Reviewed: SheevaPlug development kit

Hardware

Is it possible to cram a whole Linux server into something the size of a plug? Apparently it is - Marvell has combined gigabit Ethernet, flash storage and an ARM CPU with a full install of Ubuntu to produce the tiniest Linux server we've seen for some time. Can you resist the power of your geek hardware lust? If not, don't read on...

The name 'SheevaPlug' presumably comes from the fact that this small white box is little bigger than the average PSU, and with the correct connector, it will attach directly to a power socket. But instead of transforming voltages, this box contains a complete Linux machine with 512MB flash storage, 512MB RAM and a 1.2GHz ARM CPU. There's standard USB port, a hosting USB port, an SD memory card slot and an RJ45 Ethernet connector, and the whole box comes with the latest ARM build of Ubuntu pre-installed.

It's called a Development Kit because it was envisaged that embedded developers could use these devices to build their products, after which black-box appliances could be deployed based around the same hardware. This is certainly true, but it precludes many ordinary users from doing more ordinary things. Compared with the average NAS box, for example, the SheevaPlug is more powerful and would make an ideal replacement if you just added external storage. The total package would still be cheaper than many NAS boxes. But the SheevaPlug is equally well suited as a media player, using the USB port to pump music to a USB-compatible set of speakers, as the hub for a home automation system or even as a network time server with a suitable USB GPS unit.

The SheevaPlug: an all-in-one plug socket Linux server.

The SheevaPlug: an all-in-one plug socket Linux server.

Nice 'n' simple

To get the SheevaPlug up and running you need to connect another Linux machine to the USB port, load the FTDI module and then use a terminal emulator to connect to the USB serial port. You can then log on to the SheevaPlug and access the command line. This is the JTAG and console interface to the device. With the basic model, you need to type a few commands to fix a permission problem, edit the DNS configuration and update the distribution packages before you can start messing around, but this doesn't take more than 10 minutes. After which you have a blank canvas and you can connect over SSH.

The best thing about this device is that it uses the new ARM port of Ubuntu. The result is that you can install almost anything using apt-get install. A quick command-line count showed us 25,292 possible packages, which is huge compared with the typical NAS box.

To put the machine to the test, we grabbed several big applications, including Apache, MySQL, PHP 5 and finally WordPress, and installation was a breeze. We followed the standard Ubuntu guidelines to get things working, and we were very impressed by the small box's performance, even if it wouldn't survive a Slashdotting.

We also installed the generic ARM package of Logitech's Squeezebox music streaming server. We found it was pretty quick, outperforming both the Synology and the QNAP devices we looked at recently, making the SheevaPlug an ideal hub for your music, and MediaTomb performed just as well.

Its tiny form-factor, low power drain and low price make this an ideal platform for experimentation. It also makes a perfect replacement for the now discontinued Linksys NSLU2, for example. There's extensive online support for expanding storage and booting off USB and flash devices, as well as many other projects. There are no concessions for usability, but if you already have some idea of what you'd like to do with a SheevaPlug, you're not going to need any more convincing.

Our verdict: Cheap, stable, configurable and powerful. Just like Linux. 9/10.

Click here to get more information about the SheevaPlug or to buy one from a local retailer. UK or European folks should visit New IT to get local pricing and information.

Features at a glance

Debug Console

Debug Console No matter what state your machine is in, you can always use a terminal emulator to connect to the console.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu You can install thousands of packages without having to worry about the CPU or dependencies.

First published in Linux Format

First published in Linux Format magazine

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Your comments

Ubuntu Support

Ubuntu Karmic and above will not support the processor included in the sheevaplug as all packages are now compiled with armv6 flags. Therefore, sheevaplug owners are stuck with jaunty packages for the life of the device. So after the 2 years of jaunty support are up, sheevaplug users will likely have to switch to debian or some other distro to get their updates.

Besides the unfortunate decision by ubuntu to drop support, this device works great. I use it as a NAS fileserver, zoph photo manager, drupal webserver, and ampache music streaming server. I also had debian on it and was able to get a mythtv backend working with some mild success at streaming. I wanted to use it as a slingbox, but I don't think it's powerful enough to handle the ffmpeg transcribing fast enough to stream in real time. With short programs and some lead time it was bearly useable.

Thanks for covering the SheevaPlug

A friend of mine and I were discussing this platform a month ago with much enthusiasm on the potential but neither of us had the time to but and experiment with one. Thanks for gents doing just that. Now I am inspired buy two - one for the home entertainment and another to provide infra services (DNS/web cache etc) for the home.

US source for SheevaPlug?

All this info on UK sources for this product are fine and well, but I live in Michigan, USA and was wondering if any one could tell me who in the US distributes the SheevaPlug?

Thanks.
Doug

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