smaug: The firebreather


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Nov 30, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


I recently bought my first new laptop computer in over six years. My previous computer was a Thinkpad X31, and I purposely bought the best I could afford knowing that I would have it for a long time. I outfitted the X31 with two GB of main memory, an 80 GB disk, a docking station and a five year extended warranty.


That laptop has been around the world many times, subjected to freezing cold, hot temperatures and even been dropped a couple of times (fortunately onto carpeted floors and with the power turned off). I have upgraded its disk twice (it now holds 320 GB of data) and it is still functioning fine. I did have to return it to be repaired one time (the turn-around for the repair was two days), but when it was returned it had a new keyboard and all the firmware in the system had been updated. Things that had never completely worked before (power management, battery life indicators) now worked “magically”. Recently I upgraded the extended warranty for another two years.


Life goes on, however, and there were things that the X31 did not do very well. It was a 32-bit machine, and I confess to liking 64-bit address spaces. It did not have hardware support for virtualization, and I wanted to do things with KVM. It did not have 3D graphics support nor was it multi-core, both areas of interest for me. The X31 had a smaller amount of graphics memory so could not take advantage of “dual screen” functionality, and particularly that used by Open Office's new presentation capabilities. Although the X31 had USB 2.0, backing up the entire 320 GB disk took a long time, and the PC card interface was not ExpressCard, so I could not gain USB 3.0 functionality through that interface.


I also noticed that (since I travel so much) I was doing more and more with my notebook and less and less with my desktop. While I sometimes try to work on a plane I found that the ever-shrinking space in coach seats meant that it was difficult, and often I would decide to catch up on sleep and work in airports and at my destination. I would arrive home and instead of using my desktop I would continue using my laptop notebook, so I decided to go for a slightly larger notebook that had more of the power and feel of a desktop.


I had been waiting for a few things to appear before I bought a new system. An LED backlit screen and USB 3.0 interface were two of the upcoming features making me wait, and I will admit that for a period of time I was just too busy to shop for a new notebook.


That is when I found “smaug”.


I come from a time when computers were named, not numbered. As computers dropped in price so a company could afford “more than one”, systems administrators were delighted to think up great names for them.


My first named computer was “shaman”. It was a PDP-11/34 that had been put together from parts, and we used it to test a 16-bit version of UNIX called “V7M-11” (later to be re-named “Ultrix-11”) at Digital Equipment Corporation. The second named computer we had was “Guru”, a MicroVAX II computer that had the power of a VAX 11/780, but at a fraction of the price. I continued to name the systems I cared about after mystical beings (Wica, Gandalf, etc.) Some people at DEC named systems after planets, some after cartoon characters (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs generated “Grumpy” and “Doc” among others), and so forth. My X31 was “shamet”, meaning a small “shaman”.


These days people seem to have too many computers to really name, but I still take pleasure in coming up with a name for my systems that fit them.


The notebook I purchased was a Lenovo Thinkpad W510. It has an Intel I7 chipset with four cores and hyperthreading, so Linux reports 8 “CPU”s. I outfitted it with 16 GB of main memory and a 500 GB disk. With a 15” screen the image is crystal sharp. The wireless networking is 802.11n, so when I upgrade my home router later this month I will enjoy both greater range and throughput than the older 802.11g. Everything works on smaug, including the fingerprint reader.


In the age of netbooks and wireless phones this may seem like overkill, but I intend on using the virtualization features heavily to prototype various solutions. I can more than simulate a server and several different types of clients on “smaug” without it even breaking a sweat. With USB 3.0 smaug's disk can be backed up in a little over two hours. My X31's screen (only two inches less in size) seems small now, due both to the smaller size but also the lower resolution. smaug gives me 1920x1080, and the clarity and brightness of the screen make it easy to see.


This is not an advertisement for Lenovo, the W510 or anything else. I give the same advice on picking laptops as I do for picking Linux distributions: “It does not make any difference what I use, you should be looking at what meets your needs”, but I am excited about smaug's capabilities, and I look forward to using it for at least the next several years.


Why the name “smaug”? This notebook does use a “bit” more electrical power than my old X31, and with that much power in a relatively small package, it does get a “bit” warmer than the X31. In the early days of the W510 model there were reports of the left speaker melting, and while this problem does seem to have been overcome, I can see why it might have happened. From time to time the fan starts up and blows hot air out the side, and the notebook reminds me of the fire-breathing dragon in J.R.R. Tolkien's book “The Hobbit”.


Carpe smaug!

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