From the Canyon Edge -- :-Dustin

Monday, March 30, 2009

Wah? Your Dell Inspiron Mini9 is an Ubuntu Server?

For ~4 years, I have maintained a Dell Optiplex sx240 at my parents house, 500 miles away from me, as my co-lo. Sadly, the little box died a quiet death about a month ago. She won't power on at all any more. I checked the usual suspects, thought it might be the bios battery, but alas, none of those solved the problem, so I sent her on to the great silicon rehabilitation facility at Goodwill.

I spent a week or so shopping for a replacement and settled, perhaps surprisingly, on a Dell Inspiron Mini9 netbook.

A strange choice for a server? you ask...

No way!

This little machine is:
  • Cheap -- $230
  • Small -- 2 lbs
  • Quiet -- SSD hard drive
  • Green -- 30W when running fully loaded
  • Warrantied -- 1 year
And it has:
  • Built-in UPS -- a good 4 hour battery
  • Built-in keyboard-video-mouse -- much easier maintenance, attended upgrades
  • External ports -- 3 usb, 1 svga, sound, sd-reader, 10/100 ethernet, wireless
  • Ubuntu! -- pre-loaded with 8.04 LTS
As a co-lo server, the tiny-keyboard doesn't bother me, since I access the machine almost exclusively via SSH. The dual-core 1.6GHz Atom processor is certainly sufficient for handling incoming rsync's. The 4GB hard drive is plenty of space for my Ubuntu Server footprint (~1GB), with my data living on a 1TB external USB hard drive.

It's small enough and quiet enough to sit under my parents cable modem and router--they don't even notice it's there. Hurricanes and thunderstorms are common in Cajun country, so the built-in battery keeps the machine alive through short (<4 style="font-weight: bold;" size="4">A MythTV Frontend, Even?...

I also hooked up the external SVGA port to my 52" Samsung 1080p HDTV, and it spit out perfect 1920x1080 resolution. It was able to render full screen compressed HD content as well (haven't tried streaming HD yet). The only sound output is a stereo headphones jack (no 5.1 audio), and the wired ethernet is only 10/100mbps (no gigabit), so I won't be replacing my primary MythTV frontend yet. But there is some promise! At this price point, it's not much more expensive than a new Blu-Ray player. Heck, I think every $2500 TV should ship with one of these bolted onto the back ;-)

And then there's the Wife Factor...

I must say, it was strangely satisfying to open the new Dell packaging, catch the first whiff of brand new plastic, and see an Ubuntu 8.04LTS sealed cdrom attached to the manual. The first boot was also cool, answering the OEM questions, customizing the image for me. I didn't like the Dell desktop, so I immediately switched it back to the Ubuntu classic (I'll eventually reinstall the Ubuntu Server with no graphical desktop).

Now what happened next was even more surprising. My wife, Kim, says, "Oh my god, it's so cute! I love my new computer!"

Hah! Well, that was neither the reaction I was expecting, nor the intended purpose of this computer. But she's been using it quite a bit and she really likes it. She's gotten used to the keyboard, though it helps that her hands are smaller than mine and she doesn't use the | key or F-keys hundreds of times per day like I do ;-)

So it looks like I will be ordering another one now :-)



  1. Why not go for an Eee Box for a server? Sure it'd doesn't have the built in keyboard and LCD but it does have gigabit ethernet and DVI out.

  2. I bet it's way cheaper than an IBM server.

  3. Hi!

    Nice post - I'm thinking of similar, though I am not that familiar with Ubuntu (yet).

    Would you mind looking at this pc and check if Ubuntu would run on it nicely (I think I would need a GUI though, not terminal only) ;-)

    (It's a link to ebay)


  4. Your wife said "cute"! Here's a slashdot question where someone asks how to make their netbook more manly:

  5. i'm looking forward to the sheevaplug for an home server use

    it's cheaper...
    smaller (sortof)...
    and greener than the mini9 :P

    it even has ubuntu (not preinstalled: you have to download the provided ubuntu port as a jffs2 filesystem )

    hovewer it doesn't has a battery and i guess the cpu is even more constrained than the atom...

  6. Ouch! Well done wife for nabbing that little gem.

  7. I just won a base-model Mini.

    Now I have two.
    Installing Jaunty atm.

  8. Great idea.
    I have a microclient jr at home and I was thinking of turning it into a little server, but using my aspire one might be a better idea actually. Now we need a battery state module for screen-profiles ;)

  9. There it goes, a little script for battery state monitoring : .

    One little note: most people using screen-profiles will probably want to add their own scripts, and it's ugly to go modify /usr/bin/screen-profiles{,export} to add them. It would be great if the lists of modules could be somewhere in /etc instead of hardcoded in the bin.

  10. Thanks, this is a great idea - the greatest selling point being that you're getting a UPS at this price :)

    Just one question - are you sure there's a fan in this model? According to AnandTech there isn't: - but maybe Dell has since revised the design? Otherwise, that would suggest it's best to keep the lid open...

  11. I own a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and so does my father. We both upgraded to 2GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD HD but that's about it. Oh and we both wiped it to 9.04/Jaunty. I gotta say I love the little bugger, especially how much juice it uses compared to my monster P4...

    Thanks to your post, I'm thinking of making it my new backup server and attaching a external hard drive to it, just like you have. I even have a neat rsync/ssh script hosted on Ubuntu Forums:

    BUT, I do have one complaint: When I hooked my Mini running Ubuntu 9.04/Jaunty up to my 22" widescreen monitor, it defaults to 800x600 resolution both on the mini and on the widescreen. Believe me, it's painful to use.

    I made a post on Ubuntu Forums and have snooped around Launchpad but found no related bug. I know you're a server/encryption guy but can you point me in the right direction of someone to talk to/who (or what package) I should post this bug under?

    Best of luck with your mini!


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