Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… Adoption of a technology is being impeded by too many standards. The solution? A new standard, of course, and before you know it, we now have another new standard to deal with.
The smart home industry needs to figure out how to properly embrace Thread (and Matter). It (or something like it) will be necessary for broader smart home / Internet of Things adoption.
The Thread protocol offers a robust mesh network designed to solve many of the smart home’s biggest problems. But only if everyone can agree on how to use it.
VPN — lets me connect to my storage and media server when I’m outside of my home
Until about a week ago, I had run a Plex media server on my aging (8 years old!) NVIDIA SHIELD TV. While I loved the device, it was starting to show it’s age – it would sometimes overheat and not boot for several days. My home technology setup had also shifted. I bought the SHIELD all those years ago to “give” my “dumb” TV smart Android TV functionality. But, about a year ago, I upgraded to a newer Sony TV which had it built-in. Now, the SHIELD felt “extra” and the media server felt increasingly constrained by what it could not do (e.g., slow network access speeds, can only run services that are Android apps, etc.)
I considered buying a high-end consumer NAS from Synology or QNAP (which would have been much simpler!), but decided to build my own to both get better hardware for less money but also as a fun project which would teach me more about servers and let me configure everything to my heart’s content.
If you’re interested in doing something similar, let me walk you through my hardware choices and the steps I took to get to my current home server setup.
I purchased a Beelink EQ12 Mini, a “mini PC” (fits in your hand, power-efficient, but still capable of handling a web browser, office applications, or a media server), during Amazon’s Prime Day sale for just under $200.
While I’m very happy with the choice I made, for those of you contemplating something similar, the exact machine isn’t important. Many of the mini PC brands ultimately produce very similar hardware, and by the time you read this, there will probably be a newer and better product. But, I chose this particular model because:
It was from one of the more reputable Mini PC brands which gave me more confidence in its build quality (and my ability to return it if something went wrong). Other reputable vendors beyond Beelink include Geekom, Minisforum, Chuwi, etc.
It had a USB-C port which helps with futureproofing, and the option to convert this into something else useful if this server experiment doesn’t work out.
It had an Intel CPU. While AMD makes excellent CPUs, the benefit of going with Intel is support for Intel Quick Sync, which allows for hardware accelerated video transcode (converting video and audio streams to different formats and resolutions – so that other devices can play them – without overwhelming the system or needing a beefy graphics card). Many popular media servers support Intel Quick Sync-powered transcode.
It was not a i3/5/7/9 chip. Intel’s higher end chips have names that include “i3” or “i5” or “i7”. Those are generally overkill on performance as well as power consumption and price for a simple file and media server. All I needed for my purposes was a lower-end Celeron-type device.
It was the most advanced Intel architecture I could find for ≤$200. While I didn’t need the best performance, there was no reason to avoid more advanced technology. Thankfully, the N100 chip in the EQ12 Mini uses Intel’s 12th Generation Core architecture (Alder Lake). Many of the other mini-PCs at this price range had older (10th and 11th generation) CPUs.
I went with the smallest RAM and onboard storage option. I wasn’t planning on putting much on the included storage (because you want to isolate the operating system for the server away from the data) nor did I expect to tax the computer memory for my use case.
I also considered purchasing a Raspberry Pi, a <$100 low-power device popular with hobbyists, but the lack of transcode and the non-x86 architecture (Raspberry Pi’s use ARM CPUs and won’t be compatible with all server software) pushed me towards an Intel-based mini PC.
In addition to the mini-PC, I also needed:
Storage: a media server / NAS without storage is not very useful. I had a 4 TB USB hard drive (previously connected to my SHIELD TV) which I used here, and I also bought a 4 TB SATA SSD (for ~$150) to mount inside the mini-PC.
Note 1: if you decide to go with OpenMediaVault as I have, install the Linux distribution before you install the SATA drive. The installer (foolishly) tries to install itself to the first drive it finds, so don’t give it any bad options.
Note 2: most Mini PC manufacturers say their systems only support additional drives up to 2 TB. This appears to be mainly the manufacturers being overly conservative. My 4 TB SATA SSD works like a charm.
A USB stick: Most Linux distributions (especially those that power open source NAS solutions) are installed from a bootable USB stick. I used one that was lying around that had 2 GB on it.
Ethernet cables and a “dumb” switch: I use Google Wifi in my home and I wanted to connect both my TV and my new media server to the router in my living room. To do that, I bought a simple Ethernet switch (you don’t need anything fancy because it’s just bridging several devices) and 3 Ethernet cables to tie it all together (one to connect the router to the switch, one to connect the TV to the switch, and one to connect the server to the switch). Depending on your home configuration, you may want something different.
A Monitor & Keyboard: if you decide to go with OpenMediaVault as I have, you’ll only need this during the installation phase as the server itself is controllable through a web interface. So, I used an old keyboard and monitor (that I’ve since given away).
There are a number of open source home server / NAS solutions you can use. But I chose to go with OpenMediaVault because it’s:
built on Debian (a well-supported, widely used flavor of Linux)
Plug the USB stick into the mini PC (and make sure to connect the monitor and keyboard) and then turn the machine on. If it goes to Windows (i.e. it doesn’t boot from your USB stick), you’ll need to restart and go into BIOS (you can usually do this by pressing Delete or F2 or F7 after turning on the machine) to configure the machine to boot from a USB drive.
You should pick a good root password and write it down (it gates administrative access to the machine, and you’ll need it to make some of the changes below).
You can pick pretty much any name you want for the hostname and domain name (it shouldn’t affect anything but it will be what your machine calls itself).
Make sure to select the right drive for installation
And that should be it! After you complete the installation, you will be prompted to enter the root password you created to login.
Unfortunately for me, OpenMediaVault did not recognize my mini PC’s ethernet ports or wireless card. If it detects your network adapter just fine, you can skip this next block of steps. But, if you run into this, select the “does not have network card” option and “minimal setup” options during install. You should still be able to get the end of the process. Then, once the OpenMediaVault operating system installs and reboots:
Login by entering the root password you picked during the installation and make sure your system is plugged in to your router via ethernet. Note: Linux is known to have issues recognizing some wireless cards and it’s considered best practice to run a media server off of Ethernet rather than WiFi.
In the command line, enter omv-firstaid. This is a gateway to a series of commonly used tools to fix an OpenMediaVault install. In this case, select the Configure Network Interface option and say yes to all the IPv4 DHCP options (you can decide if you want to set up IPv6).
Step 2 should fix the issue where OpenMediaVault could not see your internet connection. To prove this, you should try two things:
Enter ping google.com -c 3 in the command line. You should see 3 lines with something like 64 bytes from random-url.blahurl.net showing that your system could reach Google (and thus the internet). If it doesn’t work, try again in a few minutes (sometimes it takes some time for your router to register a new system).
Enter ip addr in the command line. Somewhere on the screen, you should see something that probably looks like inet 192.168.xx.xx/xx. That is your local IP address and it’s a sign that the mini PC has connected to your router.
Now you need to update the Linux operating system so that it knows where to look for updates to Debian. As of this writing, the latest version of OpenMediaVault (6) is based on Debian 11 (codenamed Bullseye), so you may need to replace bullseye with <name of Debian codename that your OpenMediaVault is based on> in the text below if your version is based on a different version of Debian (i.e. Bookworm, Trixie, etc.).
In the command line, enter nano /etc/apt/sources.list. This will let you edit the file that contains all the information on where your Linux operating system will find valid software updates. Enter the text below underneath all the lines that start with # (replacing bullseye with the name of the Debian version that underlies your version of OpenMediaVault if needed).
deb http://deb.debian.org/debian bullseye main deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian bullseye main deb http://deb.debian.org/debian-security/ bullseye-security main deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian-security/ bullseye-security main deb http://deb.debian.org/debian bullseye-updates main deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian bullseye-updates main
Then press Ctrl+X to exit, press Y when asked if you want to save your changes, and finally Enter to confirm that you want to overwrite the existing file.
To prove that this worked, in the command line enter apt-get update and you should see some text fly by that includes some of the URLs you entered into sources.list. Next enter apt-get upgrade -y, and this should install all the updates the system found.
Congratulations, you’ve installed OpenMediaVault!
Setting up the File Server
You should now connect any storage (internal or USB) that you want to use for your server. You can turn off the machine if you need to by pulling the plug, or holding the physical power button down for a few seconds, or by entering shutdown now in the command line. After connecting the storage, turn the system back on.
Once setup is complete, OpenMediaVault can generally be completely controlled and managed from the web. But to do this, you need your server’s local IP address. Log in (if you haven’t already) using the root password you set up during the installation process. Enter ip addr in the command line. Somewhere on the screen, you should see something that looks like inet 192.168.xx.xx/xx. That set of numbers connected by decimal points but before the slash (for example: 192.168.444.23) is your local IP address. Write that down.
Now, go into any other computer connected to the same network (i.e. on WiFi or plugged into the router) as the media server and enter the local IP address you wrote down into the address bar of a browser. If you configured everything correctly, you should see something like this (you may have to change the language to English by clicking on the globe icon in the upper right):
Congratulations, you no longer need to connect a keyboard or mouse to your server, because you can manage it from any other computer on the network!
Login using the default username admin and default password openmediavault. Below are the key things to do first. (Note: after hitting Save on a major change, as an annoying extra precaution, OpenMediaVault will ask you to confirm the change again with a bright yellow confirmation banner at the top. You can wait until you have several changes, but you need to make sure you hit the check mark at least once or your changes won’t be reflected):
Change your password: This panel controls the configuration for your system, so it’s best not to let it be the default. You can do this by clicking on the (user settings) icon in the upper-right and selecting Change Password
Some useful odds & ends:
Make auto logout (time before the panel logs you out automatically) longer. You can do this by going to [System > Workbench] in the menu and changing Auto logout to something like 60 minutes
Set the system timezone. You can do this by going to [System > Date & Time] and changing the Time zone field.
Update the software: On the left-hand side, select [System > Update Management > Updates]. Press the button to search for new updates. If any show up press the button to install everything on the list that it can. (see below, Image credit: OMV-extras Wiki)
Mount your storage:
From the menu, select [Storage > Disks]. The table that results (see below) shows everything OpenMediaVault sees connected to your server. If you’re missing anything, time to troubleshoot (check the connection and then make sure the storage works on another computer).
It’s a good idea (although not strictly necessary) to reformat any un-empty disks before using them with OpenMediaVault for performance. You can do this by selecting the disk entry (marking it yellow) and then pressing the (Wipe) button
Go to [Storage > File Systems]. This shows what drives (and what file systems) are accessible to OpenMediaVault. To properly mount your storage:
Press the button for every unformatted drive added you may want to mount to OpenMediaVault. This will add a disk with an existing file system to the purview of your file server.
Press the button in the upper-left (just to the right of the triangular button) to add a drive that’s just been formatted. Of the file system options that come up, I would choose EXT4 (it’s what modern Linux operating systems tend to use). This will result in your chosen file system being added to the drive before it’s ultimately mounted.
Set up your File Server: Ok, you’ve got storage! Now you want to make it available for the computers on your network. To do this, you need to do three things:
Enabling SMB/CIFS: Windows, Mac OS, and Linux systems tend to work pretty well with SMB/CIFS for network file shares. From the menu, select [Services > SMB/CIFS > Settings].
Check the Enabled box. If your LAN workgroup is something other than the default WORKGROUP you should enter it. Now any device on your network that supports SMB/CIFS will be able to see the folders that OpenMediaVault shares. (see below, Image credit: OMV-extras Wiki)
Selecting folders to share: On the left-hand-side of the administrative panel, select [Storage > Shared Folders]. This will list all the folders that can be shared.
To make a folder available to your network, select the button in the upper-left, and fill out the Name (what you want the folder to be called when other’s access it) and select the File System you’ve previously mounted that the folder will connect to. You can write out the name of the directory you want to share and/or use the directory folder icon to the right of the Relative Path field to help select the right folder. Under Permissions, for simplicity I would assign Everyone: read/write. (see below, Image credit: OMV-extras Wiki)
Hit Save to return to the list of folder shares (see below for what a completed entry looks like, Image credit: OMV-extras Wiki). Repeat the process to add as many Shared Folders as you’d like.
Make the shared folders available to SMB/CIFS: To do this go to [Services > SMB/CIFS > Shares]. Hit the button and, in, Shared Folder, select the Shared Folder you configured from the dropdown. Under Public, select Guests allowed – this will allow users on the network to access the folder without supplying a username or password. Check the Inherit Permissions, Extended attributes, and Store DOS attributes boxes as well and then hit Save. Repeat this for all the shared folders you want to make available. (Image credit: OMV-extras Wiki)
Set a static local IP: Home networks typically dynamically assign IP addresses to the devices on the network (something called DHCP). As a result, the IP address for your server may suddenly change. To give your server a consistent address to connect to, you should configure your router to assign a static IP to your server. The exact instructions will vary by router so you’ll need to consult your router’s documentation. In my household, we use Google Wifi and, if you do too, here are the instructions for doing so. (Make sure to write down the static IP you assign to the server as you will need it later. If you change the IP from what it already was, make sure to log into the OpenMediaVault panel from that new address before proceeding.)
Check that the shared folders show up on your network: Linux, Mac OS, and Windows all have separate ways of mounting a SMB/CIFS file share. The steps above hopefully simplify this by:
letting users connect as a Guest (no extra authentication needed)
Enter containers. Containers are “portable environments” for software, first popularized by the company Docker, that gives software a predictable background to run on. This makes it easier to run applications reliably, regardless of machine (because the application only sees what the container shows it). It also means a greatly reduced risk of a misconfigured app affecting another since the application “lives” in its own container.
While this has tremendous implications for software in general, for our purposes, this just makes it a lot easier to install software … provided you have Docker installed. For OpenMediaVault, the best way to get Docker is to install OMV-extras.
If you know how to use ssh, go ahead and use it to access your server’s IP address, login as the root user, and skip to Step 4. But, if you don’t, the easiest way to proceed is to set up WeTTY (Steps 1-3):
Install WeTTY: Go to [System > Plugins] and search or scroll until you find the row for openmediavault-wetty. Click on it to mark it yellow and then press the button to install it. WeTTY is a web-based terminal which will let you access the server command line from a browser.
Enable WeTTY: Once the install is complete, go to [Services > WeTTY], check the Enabled box, and hit Save. You’ll be prompted by OpenMediaVault to confirm the pending change.
Press Open UIbutton on the page to access WeTTY: It should open up a new tab that takes you to your-ip-address:2222 which should open up a black screen which is basically the command line for your server! Enter root when prompted for your username and then your root password that you configured during installation.
Installation will take a while but once it’s complete, you can verify it by going back to your administrative panel, refreshing the page, and seeing if there is a new menu item [System > omv-extras].
Enable the Docker repo: From the administrative panel, go to [System > omv-extras] and check the Docker repo box. Press the apt clean button once you have.
Install the Docker-compose plugin: Go to [System > Plugins] and search or scroll down until you find the entry for openmediavault-compose. Click on it to mark it yellow and then press the button on the upper-left to install it. To confirm that it’s been installed, you should see a new menu item [Services > Compose]
Update the System: As before, select [System > Update Management > Updates]. Press the button to search for new updates. Press the button which will automatically install everything.
Create three shared folders: compose, containers, and config: Just as with setting up the network folder shares, you can do this by going to [Storage > Shared Folders] and pressing the button in the upper left. You can generally pick any location you’d like, but make sure it’s on a file system with a decent amount of storage as media server applications can store quite a bit of configuration and temporary data (e.g. preview thumbnails).
compose and containers will be used by Docker to store the information it needs to set up and operate the containers you’ll want.
I would also recommend sharing config on the local network to make it easier to see and change the application configuration files (go to [Services > SMB/CIFS > Shares] and add it in the same way you did for the File Server step). Later below, I use this to add a custom theme to Ubooquity.
Configure Docker Compose: Go to [Services > Compose > Settings]. Where it says Shared folder under Compose Files, select the compose folder you created in Step 8. Where it says Docker storage under Docker, copy the absolute path (not the relative path) for the containers folder (which you can get from [Storage > Shared Folders]). Once that’s all set. Press Reinstall Docker.
Set up a User for Docker: You’ll need to create a separate user for Docker as it is dangerous to give any application full access to your root user. Go to [Users > Users] (yes, that is Users twice). Press the button to create a new user. You can give it whatever name (i.e. dockeruser) and password you want, but under Groups make sure to select both docker and users. Hit Save and once you’re set you should see your new user on the table. Make a note of the UID and GID (they’ll probably be 1000 and 100, respectively, if this is your first user other than the root) as you’ll need it when you install applications.
That was a lot! But, now you’ve set up Docker Compose. Now let’s use it to install some applications!
Setting up Media Server(s)
Before you set up the applications that access your data, you should make sure all of that data (i.e. photos you’ve taken, music you’ve downloaded, movies you’ve ripped / bought, PDFs you’d like to make available, etc.) are on your server and organized.
My suggestion is to set up a shared folder accessible to the network (mine is called Media) and have subdirectories in that folder corresponding for the different types of files that you may want your media server(s) to handle (for example: Videos, Photos, Files, etc). Then, use the network to move the files over (you should get comparable, if not faster, speeds as a USB transfer on a local area network).
The two media servers I’ve set up on my system are Plex (to serve videos, photos, and music) and Ubooquity (to serve files and especially ePUB/PDFs). There are other options out there, many of which can be similarly deployed using Docker compose, but I’m just going to cover my setup with Plex and Ubooquity below.
Why I chose it:
I’ve been using Plex for many years now, having set up clients on virtually all of my devices (phones, tablets, computers, and smart TVs).
I bought a lifetime Plex Pass a few years back which gives me access to even more functionality (including Intel Quick Sync transcode).
It has a wealth of automatic features (i.e. automatic video detection and tagging, authenticated access through the web without needing to configure a VPN, etc.) that have worked reliably over the years.
How to set up Docker Compose: Go to [Services > Compose > Files] and press the button. Under Name put down Plex and under File, paste the following (making sure the number of spaces are consistent)
version: "2.1" services: plex: image: lscr.io/linuxserver/plex:latest container_name: plex network_mode: host environment: - PUID=<UID of Docker User> - PGID=<GID of Docker User> - TZ=America/Los_Angeles - VERSION=docker devices: - /dev/dri/:/dev/dri/ volumes: - <absolute path to shared config folder>/plex:/config - <absolute path to Media folder>:/media restart: unless-stopped
You need to replace <UID of Docker User> and <GID of Docker User> with the UID and GID of the Docker user you created when you set up Docker Compose (Step 10 above), which will likely be 1000 and 100 if you followed the steps I laid out.
You can get the the absolute paths to your config folder and the location of your media files by going to [Storage > Shared Folders] in the administrative panel. I added a /plex to the config folder path under volumes:. This way you can install as many apps through Docker as you want and consolidate all of their configuration files in one place, while still keeping them separate.
If you have an Intel QuickSync CPU, the two lines that start with devices: and /dev/dri/ will allow Plex to use it (provided you also paid for a Plex Pass). If you don’t have a chip with Intel QuickSync, haven’t paid for Plex Pass, or don’t want it, leave out those two lines.
Once you’re done, hit Save and you should be returned to your list of Docker compose files for the next step. Notice that the new Plex entry you created has a Down status, showing the container has yet to be initiated.
How to start / update / stop / remove your Plex container: You can manage all of your Docker Compose files by going to [Services > Compose > Files]. Click on the Plex entry (which should turn it yellow) and press the (up) button. This will create the container, download any files needed, and run it.
And that’s it! To prove it worked, go to http://your-ip-address:32400/web in a browser and you should see a login screen (see image below)
From time to time, you’ll want to update your software. Docker makes this very easy. Because of the image: lscr.io/linuxserver/plex:latest line, every time you press the (pull) button, Docker will pull the latest version from linuxserver.io (a group that maintains commonly used Linux containers) and, usually, you can get away with an update without needing to stop or restart your container.
Similarly, to stop the Plex container, simply tap the (stop) button. And to delete the container, tap the (down) button.
Do the setup wizard. It has good default settings (automatic library scans, remote access, etc.) — and I haven’t had to make many tweaks.
Take advantage of remote access — You can access your Plex server even when you’re not at home just by going to plex.tv and logging in.
Install Plex clients everywhere — It’s available on pretty much everything (Web, iOS, Android) and, with remote access, becomes a pretty easy way to get access to all of your content
I hide most of Plex’s default content in the Plex clients I’ve setup. While their ad-sponsored offerings are actually pretty good, I’m rarely consuming those. You can do this by configuring which things are pinned, and I pretty much only leave the things on my media server up.
Why I chose it: Ubooquity has, sadly, not been updated in almost 5 years as of this writing. But, I still chose it for two reasons. First, unlike many alternatives, it does not require me to create a new file organization structure or manually tag my old files to work. It simply shows me my folder structure, lets me open the files one page at a time, maintains read location across devices, and lets me have multiple users.
Second, it’s available as a container on linuxserver.io (like Plex) which makes it easy to install and means that the infrastructure (if not the application) will continue to be updated as new container software comes out.
I may choose to switch (and the beauty of Docker is that it’s very easy to just install another content server to try it out) but for now Ubooquity made the most sense.
How to set up the Docker Compose configuration: Like with Plex, go to [Services > Compose > Files] and press the button. Under Name put down Ubooquity and under File, paste the following
--- version: "2.1" services: ubooquity: image: lscr.io/linuxserver/ubooquity:latest container_name: ubooquity environment: - PUID=<UID of Docker User> - PGID=<GID of Docker User> - TZ=America/Los_Angeles - MAXMEM=512 volumes: - <absolute path to shared config folder>/ubooquity:/config - <absolute path to shared Media folder>/Books:/books - <absolute path to shared Media folder>/Comics:/comics - <absolute path to shared Media folder>/Files:/files ports: - 2202:2202 - 2203:2203 restart: unless-stopped
You need to replace <UID of Docker User> and <GID of Docker User> with the UID and GID of the Docker user you created when you set up Docker Compose (Step 10 above), which will likely be 1000 and 100 if you followed the steps I laid out.
You can get the the absolute paths to your config folder and the location of your media files by going to [Storage > Shared Folders] in the administrative panel. I added a /ubooquity to the config folder path under volumes:. This way you can install as many apps through Docker as you want and consolidate all of their configuration files in one place, while still keeping them separate.
Once you’re done, hit Save and you should be returned to your list of Docker compose files for the next step. Notice that the Ubooquity entry you created has a Down status, showing it has yet to be initiated.
How to start / update / stop / remove your Ubooquity container: You can manage all of your Docker Compose files by going to [Services > Compose > Files]. Click on the Ubooquity entry (which should turn it yellow) and press the (up) button. This will create the container, download any files needed, and run the system.
And that’s it! To prove it worked, go to your-ip-address:2202/ubooquity in a browser and you should see the user interface (image credit: Ubooquity)
From time to time, you’ll want to update your software. Docker makes this very easy. Because of the image: lscr.io/linuxserver/ubooquity:latest line, every time you press the (pull) button, Docker will pull the latest version from linuxserver.io (a group that maintains commonly used Linux containers) and, usually, you can get away with an update without needing to stop or restart your container.
Similarly, to stop the Ubooquity container, simply tap the (stop) button. And to remove the container, tap the (down) button.
Getting started with Ubooquity: While Ubooquity will more or less work out of the box, if you want to really configure your setup you’ll need to go to the admin panel atyour-ip-address:2203/ubooquity/admin (you will be prompted to create a password the first time)
In the General tab, you can see how many files are tracked in the table at the top, configure how frequently Ubooquity scans your folders for new files under Automatic scan period, manually launch a scan if you just added files with Launch New Scan, and select a theme for the interface.
If you want to create User accounts to have separate read state management or to segment which users can access specific content, you can create these users in the Security tab of the administrative panel. By doing so, you’ll need to manually go into the content type tabs (i.e. Comics, Books, Raw Files) and manually configure which users have access to which shared folders.
The easiest way to do this is to download the ZIP file at the link I gave. Unzip it on your computer (in this case it will result in the creation of a directory called plextheme-reading). Then, assuming the config shared folder you set up previously is shared across the network, take the unzipped directory and put it into the /ubooquity/themes subdirectory of the config folder.
Lastly, go back to the General tab in Ubooquity admin and, next to Current theme select plextheme-reading
Edit (10-Aug-2023): I’ve since switched to using a Local DNS service powered by Pihole to access Ubooquity using a human readable web address ubooquity.home that every device on my network can access. For information on how to do this, refer to my post on Setting Up Pihole, Nginx Proxy, and Twingate with OpenMediaVault Because entering in a local ip address and remembering 2202 or 2203 and the folders afterwards is a pain, I created keyword shortcuts for these in Chrome. The instructions for doing this will vary by browser, but to do this in Chrome, go to chrome://settings/searchEngines. There is a section of the page called Site search. Press the Add button next to it. Even though the dialog box says Add Search Engine, in practice you can use this to add keywords to any URL, just put a name for the shortcut in the Search Engine field, the shortcut you want to use in Shortcut (I used ubooquity for the core application and ubooquityadmin for the administrative console) and the URLs in URL with %s in place of query (i.e. http://your-ip-address:2202/ubooquity and http://your-ip-address:2203/ubooquity/admin).
Now to get to Ubooquity, I simply type in ubooquity in the Chrome address bar rather than a hodge podge of numbers and slashes that I’ll probably forget
One of Plex’s best features is making it very easy to access your media server even when you’re not on your home network. Having experienced that, I wanted the same level of access when I was out of the house to my network file share and applications like Ubooquity.
Edit (10-Aug-2023): I’ve since switched my method of granting external access to Twingate. This provides secure access to network resources without needing to configure Dynamic DNS, a VPN, or open up a port. For more information on how to do this, refer to my post on Setting Up Pihole, Nginx Proxy, and Twingate with OpenMediaVault
There are a few ways to do this, but the most secure path is through a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs are secure connections between computers that mimic actually being directly networked together. In our case, it lets a device securely access local network resources (like your server) even when it’s not on the home network.
OpenMediaVault makes it relatively easy to use Wireguard, a fast and popular VPN technology with support for many different types of devices. To set up Wireguard for your server for remote access, you’ll need to do six things:
Get a domain name and enable Dynamic DNS on it Most residential internet customers do not have a static IP. This means that the IP address for your home, as the rest of the world sees it, can change without warning. This makes it difficult to access externally (in much the same way that DHCP makes it hard to access your home server internally).
To address this, many domain providers offer Dynamic DNS, where a domain name (for example: myurl.com) can point to a different IP address depending on when you access it, so long as the domain provider is told what the IP address should be whenever it changes.
The exact instructions for how to do this will vary based on who your domain provider is. I use Namecheap and took an existing domain I owned and followed their instructions for enabling Dynamic DNS on it. I personally configured mine to use my vpn. subdomain, but you should use the setup you’d like, so long as you make a note of it for step 3 below.
If you don’t want to buy your own domain and are comfortable using someone else’s, you can also sign up for Duck DNS which is a free Dynamic DNS service tied to a Duck DNS subdomain.
Set up DDClient. To update the IP address your domain provider maps the domain to, you’ll need to run a background service on your server that will regularly check its IP address. One common way to do this is a software package called DDClient.
Thankfully, setting up DDClient is fairly easy thanks (again!) to a linuxserver.io container. Like with Plex & Ubooquity, go to [Services > Compose > Files] and press the button. Under Name put down DDClient and under File, paste the following
You need to replace <UID of Docker User> and <GID of Docker User> with the UID and GID of the Docker user you created when you set up Docker Compose (Step 10 above), which will likely be 1000 and 100 if you followed the steps I laid out.
You can get the the absolute path to your config folder by going to [Storage > Shared Folders] in the administrative panel. I added a /ddclient to the config folder path. This way you can install as many apps through Docker as you want and consolidate all of their configuration files in one place, while still keeping them separate.
Once you’re done, hit Save and you should be returned to your list of Docker compose files. Click on the DDClient entry (which should turn it yellow) and press the (up) button. This will create the container, download any files needed, and run DDClient. Now, it is ready for configuration.
Configure DDClient to work with your domain provider. While the precise configuration of DDClient will vary by domain provider, the process will always involve editing a text file. To do this, login to your server using SSH or WeTTy (see the section above on Installing OMV-Extras) and enter into the command line:
nano <absolute path to shared config folder>/ddclient/ddclient.conf
Remember to substitute <absolute path to shared config folder> with the absolute path to the config folder you set up for your applications (which you can access by going to [Storage > Shared Folders] in the administrative panel).
This will open up Linux’s native text editor. Scroll to the very bottom and enter the configuration information that your domain provider requires for DynamicDNS to work. As I use Namecheap, I followed these instructions. In general, you’ll need to supply some type of information about the protocol, the server, your login / password for the domain provider, and the subdomain you intend to map to your IP address.
Then press Ctrl+X to exit, press Y when asked if you want to save, and finally Enter to confirm that you want to overwrite the old file.
Set up Port Forwarding on your router. Dynamic DNS gives devices outside of your network a consistent “address” to get to your server but it won’t do any good if your router doesn’t pass those external requests through. In this case, you’ll need to tell your router to let incoming UDP requests from port 51820 through to your server to line up with Wireguard’s defaults.
The exact instructions will vary by router so you’ll need to consult your router’s documentation. In my household, we use Google Wifi and, if you do too, here are the instructions for doing so.
Enable Wireguard. If you installed OMV-Extras above as I suggested, you’ll have access to a Plugin that turns on Wireguard. Go to [System > Plugins] on the administrative panel and then search or scroll down until you find the entry for openmediavault-wireguard. Click on it to mark it yellow and then press the button to install it.
Now go to [Services > Wireguard > Tunnels] and press the (create) button to set up a VPN tunnel. You can give it any Name you want (i.e. omv-vpn). Select your server’s main network connection for Network adapter. But, most importantly, under Endpoint, add the domain you just configured for DynamicDNS/DDClient (for example, vpn.myurl.com). Press Save
Set up Wireguard on your devices. With a Wireguard tunnel configured, your next step is to set up the devices (called clients or peers) to connect. This has two parts.
First, install the Wireguard applications on the devices themselves. Go to wireguard.com/install and download or set up the Wireguard apps. There are apps for Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS, and many flavors of Linux
Then, go back into your administrative panel and go to [Services > Wireguard > Clients] and press the (create) button to create a valid client for the VPN. Check the box next to Enable, select the tunnel you just created under Tunnel number, put a name for the device you’re going to connect under Name, and assign a unique (or it will not work) client number in Client Number . Press Save and you’ll be brought back to the Client list. Make sure to approve the change and then press the (client config) button. What you should do next depends on what kind of client device you’re configuring.
If the device you’re configuring is not a smartphone (i.e. a computer), copy the text that shows up in the Client Config popup that comes up and save that as a .conf file (for example: work_laptop_wireguard.conf). Send that file to the device in question as that file will be used by the Wireguard app on that device to configure and access the VPN. Hit Close when you’re done
If the device you’re configuring is a smartphone, hit Close button on the Client Config popup that comes up as you will be presented with a QR code that your smartphone Wireguard app can capture to configure the VPN connection.
Now go into your Wireguard app on the client device and use it to either take a picture of the QR code when prompted or load the .conf file. Your device is now configured to connect to your server securely no matter where you are. A good test of this is to disconnect a set up smartphone from your home WiFi and enable the VPN. Since you’re no longer on WiFi you should not be on the same network as your server. If you can enter http://your-ip-address in this mode into a browser and still reach the administrative panel for OpenMediaVault, you’re home free!
One additional note: by default, Wireguard also acts as a proxy, meaning all internet traffic you send from the device will be routed through the server. This can be valuable if you’re trying to access a blocked website or pretend to be from a different location, but it can also be unnecessarily slow (and bandwidth consuming). I have my Wireguard configured to only route traffic that is going to my server’s local IP address through Wireguard. You can do this by configuring your client device’s Allowed IPs to your-ip-address (for example: 192.168.99.99) from the Wireguard app.
Congratulations, you have now configured a file server and media server that you can securely access from anywhere!
A few concluding thoughts:
This was probably way too complicated for most people. Believe it or not, what was written above is a shortened version of what I went through. Even holding aside that use of the command line and Docker automatically makes this hard for many consumers, I still had to deal with missing drivers, Linux not recognizing my USB drive through the USB C port (but through the USB A one?), puzzling over different external access configurations (VPN vs Let’s Encrypt SSL on my server vs self-sign certificate), and minimal feedback when my initial attempts to use Wireguard failed. While I learned a great deal, for most people, it makes more sense to go completely third party (i.e. use Google / Amazon / Apple for everything) or, if you have some pain tolerance, with a high-end NAS.
Docker/containerization is extremely powerful. Prior to this, I had thought of Docker as just a “flavor” of virtual machine, a software technology underlying cloud computing which abstracts server software from server hardware. And, while there is some overlap, I completely misunderstood why containers were so powerful for software deployment. By using 3 fairly simple blocks of text, I was able to deploy 3 complicated applications which needed different levels of hardware and network access (Ubooquity, DDClient, Plex) in minutes without issue.
I was pleasantly surprised by how helpful the blogs and forums were. While the amount of work needed to find the right advice can be daunting, every time I ran into an issue, I was able to find some guidance online (often in a forum or subreddit). While there were certainly … abrasive personalities, by in large many of the questions being asked were by non-experts and they were answered by experts showing patience and generosity of spirit. Part of the reason I wrote this is to pay this forward for the next set of people who want to experiment with setting up their own server.
I am excited to try still more applications. Lists about what hobbyists are running on their home servers like this and this and this make me very intrigued by the possibilities. I’m currently considering a network-wide adblocker like Pi-Hole and backup tools like BorgBackup. There is a tremendous amount of creativity out there!
For more help on setting any of this stuff up, here are a few additional resources that proved helpful to me:
OMV Extras Wiki — probably the single best source of help I turned to in setting up OpenMediaVault, Docker Compose, and Wireguard
Having been lucky enough to invest in both tech (cloud, mobile, software) and “deeptech” (materials, cleantech, energy, life science) startups (and having also ran product at a mobile app startup), it has been striking to see how fundamentally different the paradigms that drive success in each are.
Whether knowingly or not, most successful tech startups over the last decade have followed a basic playbook:
Take advantage of rising smartphone penetration and improvements in cloud technology to build digital products that solve challenges in big markets pertaining to access (e.g., to suppliers, to customers, to friends, to content, to information, etc.)
Build a solid team of engineers, designers, growth, sales, marketing, and product people to execute on lean software development and growth methodologies
Hire the right executives to carry out the right mix of tried-and-true as well as “out of the box” channel and business developmentstrategies to scale bigger and faster
There is relatively little technology risk: With the exception of some of the most challenging AI, infrastructure, and security challenges, most tech startups are primarily dealing with engineering and product execution challenges — what is the right thing to build and how do I build it on time, under budget? — rather than fundamental technology discovery and feasibility challenges
Skills & knowledge are broadly transferable: Modern software development and growth methodologies work across a wide range of tech products and markets. This means that effective engineers, salespeople, marketers, product people, designers, etc. at one company will generally be effective at another. As a result, its a lot easier for investors/executives to both gauge the caliber of a team (by looking at their experience) and augment a team when problems arise (by recruiting the right people with the right backgrounds).
Distribution is cheap and fast: Cloud/mobile technology means that a new product/update is a server upgrade/browser refresh/app store download away. This has three important effects:
The first is that startups can launch with incomplete or buggy solutions because they can readily provide hotfixes and upgrades.
The second is that startups can quickly release new product features and designs to respond to new information and changing market conditions.
The third is that adoption is relatively straightforward. While there may be some integration and qualification challenges, in general, the product is accessible via a quick download/browser refresh, and the core challenge is in getting enough people to use a product in the right way.
In contrast, if you look at deeptech companies, a very different set of rules apply:
Technology risk/uncertainty is inherent: One of the defining hallmarks of a deeptech company is dealing with uncertainty from constraints imposed by reality (i.e. the laws of physics, the underlying biology, the limits of current technology, etc.). As a result, deeptech startups regularly face feasibility challenges — what is even possible to build? — and uncertainty around the R&D cycles to get to a good outcome — how long will it take / how much will it cost to figure this all out?
Skills & knowledge are not easily transferable: Because the technical and business talent needed in deeptech is usually specific to the field, talent and skills are not necessarily transferable from sector to sector or even company to company. The result is that it is much harder for investors/executives to evaluate team caliber (whether on technical merits or judging past experience) or to simply put the right people into place if there are problems that come up.
At the most basic level, it just costs a lot more and takes a lot more time to iterate on a physical product than a software one. It’s not just that physical products require physical materials and processing, but the availability of low cost technology platforms like Amazon Web Services and open source software dramatically lower the amount of time / cash needed to make something testable in tech than in deeptech.
Furthermore, because deeptech innovations tend to have real-world physical impacts (to health, to safety, to a supply chain/manufacturing line, etc.), deeptech companies generally face far more regulatory and commercial scrutiny. These groups are generally less forgiving of incomplete/buggy offerings and their assessments can lengthen development cycles. Deeptech companies generally can’t take the “ask for forgiveness later” approaches that some tech companies (i.e. Uber and AirBnb) have been able to get away with (exhibit 1: Theranos).
As a result, while there is no single playbook that works across all deeptech categories, the most successful deeptech startups tend to embody a few basic principles:
Go after markets where there is a very clear, unmet need: The best deeptech entrepreneurs tend to take very few chances with market risk and only pursue challenges where a very well-defined unmet need (i.e., there are no treatments for Alzheimer’s, this industry needs a battery that can last at least 1000 cycles, etc) blocks a significant market opportunity. This reduces the risk that a (likely long and costly) development effort achieves technical/scientific success without also achieving business success. This is in contrast with tech where creating or iterating on poorly defined markets (i.e., Uber and Airbnb) is oftentimes at the heart of what makes a company successful.
Focus on “one miracle” problems: Its tempting to fantasize about what could happen if you could completely re-write every aspect of an industry or problem but the best deeptech startups focus on innovating where they won’t need the rest of the world to change dramatically in order to have an impact (e.g., compatible with existing channels, business models, standard interfaces, manufacturing equipment, etc). Its challenging enough to advance the state of the art of technology — why make it even harder?
Pursue technologies that can significantly over-deliver on what the market needs: Because of the risks involved with developing advanced technologies, the best deeptech entrepreneurs work in technologies where even a partial success can clear the bar for what is needed to go to market. At the minimum, this reduces the risk of failure. But, hopefully, it gives the company the chance to fundamentally transform the market it plays in by being 10x better than the alternatives. This is in contrast to many tech markets where market success often comes less from technical performance and more from identifying the right growth channels and product features to serve market needs (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat vs. MySpace, Orkut, and Friendster; Amazon vs. brick & mortar bookstores and electronics stores)
All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t similarities between successful startups in both categories — strong vision, thoughtful leadership, and success-oriented cultures are just some examples of common traits in both. Nor is it to denigrate one versus the other. But, practically speaking, investing or operating successfully in both requires very different guiding principles and speaks to the heart of why its relatively rare to see individuals and organizations who can cross over to do both.
In recent years, it’s been the opposite of controversial to say that the tech industry is in a bubble. The terrible recent stock market performance of once high-flying startups across virtually every industry (see table below) and the turmoil in the stock market stemming from low oil prices and concerns about the economies of countries like China and Brazil have raised fears that the bubble is beginning to pop.
While history will judge when this bubble “officially” bursts, the purpose of this post is to try to make some predictions about what will happen during/after this “correction” and pull together some advice for people in / wanting to get into the tech industry. Starting with the immediate consequences, one can reasonably expect that:
Exit pipeline will dry up: When startup valuations are higher than what the company could reasonably get in the stock market, management teams (who need to keep their investors and employees happy) become less willing to go public. And, if public markets are less excited about startups, the price acquirers need to pay to convince a management team to sell goes down. The result is fewer exits and less cash back to investors and employees for the exits that do happen.
VCs become less willing to invest: VCs invest in startups on the promise that future IPOs and acquisitions will make them even more money. When the exit pipeline dries up, VCs get cold feet because the ability to get a nice exit seems to fade away. The result is that VCs become a lot more price-sensitive when it comes to investing in later stage companies (where the dried up exit pipeline hurts the most).
Later stage companies start cutting costs: Companies in an environment where they can’t sell themselves or easily raise money have no choice but to cut costs. Since the vast majority of later-stage startups run at a loss to increase growth, they will find themselves in the uncomfortable position of slowing down hiring and potentially laying employees off, cutting back on perks, and focusing a lot more on getting their financials in order.
The result of all of this will be interesting for folks used to a tech industry (and a Bay Area) flush with cash and boundlessly optimistic:
Job hopping should slow: “Easy money” to help companies figure out what works or to get an “acquihire” as a soft landing will be harder to get in a challenged financing and exit environment. The result is that the rapid job hopping endemic in the tech industry should slow as potential founders find it harder to raise money for their ideas and as it becomes harder for new startups to get the capital they need to pay top dollar.
Strong companies are here to stay: While there is broad agreement that there are too many startups with higher valuations than reasonable, what’s also become clear is there are a number of mature tech companies that are doing exceptionally well (i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and a number of “hotshots” which have demonstrated enough growth and strong enough unit economics and market position to survive a challenged environment (i.e. Uber, Airbnb). This will let them continue to hire and invest in ways that weaker peers will be unable to match.
Tech “luxury money” will slow but not disappear: Anyone who lives in the Bay Area has a story of the ridiculousness of “tech money” (sky-high rents, gourmet toast,“its like Uber but for X”, etc). This has been fueled by cash from the startup world as well as free flowing VC money subsidizing many of these new services . However, in a world where companies need to cut costs, where exits are harder to come by, and where VCs are less willing to subsidize random on-demand services, a lot of this will diminish. That some of these services are fundamentally better than what came before (i.e. Uber) and that stronger companies will continue to pay top dollar for top talent will prevent all of this from collapsing (and lets not forget San Francisco’s irrational housing supply policies). As a result, people expecting a reversal of gentrification and the excesses of tech wealth will likely be disappointed, but its reasonable to expect a dramatic rationalization of the price and quantity of many “luxuries” that Bay Area inhabitants have become accustomed to soon.
So, what to do if you’re in / trying to get in to / wanting to invest in the tech industry?
Understand the business before you get in: Its a shame that market sentiment drives fundraising and exits, because good financial performance is generally a pretty good indicator of the long-term prospects of a business. In an environment where its harder to exit and raise cash, its absolutely critical to make sure there is a solid business footing so the company can keep going or raise money / exit on good terms.
Be concerned about companies which have a lot of startup exposure: Even if a company has solid financial performance, if much of that comes from selling to startups (especially services around accounting, recruiting, or sales), then they’re dependent on VCs opening up their own wallets to make money.
Have a much higher bar for large, later-stage companies: The companies that will feel the most “pain” the earliest will be those with with high valuations and high costs. Raising money at unicorn valuations can make a sexy press release but it doesn’t amount to anything if you can’t exit or raise money at an even higher valuation.
Rationalize exposure to “luxury”: Don’t expect that “Uber but for X” service that you love to stick around (at least not at current prices)…
Early stage companies can still be attractive: Companies that are several years from an exit & raising large amounts of cash will be insulated in the near-term from the pain in the later stage, especially if they are committed to staying frugal and building a disruptive business. Since they are already relatively low in valuation and since investors know they are discounting off a valuation in the future (potentially after any current market softness), the downward pressures on valuation are potentially lighter as well.
When Steve Jobs first launched the iPhone in 2007, Apple’s perception of where the smartphone application market would move was in the direction of web applications. The reasons for this are obvious: people are familiar with how to build web pages and applications, and it simplifies application delivery.
But, that was four years ago, and web technology has come a long way. Combine that with the tech commentator-sphere’s obsession with hyping up a rivalry between “native vs HTML5 app development”, and it begs the question: will the future of application development be HTML5 applications or native?
There are a lot of “moving parts” in a question like this, but I believe the question itself is a red herring. Enhancements to browser performance and the new capabilities that HTML5 will bring like offline storage, a canvas for direct graphic manipulation, and tools to access the file system, mean, at least to this tech blogger, that “HTML5 applications” are not distinct from native applications at all, they are simply native applications that you access through the internet. Its not a different technology vector – it’s just a different form of delivery.
Critics of this idea may cite that the performance and interface capabilities of browser-based applications lag far behind those of “traditional” native applications, and thus they will always be distinct. And, as of today, they are correct. However, this discounts a few things:
Browser performance and browser-based application design are improving at a rapid rate, in no small part because of the combination of competition between different browsers and the fact that much of the code for these browsers is open source. There will probably always be a gap between browser-based apps and native, but I believe this gap will continue to narrow to the point where, for many applications, it simply won’t be a deal-breaker anymore.
Huge platform economic advantages. There are three huge advantages today to HTML5 development over “traditional native app development”. The first is the ability to have essentially the same application run across any device which supports a browser. Granted, there are performance and user experience issues with this approach, but when you’re a startup or even a corporate project with limited resources, being able to get wide distribution for earlier products is a huge advantage. The second is that HTML5 as a platform lacks the control/economic baggage that iOS and even Android have where distribution is controlled and “taxed” (30% to Apple/Google for an app download, 30% cut of digital goods purchases). I mean, what other reason does Amazon have to move its Kindle application off of the iOS native path and into HTML5 territory? The third is that web applications do not require the latest and greatest hardware to perform amazing feats. Because these apps are fundamentally browser-based, using the internet to connect to a server-based/cloud-based application allows even “dumb devices” to do amazing things by outsourcing some of that work to another system. The combination of these three makes it easier to build new applications and services and make money off of them – which will ultimately lead to more and better applications and services for the “HTML5 ecosystem.”
Given Google’s strategic interest in the web as an open development platform, its no small wonder that they have pushed this concept the furthest. Not only are they working on a project called Native Client to let users achieve “native performance” with the browser, they’ve built an entire operating system centered entirely around the browser, Chrome OS, and were the first to build a major web application store, the Chrome Web Store to help with application discovery.
While it remains to be seen if any of these initiatives will end up successful, this is definitely a compelling view of how the technology ecosystem evolves, and, putting on my forward-thinking cap on, I would not be surprised if:
The major operating systems became more ChromeOS-like over time. Mac OS’s dashboard widgets and Windows 7’s gadgets are already basically HTML5 mini-apps, and Microsoft has publicly stated that Windows 8 will support HTML5-based application development. I think this is a sign of things to come as the web platform evolves and matures.
Web application discovery will become far more important. The one big weakness as it stands today for HTML5 is application discovery. Its still far easier to discover a native mobile app using the iTunes App Store or the Android Market than it is to find a good HTML5 app. But, as platform matures and the platform economics shift, new application stores/recommendation engines/syndication platforms will become increasingly critical.
Many forms of technology requires standards to work. As a result, it is in the best interest of all parties in the technology ecosystem to participate in standards bodies to ensure interoperability.
The two main problem with getting standards working can be summed up, as all good things in technology can be, in the form of webcomics.
Problem #1, from XKCD: people/companies/organizations keep creating more standards.
The cartoon takes the more benevolent look at how standards proliferate; the more cynical view is that individuals/corporations recognize that control or influence over an industry standard can give them significant power in the technology ecosystem. I think both the benevolent and the cynical view are always at play – but the result is the continual creation of “bigger and badder” standards which are meant to replace but oftentimes fail to completely supplant existing ones. Case in point, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time looking at technologies to enable greater intelligence/network connectivity in new types of devices (think TVs, smart meters, appliances, thermostats, etc.), I’m still puzzled as to why we have so many wireless communication standards and protocols for achieving it (Bluetooth, Zigbee, ZWave, WiFi, DASH7, 6LowPAN, etc)
Problem #2: standards aren’t purely technical undertakings – they’re heavily motivated by the preferences of the bodies and companies which participate in formulating them, and like the US’s “wonderful” legislative process, involves mashing together a large number of preferences, some of which might not necessarily be easily compatible with one another. This can turn quite political and generate standards/working papers which are too difficult to support well (i.e. like DLNA). Or, as Dilbert sums it up, these meetings are full of people who are instructed to do this:
Our one hope is that the industry has enough people/companires who are more vested in the future of the technology industry than taking unnecessarily cheap shots at one another… It’s a wonder we have functioning standards at all, isn’t it?
Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft’s products, you have to appreciate the brilliance of their strategic “playbook”:
Use the fact that Microsoft’s operating system/productivity software is used by almost everyone to identify key customer/partner needs
Build a product which is usually only a second/third-best follower product but make sure it’s tied back to Microsoft’s products
Take advantage of the time and market share that Microsoft’s channel influence, developer community, and product integration buys to invest in the new product with Microsoft’s massive budget until it achieves leadership
If steps 1-3 fail to give Microsoft a dominant position, either exit (because the market is no longer important) or buy out a competitor
While the quality of Microsoft’s execution of each step can be called into question, I’d be hard pressed to find a better approach then this one, and I’m sure much of their success can be attributed to finding good ways to repeatedly follow this formula.
It’s for that reason that I’m completely bewildered by Microsoft’s consumer electronics business strategy. Instead of finding good ways to integrate the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile franchises together or with the Microsoft operating system “mothership” the way Microsoft did by integrating its enterprise software with Office or Internet Explorer with Windows, these three businesses largely stand apart from Microsoft’s home field (PC software) and even from each other.
This is problematic for two big reasons. First, because non-PC devices are outside of Microsoft’s usual playground, it’s not a surprise that Microsoft finds it difficult to expand into new territory. For Microsoft to succeed here, it needs to pull out all the stops and it’s shocking to me that a company with a stake in the ground in four key device areas (PCs, mobile phones, game consoles, and portable media players) would choose not to use one of the few advantages it has over its competitors.
The second and most obvious (to consumers at least) is that Apple has not made this mistake. Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch product lines are clear evolutions of their popular iPod MP3 players which integrate well with Apple’s iTunes computer software and iTunes online store. The entire Apple line-up, although each product is a unique entity, has a similar look and feel. The Safari browser that powers the Apple computer internet experience is, basically, the same that powers the iPhone and iPod Touch. Similarly, the same online store and software (iTunes) which lets iPods load themselves with music lets iPod Touches/iPhones load themselves with applications.
That neat little integrated package not only makes it easier for Apple consumers to use a product, but the coherent experience across the different devices gives customers even more of a reason to use and/or buy other Apple products.
Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s. Not only are the user interfaces and product designs for the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile completely different from one another, they don’t play well together at all. Applications that run on one device (be it the Zune HD, on a Windows PC, on an XBox, or on Windows Mobile) are unlikely to be able to run on any other. While one might be able to forgive this if it was just PC applications which had trouble being “ported” to Microsoft’s other devices (after all, apps that run on an Apple computer don’t work on the iPhone and vice versa), the devices that one would expect this to work well with (i.e. the Zune HD and the XBox because they’re both billed as gaming platforms, or the Zune HD and Windows Mobile because they’re both portable products) don’t. Their application development process doesn’t line up well. And, as far as I’m aware, the devices have completely separate application and content stores!
While recreating the Windows PC experience on three other devices is definitely overkill, I think, were I in Ballmer’s shoes, I would recommend a few simple recommendations which I think would dramatically benefit all of Microsoft’s product lines (and I promise they aren’t the standard Apple/Linux fanboy’s “build something prettier” or “go open source”):
Centralize all application/content “marketplaces” – Apple is no internet genius. Yet, they figured out how to do this. I fail to see why Microsoft can’t do the same.
Invest in building a common application runtime across all the devices – Nobody’s expecting a low-end Windows Mobile phone or a Zune HD to run Microsoft Excel, but to expect that little widgets or games should be able to work across all of Microsoft’s devices is not unreasonable, and would go a long way towards encouraging developers to develop for Microsoft’s new device platforms (if a program can run on just the Zune HD, there’s only so much revenue that a developer can take in, but if it can also run on the XBox and all Windows Mobile phones, then the revenue potential becomes much greater) and towards encouraging consumers to buy more Microsoft gear
Find better ways to link Windows to each device – This can be as simple as building something like iTunes to simplify device management and content streaming, but I have yet to meet anyone with a Microsoft device who hasn’t complained about how poorly the devices work with PCs.
The book tries to answer a very interesting question: why do otherwise successful companies sometimes fail to keep up on innovation? Christensen’s answer is counter-intuitive but deep: the very factors that make a company successful, like listening to customer needs, make it difficult for successful companies to adopt disruptive innovations which create new markets and new capabilities.
This sounds completely irrational, and I was skeptical when I first heard it, but Christensen makes a very compelling case for it. He begins the book by considering the hard disk drive (HDD) industry. The reason for this is, as Christensen puts it (and this is merely page one of chapter one!):
“Those who study genetics avoid studying humans, because new generations come along only every thirty years or so, and so it takes a long time to understand the cause and effect of any changes. Instead, they study fruit flies, because fruit flies are conceived, born, mature, and die all within a single day. If you want to understand why something happens in business, study the disk drive industry. Those companies are the closest things to fruit flies that the business world will ever see.”
From that oddly compelling start, Christensen applies multiple techniques to establish the grounds for his theory. He begins by admitting that his initial hypothesis for why some HDD companies successfully innovated had nothing to do with his current explanation and was something he called “the technology mudslide”: that because technology is constantly evolving and shifting (like a mudslide), companies which could not keep moving to stay afloat (i.e. by innovating) would slip and fall.
But, when he investigated the different types of technological innovations which hit the HDD industry, he found that the large companies were actually constantly innovating, developing new techniques and technologies to improve their products. Contrary to the opinion of many in the startup community, big companies did not lack innovative agility – in fact, they were the leaders in developing and acquiring the successful technologies which allowed them to make better and better products. But, every now and then, when the basis of competition changed, like the shift to a smaller hard disk size to accommodate a new product category like minicomputers versus mainframes or laptops versus desktops, the big companies faltered.
From that profound yet seemingly innocuous observation grew a series of studies across a number of industries (the book covers industries ranging from hardcore technology like hard disk drives and computers to industries that you normally wouldn’t associate with rapid technological innovation like mechanical excavators, off-road motorbikes, and even discount retailing) which helped Christensen come to a basic logical story involving six distinct steps:
Three things dictate a company’s strategy: resources, processes, and values. Any strategy that a company wishes to embark on will fail if the company doesn’t have the necessary resources (e.g. factories, talent, etc.), processes (e.g. organizational structure, manufacturing process, etc.), and values (e.g. how a company decides between different choices). It doesn’t matter if you have two of the three.
Large, successful companies value listening to their customers. Successful companies became successful because they were able to create and market products that customers were willing to pay for. Companies that didn’t do this wouldn’t survive, and resources and processes which didn’t “get with the program” were either downsized or re-oriented.
Successful companies help create ecosystems which are responsive to customer needs. Successful companies need to have ways of supporting their customers. This means they need to have or build channels (e.g. through a store, or online), services (e.g. repair, installation), standards (e.g. how products are qualified and work with one another), and partners (e.g. suppliers, ecosystem partners) which are all dedicated towards the same goal. If this weren’t true, the companies would all either fail or be replaced by companies which could “get with the program.”
Large, successful companies value big opportunities. If you’re a $10 million company, you only need to generate an extra $1 million in sales to grow 10%. If you’re a $10 billion company, you need to find an extra $1 billion in sales to grow an equivalent amount. Is it any wonder, then, that large companies will look to large opportunities? After all, if companies started throwing significant resources or management effort on small opportunities, the company would quickly be passed up by its competitors.
Successful companies don’t have the values or processes to push innovations aimed at unproven markets, which serve new customers and needs. Because successful companies value big opportunities which meet the needs of their customers and are embedded in ecosystems which help them do that, they will mobilize their resources and processes in the best way possible to fulfill and market those needs. And, in fact, that is what Christensen saw – in almost every market he studied, when the customers of successful companies needed a new feature or level of quality, successful companies were almost always successful at either leading or acquiring the innovation necessary to do that. But, when it came to experimental products offering slimmer profit margins and targeting new customers with new needs and new ecosystems in unproven markets, successful companies often failed, even if management made those new markets a priority, because those companies lacked the values and/or processes needed. After all, if you were working in IBM’s Mainframe division, why would you chase the lower-performance, lower-profit minicomputer industry and its unfamiliar set of customers and needs and distribution channels?
Disruptive innovations tend to start as inferior products, but, over time improve and eventually displace older technologies. Using the previous example, while IBM’s mainframe division found it undesirable to enter the minicomputer market, the minicomputer players were very eager to “go North” and capture the higher performance and profitability that the mainframe players enjoyed. The result? Because of the values of the mainframe players as compared with the values of the minicomputer players, minicomputer companies focused on improving their technology to both service their customer’s needs and capture the mainframe business, resulting in one disruptive innovation replacing an older one.
The most interesting thing that Christensen pointed out was that, in many cases, established companies actually beat new players to a disruptive innovation (as happened several times in the HDD and mechanical excavator industries)! But, because these companies lacked the necessary values, processes, and ecosystem, they were unable to successfully market them. Their success actually doomed them to failure!
But Christensen doesn’t stop with this multi-faceted and thorough look at why successful companies fail at disruptive innovation. He spends a sizable portion of the book explaining how companies can fight the “trappings” of success (i.e. by creating semi-independent organizations that can chase new markets and be excited about smaller opportunities), and even closes the book with an interesting “ahead-of-his-time” look (remember, this book was written over a decade ago!) at how to bring about electric cars.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the technology industry or even, more broadly speaking, on understanding how to think about corporate strategy. While most business books on this subject use high-flying generalizations and poorly evaluated case studies, Christensen approaches each problem with a level of rigor and thoroughness that you rarely see in corporate boardrooms. His structured approach to explaining how disruptive innovations work, who tends to succeed at them, why, and how to conquer/adapt to them makes for a fascinating read, and, in my humble opinion, is a great example of how corporate strategy should be done – by combining well-researched data and structured thinking. To top it all, I can think of no higher praise than to say that this book, despite being written over a decade ago, has many parallels to strategic issues that companies face today (i.e. what will determine if cloud computing on netbooks can replace the traditional PC model? Will cleantech successfully replace coal and oil?), and has a number of deep insights into how venture capital firms and startups can succeed, as well as some insights into how to create organizations which can be innovative on more than just one level.
In my Introduction to Tech Strategy post, I mentioned that one of the most important aspects of the technology industry is the importance of ecosystem linkages. There are several ways to think about ecosystem linkages. The main linkages I mentioned in my previous post was influence over technology standards. But, there is another very important ecosystem effect for technology companies to think about: encouraging demand.
For Microsoft to be successful, for instance, they must make sure that consumers and businesses are buying new and more powerful computers. For Google to be successful, they must make sure that people are actively using the internet to find information. For Cisco to be successful, they must make sure that people are actively downloading and sharing information over networks.
Is it any wonder, then, that Microsoft develops business software (e.g. Microsoft Office) and games? Or that Google has pushed hard to encourage more widespread internet use by developing an easy-to-use web browser and two internet-centric operating systems (Android and ChromeOS)? Or that Cisco entered the set top box business (to encourage more network traffic) by acquiring Scientific Atlanta and is pushing for companies to adopt web conferencing systems (which consume a lot of networking capacity) like WebEx?
These examples hopefully illustrate that for leading tech companies, it is not sufficient just to develop a good product. It is also important that you move to make sure that customers will continue to demand your product, and a lot more of it.
This is something that Dogbert understands intuitively as this comic strip points out:
To be a leading executive recruiter, its not sufficient just to find great executives – you have to make sure there is demand for new executives. No wonder Dogbert is such a successful CEO. He grasps business strategy like no other.
Working on tech strategy consulting case for 18 months ingrains a thing or two in your head about strategy for tech companies, so I thought I’d lay out, in one blog post the major lessons I’ve learned about how strategy in the technology sector works.
To understand that, it’s important to first understand what makes technology special? From that perspective, there are three main things which drive tech strategy:
Low cost of innovation – Technology companies need to be innovative to be successful, duh. But, the challenge with handling tech strategy is not innovation but that innovation in technology is cheap. Your product can be as easily outdone by a giant with billions of dollars like Google as it can be outdone by a couple of bright guys in a garage who still live with their parents.
Moore’s Law – When most technologists think of Moore’s Law, they think of its academic consequences (mainly that chip technology doubles every two years). This is true (and has been for over 50 years), but the strategic consequence of Moore’s Law can be summed up in six words: “Tomorrow will be better, faster, cheaper.” Can you think of any other industry which has so quickly and consistently increased quality while lowering cost?
Ecosystem linkages – No technology company stands alone. They are all inter-related and inter-dependent. Facebook may be a giant in the Web world, but it’s success depends on a wide range of relationships: it depends on browser makers adhering to web standards, on Facebook application developers wanting to use the Facebook platform, on hardware providers selling the right hardware to let Facebook handle the millions of users who want to use it, on CDNs/telecom companies providing the right level of network connectivity, on internet advertising standards, etc. This complex web of relationships is referred to by many in the industry as the ecosystem. A technology company must learn to understand and shape its ecosystem in order to succeed.
Put it all together, what does it all mean? Four things:
I. Only the paranoid survive This phrase, popularized by ex-Intel CEO Andy Grove, is very apt for describing the tech industry. The low cost of innovation means that your competition could come from anywhere: well-established companies, medium-sized companies, hot new startups, enterprising university students, or a legion of open source developers. The importance of ecosystem linkages means that your profitability is dependent not only on what’s going on with your competitors, but also about the broader ecosystem. If you’re Microsoft, you don’t only have to think about what competitors like Apple and Linux are doing, you also need to think about the health of the overall PC market, about how to connect your software to new smartphones, and many other ecosystem concerns which affect your profitability. And the power of Moore’s Law means that new products need to be rolled out quickly, as old products rapidly turn into antiques from the advance of technology. The result of all of this is that only the technology companies which are constantly fearful of emerging threats will succeed.
II. To win big, you need to change the rules The need to be constantly innovative (Moore’s Law and low cost of innovation) and the importance of ecosystem linkages favors large, incumbent companies, because they have the resources/manpower to invest in marketing, support, and R&D and they are the ones with the existing ecosystem relationships. As a result, the only way for a little startup to win big, or for a large company to attack another large company is to change the rules of competition. For Apple, to win in a smartphone market dominated by Nokia and RIM required changing the rules of the “traditional” smartphone competition by:
Building a new type of user-interface driven by accelerometer and touchscreen unlike anything seen before
Designing in a smartphone web browser actually comparable to what you’d expect on a PC as opposed to a pale imitation
Building an application store to help establish a new definition of smartphone – one that runs a wide range of software rather than one that runs only software from the carrier/phone manufacturer
Bringing the competition back to Apple’s home turf of making complete hardware and software solutions which tie together well, rather than just competing on one or the other
Apple’s iPhone not only provided a tidy profit for Apple, it completely took RIM, which had been betting on taking its enterprise features into the consumer smartphone market, and Nokia, which had been betting on its services strategy, by surprise. Now, Nokia and every other phone manufacturer is desperately trying to compete in a game designed by Apple – no wonder Nokia recently forecasted that it expected its market share to continue to drop.
But it’s not just Apple that does this. Some large companies like Microsoft and Cisco are masters at this game, routinely disrupting new markets with products and services which tie back to their other product offerings – forcing incumbents to compete not only with a new product, but with an entire “platform”. Small up-and-comers can also play this game. MySQL is a great example of a startup which turned the database market on its head by providing access to its software and source code for free (to encourage adoption) in return for a chance to sell services.
III. Be a good ecosystem citizen Successful tech companies cannot solely focus on their specific markets and product lines. The importance of ecosystem linkages forces tech companies to look outward.
They must influence industry standards, oftentimes working with their competitors (case in point: look at the corporate membership in the Khronos Group which controls the OpenGL graphics standard), to make sure their products are supported by the broader industry.
They oftentimes have to give away technology and services for free to encourage the ecosystem to work with them. Even mighty Microsoft, who’s CEO had once called Linux “a cancer”, has had to open source 20,000 lines of operating system code in an attempt to increase the attractiveness of the Microsoft server platform to Linux technology. Is anyone surprised that Google and Nokia have open sourced the software for their Android and Symbian mobile phone operating systems and have gone to great lengths to make it easy for software developers to design software for them?
They have to work collaboratively with a wide range of partners and providers. Intel and Microsoft work actively with PC manufacturers to help with marketing and product targeting. Mobile phone chip manufacturers invest millions in helping mobile phone makers and mobile software developers build phones with their chip technology. Even “simple” activities like outsourcing manufacturing requires a strong partnership in order to get things done properly.
The largest of companies (e.g. Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm, etc) takes this whole influence thing a whole step further by creating corporate venture groups to invest in startups, oftentimes for the purpose of influencing the ecosystem in their favor.
The technology company that chooses not to play nice with the rest of the ecosystem will rapidly find itself alone and unprofitable.
IV. Never stop overachieving There are many ways to screw up in the technology industry. You might not be paranoid enough and watch as a new competitor or Moore’s Law eats away at your profits. You might not present a compelling enough product and watch as your partners and the industry as a whole shuns your product. But the terrifying thing is that this is true regardless of how well you were doing a few months ago — it could just as easily happen to a market leader as a market follower (i.e. Polaroid watching its profits disappear when digital cameras entered the scene). As a result, it’s important for every technology company to keep their eye on the ball in two key areas, so as to reduce the chance of misstep and increase the chance that you recover when you eventually do:
Stay lean – I am amazed at how many observers of the technology industry (most often the marketing types) seem to think that things like keeping costs low, setting up a good IT system, and maintaining a nimble yet deliberate decision process are unimportant as long as you have an innovative design or technology. This is very short-sighted especially when you consider how easy it is for a company to take a wrong step. Only the lean and nimble companies will survive the inevitable hard times, and, in good times, it is the lean and nimble companies which can afford to cut prices and offer more services better than their competitors.
Invest in innovation – At the end of the day, technology is about innovation, and the companies which consistently grow and turn a profit are the ones who invest in that. If your engineers and scientists aren’t getting the resources it needs, no amount of marketing or “business development” will save you from oblivion. And, if your engineers/scientists are cranking out top notch research and development, then even if you make a mistake, there’s a decent chance you’ll be ready to bounce right back.
Obviously, each of these four “conclusions” needs to be fleshed out further with details and concrete analyses before they can be truly called a “strategy”. But, I think they are a very useful framework for understanding how to make a tech company successful (although they don’t give any magic answers), and any exec who doesn’t understand these will eventually learn them the hard way.
I’ve been on my current consulting case for about 3 months. It is a strategy case for a technology client. As a result, I’ve been able to do a great deal of work researching various technology markets and trends, ranging from the typical (Internet search) to the more esoteric (grid computing), as I help the client scope out possible expansion opportunities.
During the course of this research, I have been surprised by many aspects of the technology value chain I did not appreciate before, but what I found most surprising on a personal level was how important Taiwan is to the global technology market.
This is a particular point of pride for me, for despite Taiwan’s pre-eminence as an economic power and it’s fascinating fusion of Western, Japanese, and Chinese influences, the island is not given the same respect or attention as Hong Kong or Singapore. Despite a vibrant political system, it has no seat on the United Nations, no diplomatic recognition by any major country, and even to the United States which guards the island as if it were its own, it is the black sheep of the US’s circle of friends.
And yet, the world as you or I know it would not be able to get along without it:
Taiwan is the center of the world’s semiconductor foundry business. Because cutting-edge semiconductor factories (called fabs) are so expensive to manufacture, only the largest semiconductor firms (such as Samsung and Intel) have the annual sales numbers to justify building their own factories. Smaller players are better off outsourcing their production capacity to dedicated semiconductor factories, called foundries. Today, almost all semiconductor manufacturers use the services of a foundry to build most if not all of their semiconductors. The world’s two largest foundries, TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor) and UMC (United Microelectronics) are located in Taiwan, and together control approximately 60% of the world foundry business (the next largest foundry is only half the size of UMC, which is itself only about one third the size of TSMC!) and exert significant influence in the global semiconductor industry.
Taiwan is the center of the world’s electronics manufacturing services. What many people don’t realize is that companies like Apple and Dell tend to only specialize in marketing and some design, but not in manufacturing (which would involve building a factory, gaining manufacturing expertise and skill, and other expensive and difficult things for a firm trying to stay lean and on the cutting edge). These firms thus outsource their manufacturing to specialized firms called Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) firms. The world’s largest EMS company by far is the Foxconn/Hon Hai conglomerate which is responsible for about 20% of the world’s outsourced electronics manufacturing, almost double that of the second largest firm. Never heard of them? You’ve certainly heard of its products: the MacBook Pro, the iPhone, the iPod, the Playstation 3, the Wii, the Xbox 360, graphics cards for AMD/ATI and NVIDIA, … the list goes on.
Taiwan is the world’s original design manufacturing capital. Original design manufacturers (ODMs) go a step further than EMS firms — they actually do provide some of their own design services (which begs the question of what we’re paying Dell and HP and Apple for when they’re outsourcing design to ODMs). This is one reason that many ODMs are also original electronics manufacturers (OEMs) — companies which attach brands to the electronics themselves (think Apple, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) Of the top 10 ODMs in the world in 2006, at least 9 are Taiwanese companies (and that’s because I was too lazy to look up the last one — TPV technology) — those firms alone control nearly 70% of the global ODM market — and they include Windows Mobile phone manufacturer and Open Handset Alliance member HTC and the rapidly growing computer OEM ASUS.
Taiwan is also home to D-Link and Acer. The latter of which recently is trying to resurrect dying brands of eMachines and Gateway.