I have been wanting to try an Alix SBC from PC Engines for some time now, and 10 days ago I finally did order one.
Thorough as I am I checked lots of sites (mostly within the EU) for prices, shipping, availability and range of accessories. In the end I chose to place my order at Gooze.
I had no trouble at all with my order from Gooze, they were very helpful and kind. I got a mail asking why I had ordered antennas and pigtails but no wifi card. I explained that I was looking for a dual band card, and that I had not seen one in their web shop. Nine minutes later I got a reply saying that they had a Wistron DNMA-92 in stock, and that they would be able to add it to my order and still ship it the same day. Easter holidays delayed the shipping a bit, as expected, but early morning next business day the package arrived, and my new found friends at Gooze had even mounted the board in the case, the wifi card on the board, and pigtails and antennas where they should be.
I do not hesitate to recommend Gooze for anyone looking for an Alix system. They also have some useful tutorials on their site regarding Alix-iana, and even more on smartcards and security. (Their site inspired me to order a smartcard reader with Linux support, the Feitian R-310, and a blank smartcard, Feitian PKI, formerly known as Feitian FTCOS / PK-01C.
On a side note, I actually placed my order at 14:50 on Wednesday April 20. Gooze promise that orders placed before 15:00 will be shipped the same day, so when my order status had not changed the next day I wrote to them and politely asked if the order status update was slow or if something else had happened. I also made it clear that I was not at all in a hurry and had no problem waiting for my stuff. Within minutes Jean-Michel Pouré of Gooze wrote back to me explaining that the entire staff had been to London for a day on a business trip. He apologized and promised to add another smart card to my order at no extra cost. I had not expected anything like that, and I would have been quite happy just to know that my order had arrived and would be shipped some day. That is really a good way to make happy (and returning) customers.
Currently I am trying to find the “perfect” way to install Linux on this little gem, most likely Debian in some form. I have tried Voyage, a customized Debian for embedded platforms with explicit support for Alix boards (including the three front panel LED’s and the temperature sensors), and I think it might be good for a system as this one I would prefer to know what customizations are made and why. I would be more comfortable setting up the system myself from the ground up.
Gooze has a few nice howto’s on Alix stuff, and I also tested the Debian installation suggested. They suggested installing the netboot tarball to a CF partition, boot from this and using the Debian Installer to install the latest stable version (Squeeze). This went fine, but I ended up with a system that felt a bit too bloated, considering that it is embedded. Documentation and man-pages are fine, but I feel no desperate need to waste a lot of flash memoryon an embedded system for it. When I need documentation I can use my workstation or the web.
A concept that appeals to me more is the Emdebian project, proper Debian adapted for embedded systems. The idea is right, the documentation sucks (or I am not able to find it). The Emdebian flavor Grip seems to be about minimizing dependencies to an absolute minimum, and also stripping documentation from packages. They process the actual Debian packages, remove unnecessary parts and repack them. You would normally have both Emdebian and classic Debian repositories, so that packages that are not yet Emdebianized/Grip:ed will be pulled from the normal Debian repositories.
This sounds like the best of two worlds, the most common 10 % of the Debian packages are available from Emdebian, being smaller and having less dependencies, and anything I want from the remaining 90 % is still available for installation. I suspect that any vanilla packages that I install will be “upgraded” to Emdebian style if they are converted in the future.
But my current self imposed task is to work out a good (or “perfect”) way to install a basic Emdebian system to use as a start for my customizations. The Emdebian site recommends a tool called multistrap, being somewhat similar to but different from debootstrap. It will create a basic rootfs, but there is not a lot of information on how to proceed to a bootable CF image. I have found some tutorials using debootstrap, but I am not sure if they apply since the tools work in different ways. I will get back about this soon, I think.
Lastly, I tested OpenWRT too, that I have running on my current router/firewall etc (an ancient Netgear WGT634U). My first attempt at compiling an image for Alix did not work out (though OpenWRT does have explicit support for Alix), probably some misconfiguration on my side, but I tested with a plain x86 image that I downloaded, it worked just fine, and compared to all other Linuces I tested this one was definitely the fastest! It boots in maybe 20 – 40 % of the time the others need, and system shutdown is even faster relative to the competition. It does not have the backbone of the huge Debian community, but the sheer speed of it still makes it interesting as an alternative.