs that use more juice than Bubba|Two!

So what can Bubba|Two do exactly? I'll get to that.

When I reviewed the original Bubba back in May of 2007, I didn't mention any deficiencies. That's because I didn't know they existed. Back then I really wasn't using my network in the same way as I do now. Two years later I'm more concerned with HD resolution video, and higher quality music files. The first generation Bubba, while still a workhorse of file sharing on my network, just can't cope with HD video for the simple reason that it lacks the ability to throw the data onto the network quick enough.

This happens for two reasons: the speed at which the data is being read off the disk drive, and the speed of the Ethernet port. Strictly speaking the latter isn't really an issue — 100MB Ethernet is perfectly capable of streaming HD video content. But the original Bubba's hard disk drive wasn't.

So the first thing I did with Bubba|Two was try the same thing. I tried to watch a 1080p video file stored on the drive within Bubba on my Media Center PC in another room of the house. And it worked fine. So hurdle number one successfully, um, hurdled.

Which brings us to the question of just what Bubba|Two is capable of bringing to your network. Answer: an awful lot. I've made this new and improved Bubba do all sorts of things in the time I've had it. I've been fiddling about with it while I really should have been writing this review.

First I installed the popular blogging software WordPress. This required installing database software (MySQL) and configuring the Web server (Apache) along with installing the actual WordPress files themselves. Once done, WordPress worked fine. You're not going to want to host your million-visits-a-day Web site on Bubba, but for a small family blog or development installation it's absolutely fine.

Next I installed Subversion — a superb source code control system. Bubba had no problems with that either. Happy for a while that Bubba was a far more capable box than its younger brother, I started to explore the software that Bubba comes with. It's got built in e-mail software, a print server (along with USB port to hook up your printer), torrent downloading software (so don't leave that energy hungry PC on all day torrenting kids, use one of these!), and support for a large number of different file sharing protocols (including recently added support for AFP). It comes with iTunes and UPNP streaming software (Firefly and MediaTomb), too. Which gave me another idea.

Could I put all my iTunes music on Bubba|Two, and use FireFly to stream it around my house? Answer: yes. Any machine with iTunes installed can listen to anything on Bubba. Can I share photos with my PS3 using the MediaTomb UPNP software? Answer: yes again. Having moved my iTunes library to Bubba, I tried connecting iTunes directly to the shared files in order to rip new CDs and manage my iPod. This worked fine too, although I wouldn't want to do it regularly on a 54MB wi-fi connection.

It's also theoretically possible, with some hacking, to use Bubba with Apple's Time Machine software, now support for AFP has been added. While this isn't something I've tried as yet, it highlights exactly the reason this review's taken so long: it's another thing to try. It's partly a combination of me thinking of new things to try, and Excito adding features to Bubba that's held me up so long. That's worth stating twice: Excito keep adding features. As another example (beyond AFP) they recently announced an official agreement with Logitech for the distribution of their SqueezeCenter software. Since Bubba|Two launched it's had numerous bug fixes, enhancements, and updates. It's easy to keep track of these and interact with users and developers alike on the company's forums. I'm ceaselessly amazed by the brilliance on display here.

It's also really easy to actually perform the updates using Bubba|Two's slick Web management interface. You just point your Web browser at it and can configure a large number of options without ever having to expose yourself to its Linux-flavoured innards. This new model's Web interface is a massive upgrade from the previous version, both aesthetically and functionally.

Back to what I've made Bubba|Two do: downloading. Using a package called Sabnzbd+ (written using a programming language called Python) I've been able to perform USENET newsgroup downloads, verify the validity of the downloading files, and automatically unpack them, placing them in an accessible and sensible place on the network. Using remote command line sessions I've been able to use the command line WGET utility to download files from the Internet. And using GCalCron it's possible to schedule downloads, and an infinite number of other console commands from a familiar interface. Then there's the previously mentioned built in torrent support.

So in a raw processing sense, Bubba|Two is a lot more capable than Bubba|One, but it does have its very obvious limits. You're not going to be able to ask it to do on-the-fly transcoding of video using a 333MHz processor. As I mentioned before, it's probably not going to host your massively popular Web site. It's constrained by its hardware, but it's this very constraint that enables it to do so many things in such an economical manner. I didn't really consider how much power my computers used until I got the first Bubba, and the second generation has made me think about it all over again.

One other very important hardware change between the two devices is support for USB2 and eSATA connections. Bubba|One was equipped with a USB port, but it wasn't USB2, and wasn't really quick enough to be used to mount additional drives. Bubba|Two fixes this, by allowing two eSATA drives to be connected, and presumably more USB2 drives (using a USB Hub). This expands the storage potential dramatically — no longer is Bubba limited by its internal drive (which can be any one of a range of drives, whether self-installed or bought from Excito), but it can be upgraded by adding additional external volumes. What's more, the user can start to build in some fault tolerance by synchronizing files between multiple disk drives on the same device. Excito are even working on software RAID support to make this even easier.

The last key hardware change present is the addition of a second ethernet port. Bubba|Two can act as a router on your network, providing Firewall functionality, DNS, IP address allocation and all the things your ADSL or cable modem quite possibly does for you now. You can place Bubba between your existing hardware and the network, and have it act as additional security, or let it take over from anything you've got now. And if you haven't, why not? It's crazy out there.

Beyond all the practical benefits of something like Bubba, there's also a huge educational element too. For anyone who's wanted to experiment with Linux, or perhaps have a test environment for a dedicated server hosted on the Web, Bubba is a great starting point. It would make an excellent development environment for a Web developer or hobbyist.

Does Bubba|Two have any drawbacks? None that are fair to level against it. It's perhaps not the cheapest device in its class but when you take into consideration the support, quality of hardware, economy, and versatility of the device it seems reasonable. It's not capable of massively CPU intensive tasks, but that's missing the point somewhat. It doesn't have built-in wi-fi, but an add-on is in development and coming soon (and promises to add "wireless access point" to the sickeningly large list of things Bubba|Two is good at).

In summary then: If Bubba was the slightly slow, red-headed stepchild who means well, Bubba|Two is the dashingly handsome older brother who went to college, applied himself, and got a good job. Bubba|Two is in every way an improvement on its already extremely likable predecessor. It's faster, more powerful, more versatile, and better looking.

If you have a need for a near silent, massively energy efficient mini server that offers a dizzying amount of functionality and excellent expandability, delivered by a great team of enthusiastic developers, then Bubba|Two needs to be on your radar.

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