Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Raspberry Pi Finally Conquers Userland

Raspberry Pi developers have had quite a coup on their hands this past few weeks. The "official" Raspberry Pi Linux distribution Raspian was just upgraded to Debian 8, or "Jessie." This provides a huge number of wins - the 4.1 release of the Linux kernel, latest glibc and build chain updates, more native packages (like Node.JS and wiringPi), and device trees. Oh, sweet device trees.

While the current Raspian distribution still relies on wiringPi 2.24, the most recent 2.29 version has a much nicer way of addressing GPIO in userspace by exposing the GPIO ports in /dev/gpiomem. All too often Raspberry Pi developers run GPIO apps as root to access the array of general purpose I/O pins, however this leads to all the lovely security holes and vulnerabilities that privileged access brings. You never want Apache or Python or any user-created apps running as root - so instead you must find a way to export these ports and allow unprivileged users to access them. Traditionally this has been done using wiringPi's export utility, however the latest gpiomem exposure seems to be much cleaner.

With Jessie I've been able to significantly cut the complexity of installing Garage Security and Sprinkler Switch. I don't need to manually install wiringPi, Node.JS, Video4Linux and a number of other packages. Things seem to largely "just work" as one might expect of a modern distro. One example is that Motion has been updated and appears to be pre-packaged on Raspian, and the necessary Video4Linux bcm2835-v4l2 kernel module properly creates a /dev/video0 device. CPU utilization appears to be much lower with the current stack, and it appears that I can just tweak Motion's configs to save videos in an HTML 5-friendly way rather than transcoding them with a script.

Garage Security and Sprinker Switch are being updated now for Jessie and testing is underway... the new Jessie builds are looking very promising so far.

Friday, September 25, 2015

XMPP (Jabber) as a Message Broker

For a long while I’ve relied on Jabber/XMPP support within Google Talk to communicate with back-end systems like my Garage Security monitor. Garage Security could push notifications to me when motion was detected, and I could reply back to ask for camera snapshots or current temperatures. It’s almost as if I was using XMPP and Google’s Talk servers as a message bus; everything was a request/response pair that I could receive as notifications in a nice lil’ mobile interface. This was a superior approach to having a peer-to-peer communication channel over the Internet at large - I could keep my firewall completely closed and instead publish events to a trusted broker over at Google HQ. I essentially treated Google Talk like a hosted RabbitMQ instance.

This "XMPP broker” approach continued to work after Google moved from Google Talk to Hangouts and dropped full XMPP support (notably for federation), however things appear to have become a bit more difficult when two different systems (like Garage Security and my new Sprinkler Switch) want to share the same Hangouts user ID. Previously both systems would receive an inbound message, so I would filter by a token in the message body. If I asked for “garage status,” Garage Security would catch the “garage” keyword and respond while Sprinkler Switch would just ignore it. As Hangouts has turned the XMPP support decidedly more text-message-ish, it seems now the last system to authenticate will starve out the previous system, and only one system will actually receive the messages.

This is not outside of the XMPP spec it seems, and the protocol itself specifies two ways for the systems themselves to deal with the issue:

  1. When connecting to the XMPP server set the priority for your connection. A higher priority is more likely to get inbound messages.
  2. Specify a resource name within your XMPP user identifier. This allows a system to be uniquely addressable with the same username.

The first option doesn’t necessarily help my situation - I want both systems to receive inbound messages. The second option is possible using XMPP’s definition of user IDs… where a user identifier is actually the composite of:

  • The username that is used for authentication
  • The domain that the user resides within
  • The resource that uniquely identifies who is signing in
Using this schema, I could provide SleekXMPP a JabberID (its native user identifier) of and have it uniquely identify Garage Security, while uniquely identifies Sprinkler Switch. It’s not entirely unlike the routing key in AMQP or a topic name in JMS… chuckleface could be considered your message type, could be considered your exchange, and garage could be considered your ID. Or something like that. It makes sense in my head at least.

Hangouts, however, just cares about chat messages. It could give two craps about my resource name. There’s no way to specify that in a contact either… with Hangouts you specify an e-mail address which in turn becomes a username and a domain. That’s fine for chat… but when I want to address an individual system I’m kinda outta luck. Hangouts will just reply back to the last resource that sent it a message - no way to specify a specific resource.

I've posted a demo using Python on GitHub which lets you build a quick XMPP client. An example might be:

>>> from jabtest import Jabber
>>> jab1 = Jabber('', 'apikeyh4x0r5', 'testone')
Opened XMPP Connection
>>> jab2 = Jabber('', 'apikeyh4x0r5', 'testone')
Opened XMPP Connection
>>> jab1.send_msg('', 'Testing One')
Sending message: Testing One

I don't have a fantastic solution for now... so in the interim I've disabled Jabber support for Sprinkler Switch.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Telling a Tale for Ten Years

Exactly ten years ago I started this ridiculous blog as a way to collaborate with other game developers. At the time I thought I would dig deep and push out at least one title. This eventually led to the "Desktop Distractions" studio concept, and the nascent title Deskblocks. I also worked within the CrystalSpace engine as an entrant to the PlaneShift team. I just couldn't give these projects traction however, so I gave it up and moved on to tinkering.

Even though the driving force behind the blog had faded away, and even though no one else reads this blog (aside from the State of .NET Integration Frameworks post), I kept updating it. Writing - even if it exists only for your own edification - really does help with communication and critical thinking regardless of what you write about. Even though my day job has nothing to do with garage door openers, my posts on my garage door security system helped me organize the build in a way that informed the Hack Clock project. Back in 2006 I began investigating vector processing, and the resulting frameworks have helped me think about and design microservice architectures. Of course, there was plenty of venting as well with my favorite software companies being dissolved or SuSE Linux winning and failing and winning and failing again. All of this writing helped me when performing comparative analysis at work, or designing parallel architectures, or watching trends in software development.

It is hard to believe a decade has slipped by. It doesn't even seem real. I don't think I've evolved much since that one cram session in a crystal chair, but I'm glad to have my collected ramblings to reflect back on.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Your Garage as a Gas Station

I had evaluated electric vehicles previously to determine if they actually were more efficient than cars with internal combustion engines, and found that (at the time) they did have a lower carbon footprint and would save me considerable amounts on fuel costs. Of course, that was before gas prices dropped nearly 33% in a single week - however I knew the prices were being artificially deflated and would eventually push back up. An added bonus remained that I would no longer be late to work because I had to navigate out of my way and fill the tank.

I was able to take a Leaf out for an extended test drive and make sure it fit my commute - which it did. I couldn't find another auto manufacturer that actually had an EV on the lot aside from Tesla, so the Leaf was the only auto at my price point. Luckily there are many Nissan dealerships in my general area and I ended up picking a Model S Leaf that I have been driving for a few weeks now.

One great thing about an all-electric auto is that your garage is transformed into a "gas station," and you never need to leave your house to refuel. Bear in mind this does not necessarily mean you can use your normal 120V outlets to charge the car (using a Level 1 plugin-in charger) - you will at the very least need a dedicated circuit for charging, lest you blow a fuse from too much load. On my 24-hour test drive I quickly found out that the 120V outlet in the garage was on the same circuit as the master bathroom; when the car's 120V charger was powering up the battery it was consuming 11.3A of power, and a typical hairdryer will eat 12.5A. The combined 24A of load will trip your typical 15A circuit breaker quickly.

Ultimately a 6 kW, 240V/30A (Level 2) charger is necessary for home charging since even a dedicated 120V outlet will require 21-ish hours to go from empty to 100% charge. Normal usage often requires a 10.5 hour charge with 120V, which can easily be done in 4 hours with a Level-2 charger. The good news is that while the chargers offered through the dealership appear to be fairly expensive, Home Depot and Amazon will sell Level-2 30A chargers for under $500. If you add in the cost of an electrician adding a 40A 240V dedicated circuit, you can have a 6 kW charging station for under a thousand bucks. The daily cost per kilowatt will be the same, and while there are some who worry about peak/off-peak charging hours most residential agreements seem to bill based on volume, not based on time of day. 6 kWh at 2 AM is billed the same as 6 kWh at 2 PM.

The technology is changing rapidly. Level 2 chargers are rapidly eating from 20 amps to 30 amps to 40 amps, and Tesla is building a nationwide Level 3 charging network based on renewable energy. It's hard to say how all of this will play out... in 5 years we may have sedans with a 400 mile range... in 10 years we may have self-driving cars in metro areas... in 20 years 25% of new car sales may be EVs. Ari Jay's comparison between the Leaf and the Tesla S85 is a great example of the current state of the market - in the end both cars are great, to serve two different purposes and two different drivers. We're getting past early adoption, sliding past the peak of inflated expectations and heading towards the trough of disillusionment. Sure people are getting a bit anxious on range and worried about cost... but on the other side is mainstream adoption, and the widespread infrastructure to support electric vehicles and cross-country road trips.