Moving from a Laptop to a Cloud Lifestyle

My Laptop History

In 1998 I bought my first laptop, it was a Thinkpad 385XD, it had a PentiumMMX 233MHz CPU, 96M of RAM, and an 800*600 display. This was less RAM than I could have afforded in a desktop system and the 800*600 display didn’t compare well to the 1280*1024 resolution 17 inch Trinitron monitor I had been using. Having only 1/3 the pixels is a significant loss and a 12.1 inch TFT display of that era compared very poorly with a good Trinitron monitor.

In spite of this I found it a much better system to use because it was ALWAYS with me, I used it for many things that were probably better suited to a PDA (there probably aren’t many people who have carried a 7.1 pound (3.2Kg) laptop to as many places as I did). But some of my best coding was done on public transport.

But I didn’t buy my first laptop for that purpose, I bought it because I was moving to another country and there just wasn’t any other option for having a computer.

In late 1999 I bought my second laptop, it was a Thinkpad 600E [1]. It had twice the CPU speed, twice the RAM, and a 1024*768 display that displayed color a lot better. Since then I had another three Thinkpads, a T21, a T43, and now a T61. One of the ways I measure a display is the number of 80*25 terminal windows that I can display at one time, my first Thinkpad could display four windows with a significant amount of overlap. My second could display four with little overlap, my third (with 1280*1024 resolution) could display four clearly and another two with overlap, and my current Thinkpad does 1680*1050 and can display four windows clearly and another five without excessive overlap.

For most of the last 13 years my Thinkpads weren’t that far behind what I could afford to get as a desktop system, until now.

A Smart Phone as the Primary Computing Device

For the past 6 months the Linux system I’ve used most frequently is my Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Android phone [2]. Most of my computer use is on my laptop, but the many short periods of time using my phone add up. This has forced some changes to the way I work. I now use IMAP instead of POP for receiving mail so I can use my phone and my laptop with the same mail spool. This is a significant benefit for my email productivity, instead of having 100 new mailing list messages waiting for me when I get home I can read them on my phone and then have maybe 1 message that can’t be addressed without access to something better than a phone. My backlog of 10,000 unread mailing list messages lasted less than a month after getting an Android phone!

A few years ago I got an EeePC 701 that I use for emergency net access when a server goes down. But even a 920g EeePC is more weight than I want to carry, as I need to have a mobile phone anyway there is effectively no extra mass or space used to have a phone capable of running a ssh client. My EeePC doesn’t get much use nowadays.

A Cheap 27 inch Monitor from Dell

Dell Australia is currently selling a 27 inch monitor that does 2560*1440 (WQHD) for $899AU. Dell Australia offers a motor club discount which pretty much everyone in Australia can get as almost everyone is either a member of such a club or knows a member well enough to use their membership number for the discount. This discount reduces the price to $764.15. The availability of such a great cheap monitor has caused me to change my working habits. It doesn’t make sense to have a reasonably powerful laptop used in one location for almost all the time when a desktop system with a much better monitor can be used.

The Plan

Now that my 27 inch monitor has arrived I have to figure out a way of making things work. I still need to work from a laptop on occasion but my main computer use is going to be a smart-phone and a desktop system.

Email is already sorted out, I already have three IMAP client systems (netbook, laptop, and phone), adding a desktop system as a fourth isn’t going to change anything.

The next issue is software development. In the past I haven’t used version control systems that much for my hobby work, I have just released a new version every time I had some significant changes. Obviously to support development on two or three systems I need to use a VCS rigorously. I’m currently considering Subversion and Git. Subversion is really easy to use (for me), but it seems to be losing popularity. Git is really popular so if I use it for my own projects then I could allow anonymous access for anyone who’s interested – maybe that will encourage more people to contribute.

One thing I haven’t even investigated yet is how to manage my web browsing work-flow in a distributed manner. My pattern when using a laptop is to have many windows and tabs open at the same time for issues that I am researching and to only close them days or weeks later when I have finished with the issue. For example if I’m buying some new computer gear I will typically open a web browser window with multiple tabs related to the equipment (hardware, software, prices, etc) and keep them all open until I have received it and got it working. Chromium, Mozilla, and presumably other modern web browsers have a facility to reopen windows after a crash. It would be ideal for me if there was some sort of similar facility that allowed me to open the windows that are open on another system – and to push window open commands to another system. For example when doing web browsing on my phone I would like to be able to push the URLs of pages that can’t be viewed on a phone to my desktop system and have them open waiting for me when I get home.

It would be nice if web browsing could be conceptually similar to a remote desktop service in terms of what the user sees.

Finally in my home directory there are lots of random files. Probably about half of them could be deleted if I was more organised (disk space is cheap and most of the files are small). For the rest it would be good if they could be accessed from other locations. I have read about people putting the majority of their home directory under version control, but I’m not sure that would work well for me.

It would be good if I could do something similar with editor sessions, if I had a file open in vi on my desktop before I left home it would be good if I could get a session on my laptop to open the “same” file (well the same named file checked out of the VCS).

Configuring the Desktop System

One of the disadvantages of a laptop is that RAID usually isn’t viable. With a desktop system software RAID-1 is easy to configure but it results in two disks making heat and noise. For my new desktop system I’m thinking of using a DRBD device for /home to store the data locally as well as almost instantly copying it to RAID-1 storage on the server. The main advantage of DRBD over NFS, NBD, and iSCSI is that I can keep working if the server becomes unavailable (EG use the desktop system to ask Google how to fix a server fault). Also with DRBD it’s a configuration option to allow synchronous writes to return after the data is written locally which is handy if the server is congested.

Another option that I’m considering is a diskless system using NBD or iSCSI for all storage. This will prevent using swap (you can’t swap to a network device to avoid deadlocks) but that won’t necessarily be a problem given the decrease in RAM prices as I can just buy enough RAM to not need swap.

The Future

Eventually I want to be able to use a tablet for almost everything including software development. While a tablet display isn’t going to be great for coding I’m sure that I can make use of enough otherwise wasted time to justify the expense. I will probably need a tablet that acts like a regular Linux computer – not an Android tablet.

14 comments to Moving from a Laptop to a Cloud Lifestyle

  • jens

    For synchronising open tabs between different systems check out Firefox Sync[0]. It works quite well for me keeping my n900, desktop computer at work and my laptop in sync. There is probably a similar extension for chromium, too.


  • Stavros Giannouris

    Why not just plug the monitor on the laptop when at home?
    This way, you don’t have to configure another system and when you have to take the laptop, you just pack it and go.

  • tim

    I agree with Stavros. Until I read this post, my feeling is that cheap external monitors make smaller laptops more attractive, plus the laptop brings to the party even more screen real-estate, and it’s one less system to worry about (always assuming that the laptop is not redundant).

    PS Your should offer your turing test in other bases sometimes to see if we’re awake.

  • Anonymous

    Seconding the recommendation for Firefox Sync. Makes it trivial to open the same tabs you currently or recently had open on another system.

    Also agreeing with Stavros’ recommendation of plugging the laptop into the monitor. Laptops make awesome desktops, with a built-in UPS even. :)

  • Cam Hutchison

    There is a chrome extension called “Chrome to phone” that allows you to send a URL from your desktop chrome/chromium browser to an android phone.

  • Wouter Verhelst

    Wearing my NBD maintainer hat…

    While there may be things DRBD can do that NBD can’t, the things you list aren’t them.

    It’s perfectly possible to do a RAID-1 device with one end on a local disk, and another one on an NBD device. In addition, it’s also possible to configure the Linux software RAID subsystem so that it marks one particular device as ‘behind a slow link’, with the ‘-W’ option mdadm.

    Additionally, while it’s not 100% deadlock safe, swapping to NBD is possible, and deadlocks are very unlikely — especially if you use the ‘-swap’ option to nbd-client, which can be easily configured through the Debian /etc/nbd-client configuration file. This option ensures nbd-client calls mlockall(), so it won’t be swapped out itself, which is one of two reasons why swapping over the network could result in a deadlock. The other reason is that the TCP stack may need to allocate more memory in order to handle a read over the TCP socket that contains your swap device, but that problem is highly unlikely if you have more than a few hundred megs of memory, your NBD server is on the same network segment (which I would recommend anyway), and your network is not dropping high numbers of packets at random (i.e., don’t do this over wireless).

    LTSP uses swap to NBD, and the Extramadura people, which use LTSP on about 80.000 systems, use it with little problems.

  • etbe

    jens: Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll check that out. Hopefully it will allow me to run my own server though as I don’t want this stuff going to a Mozilla server.

    Stavros: Firstly it seems to me that modern laptops suck. Secondly my current laptop doesn’t support any form of display other than VGA and I doubt that VGA would give anywhere near adequate quality at such high resolution, even if the video card supported it. Given the current laptop offerings I’m not inclined to buy another expensive laptop to replace one that’s still relatively new.

    tim: Hehe. I’ve been getting increasing amounts of spam through the “Turing test”, so I’ll probably have to change it. Other bases will decrease the comments on my non-technical posts though.

    Anon and Cam: Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll look into that.

    Wouter: Thanks for your suggestions. I now have DRBD working so I’m not going to change as long as I have a hard drive in the desktop system. But now that it seems viable to use swap over NDB (as I have 1G of RAM now and will get more soon) it will be possible to remove the local disk and use NBD only.

  • Eugenio

    Hi Russell. About the firefox sync going to mozilla servers, I have not really analyzed what it sends but they claim that the info gets encrypted before going to their servers.
    About your monitor, I’d like to ask you some things. Are you talking about the Dell U2711 [0]? I was considering to get it but is not exactly cheap here, it would be around $1300AU [1] but also 2 months of my salary. I thought it was reasonable, but reading your description as cheap it made me doubt. Would you consider it worth to get even if it wasn’t in the cheap range of prices? Do you see any notable flaws that you were willing to let pass because you got it cheap?
    Also, thanks for your all your really informative and interesting posts and all the effort on making them, it’s really notable.

  • Wojtek

    I second Stavros’ opinion on the external monitor. I beg to differ when it comes to VGA yielding poor quality. I have used my dell with number of externals, resolutions like 2500*1200 (approximate, I don’t remember, but it was like two times larger than my laptops 1280×800 displ) were handled through VGA with no probles, moreover, using xrandr I’m able to use it with my laptop screen as an additional screen.
    I bet it could produce like 12 to 15 80×25 terminals if you need them. Also, I advertise using ion3/Notion-like WMs, so you can fit terminals automatically.

    I too don’t feel my 4yr laptop is old – the thermal barrier prevents it. So don’t buy new…
    Tablets are not something I take seriously. Sure, good for watching movies under the blanket… but how could anyone seriously type with that? Come on.

  • Jeroen Dekkers

    You could use a docking station to get a DVI/displayport for your laptop. I currently have an X200s with an ultrabase that has a displayport for my 27″ monitor. It also saves you the hassle of (un)plugging all the cables everytime you take your laptop somewhere. You get all the features a normal desktop system would have when at home (only a little bit less cpu power/memory) while not having to deal with two different systems.

  • etbe

    Eugenio: Yes, I’ve got the Dell U2711 – as an aside the link you posted doesn’t work and there seemed to be no way that I could get information on that monitor from Dell when I asked for the Argentinian site. The monitor has a much lower price than similar monitors had a year ago, that counts as cheap for me! The quality is quite good, currently I’m running in 2048*1152 resolution because the on-motherboard video hardware doesn’t support anything better and it still looks great! I haven’t noticed any flaws, the only thing I would like improved is to have the ports for the built-in USB hub somewhere accessible. My old Dell 2005 monitor (20 inch TFT) has USB ports at the very right edge where they can be seen without unreasonable effort and where I could get access to them without leaving my chair. The U2711 has ports underneath at the back where it’s difficult to feel them and impossible to see them without using a mirror or moving the monitor.

    As much as I like the monitor there’s no way I’d spend two months pay on it! Dell Australia has some quite nice 24 inch monitors that are about 1/3 the price. If things were so expensive here I’d buy a 24″ monitor and then buy something better in 18 months when prices have dropped.

    I’m glad you like my posts!

    Wojtek: Tablets aren’t suitable for coding. But they are suitable for reading things and there are various options for connecting a keyboard for light email work.

    You can also do some serious work on a tablet. I wrote a feature length magazine article on an iPaQ, modern tablets are much bigger and have much better screens.

    As for VGA connectors, I’ve seen some quite bad results from high resolution and VGA, maybe it was bad cabling or something. But DVI/DisplayPort/HDMI should give a better result in any case.

    As for not buying a newish laptop, older laptops have lower resolution which gives more incentive to get a desktop.

    Jeroen: I had a docking station for my old Thinkpad T43, but I never used it. Generally it just doesn’t fit with my way of working – and also I didn’t have a desire to use an external monitor at the time. For working with a larger monitor it would be an option, but it would add more cost to using a laptop which makes that less appealing.

  • Eugenio

    Thanks for the answer, really good info. It looks like dell has broken its site somehow these days. There is a 24′ monitor too but it was almost half the price of the 27′ one and it was TN and not IPS like the U2711. Maybe I should just fix the backlight on my old 19′, it is a bit too much. Thanks again.

  • etbe

    Eugenio: Dell sucks in Argentina! Dell Australia have sold some really nice 24″ monitors for less than $300AU for over a year now. Several of my relatives who don’t have a real need for a good monitor (they only use their computer for a few hours a week) have Dell 24″ monitors because it’s not worth saving $100 (which is less than 7 hours pay at minimum wage) to get anything less.

    The 27 inch monitor is only 49 hours pay at the Australian minimum wage of $15.51 per hour (see above URL), that 49 hours doesn’t include tax, but anyone on the minimum wage isn’t going to pay a lot of tax.

  • Eugenio

    I totally agree that Dell sucks here. Specially because most of their options disappeared. They even used to offer Ubuntu pcs, laptops and netbooks. Now, only one laptop model.
    About prices it would be another topic. Most of the price are import taxes. It can be almost 50% extra, and also VAT.
    Also, there are some strange classifications for taxes, if they are luxury items they pay more but for example in LCD monitors the definition of luxury would be that it has a connection other than VGA, so if you get one with DVI it would qualify for more import taxes.