Who are you, and what do you do?
Ahoy there! I'm Sophie Haskins – I post hot takes on Twitter Dot Com, restore vintage workstations at pizzabox.computer, am a pink hair enthusiast, and work as an SRE at GitHub. Most of my professional work is centered around "building infrastructure that makes it easy to build reliable scalable software".
What hardware do you use?
I could tell you about my unsurprising work-from-home desktop setup (the only "surprising" thing is that I use a Windows PC – I had built it for playing four EVE Online sessions at once, so it just happens to be the most responsive/fastest computer in the house), but I suspect you'd all be more interested in the hardware I use with the Pizzabox Workstations. The important hardware in my toolbox is:
- the literal toolbox – I have an iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit that has been invaluable. Its super high quality, has half a billion screwdriver bits, and tons of options for ways to poke inside cases to get them to open.
- the SCSI2SD "hard drive" – most of my workstations were built with SCSI disks in mind. The remaining 50-pin SCSI drives out there are pretty old, largely used (rather than new-old-stock), and pricy. The SCSI2SD lets me skip the gamble on drive reliability and just use SD cards for storage. The configuration tool is a little clunky, using its advanced features (like acting as multiple devices at once) takes some custom setup, and figuring out the right settings for compatibility is tricky, but it's a LIFESAVER nonetheless. I have many of these in the various pizzaboxes.
- a Sun 411 external SCSI enclosure & SCSI CD-ROM drive – setting up the SCSI2SD as a CD-ROM is tricky so this old-school caddy-loading drive is my workhorse for setting up OSes on the workstations. It supports the 512-byte block mode that some older models require (cough Sun). The enclosure pulls double-duty when I want to take an image of the initial state of drives in new boxes – I pull out the CD-ROM, put in the new drive, and connect them to my HP 712 for dumping (HP-UX seems most tolerant of drives w/o partition tables it likes).
- a TP-LINK N300 mini wifi router in "client mode" lets me connect pizzaboxes directly to my home network without needing to run a really long cable all the way to my Ethernet switch. Another important tool for some of the boxes is an AUI-to-Twisted-Pair tranciever – lots of the pizzaboxes don't have RJ-45 ports onboard and need one of these to connect (sadly, I'm not aware of new ones being made, you have to get an old one on ebay).
- a USB-Serial adapter – none of my modern computers have built-in serial ports, so I use one of these handy numbers. I've got an Airconsole LE that should make this wireless but I haven't put in the time to get used to how it works yet. Lots of the Pizzaboxes need weird peripherals to start up using their main console, so a serial console is super useful.
- an Epiphan DVI2USB framegrabber lets me take video & screenshots without needing OS support for it on the pizzaboxes (or before such support would be loaded). The software for this is a bit finicky and I sometimes have a hard time getting fine-tuning of the image right but it's been really cool to be able to get high-quality videos of what's on-screen.
- an old 4:3 monitor (mine is an NEC 1770NX – the framegrabber has a little bit too much lag to be comfortable to use directly as a screen – its much nicer to use a VGA monitor with the right aspect ratio with broad compatibility (this one supports most sync-on-green signals I've sent it). Its native resolution of 1280×1024 matches a lot of the CRTs the pizzaboxes would originally have used, too.
If "home lab" stuff is more your speed, I also spend a decent amount of time maintaining my home network and Kubernetes cluster that serves my websites (overbuilt much? :P). If that stuff is your jam, my setup is:
- a 12U Tripp Lite Rack that sits in the corner of my living room.
- a bunch of StarTech rack shelves and a simple rack PDU.
- an EdgeRouter Lite and a EdgeSwitch Lite 24 from UBNT for core networking – they're really good stuff.
- a couple of Intel NUCs (I have some a couple of NUC6i3SYK and a NUC6i5SYH.
- a QNAP TS-231P NAS – real talk I don't have that much data to back up, but having a designated "network storage" box is super helpful. It also comes in handy with the pizzaboxes – they basically all are able to access at least the NAS's public NFS share.
And what software?
The software I use for the pizzabox restorations is:
- Terra Term for a serial console.
- Xming for setting up a remote X session from my desktop to pizzaboxes (in situations where I can't use the local console.)
- The Internet Archive for archived software, manuals, and websites of long-gone hardware.
- Bitsavers and Manx Docs have also been HUGELY helpful sources of documentation.
- Microsoft OneNote for taking notes, collating research, and tracking progress on projects.
- dd (in various incarnations) for taking an image of working drives, putting data on to the SCSI2SD, and setting up floppy disks.
For my home-lab stuff, I use:
- Ubuntu 18.04 for the base OS on my NUCs as well as for most of the VMs that run on it. I use the built-in KVM-based uvtool for creating and managing VMs.
- Kubernetes w/ kubeadm for setting up the Kube cluster.
- cert-manager for setting up certificates in an automated fashion.
- netboot.xyz handles PXE-booting on my network (it's suuuuuuuper dope.)
What would be your dream setup?
My dream setup would add to what I have now with:
- a physical serial console (I love the DEC VT320.)
- a physical X Terminal (mostly for the novelty of it.)
- a wider variety of vintage CD-ROM and external hard disks to help with the more stubborn pizzaboxes.
- furniture for both displaying and connecting the pizzaboxes to peripherals (maybe some sort of shelf where they'd all be wired going to a central console?
- a more comfortable dedicated work-desk – right now I either put things on my normal desk and push aside my normal gear, or use a crappy table in the corner of my apt that isn't a great height and isn't near my comfy office chair.
- a real lighting kit for taking photos / video of working on the pizzaboxes.
- a convenient outdoor / well-ventilated indoor space for soldering and using contact cleaner / other noxious cleaning agents.