Quick Take: Different ways of acquiring cryptocurrency

With this past month’s stock and crypto activity (various stocks heading for lunar orbit, Bitcoin breaking US$40,000, etc), a lot of people have started looking for ways to buy cryptocurrency (and stocks).

In a lot of forums, they’re being hit with misleading or outright false information. I’m here today to give you some pointers and context, and help you understand the cryptocurrency options available to you.

Nothing in this post is provided as investment advice or recommendations to conduct any financial transactions. There is risk in any of these processes, and you are on your own for that.

If you choose to use one of my referral links to sign up for one of the services mentioned, I’ll either get a share or two of a cheap stock, a few bucks worth of a stock, or sometimes a cash bonus. And I’ll appreciate your support. (Note that promos can change, and I may not come back and update these promos later; see the respective websites for active promotion terms)

  • SoFi Invest (fund an active account including crypto with $1000, and we’ll both get $50 worth of stock) (crypto available)
  • SoFi Money (fund an account with $500, and we both get $50 cash) (Virtual money management account, linkable to Invest and other services)
  • Robinhood (sign up and link a bank account, and we both get a free share of stock) (crypto available)
  • Webull (fun an account with $100 and get at least one stock share, maybe two) (crypto under tags like BTCUSD, ETHUSD, no DOGE)
  • Public (app-only, complete application and get a free amount of stock up to $16, must hold the value of the free stock in the account for 90 days) (no crypto, just stocks)

What is cryptocurrency? Do I get an actual physical bitcoin?

Cryptocurrency is a virtual currency that is created through a process called mining, and can be transferred and converted to other currencies (including “fiat” or what some would call “real” money). You don’t get a physical bitcoin (or ethereum or anything like that), and if you’ve seen one of those metal “Real Bitcoin Coin” items at a store, you’ve just seen a souvenir with little to no value and no association with any bitcoins.

Many cryptocurrencies have developed value, primarily through people giving them value and accepting them in transactions. This isn’t entirely unlike paper money – a piece of green and white paper alone doesn’t have any value, but when a nation accepts that that piece of paper is worth a certain amount and uses it in trade, it suddenly has value. 

The cryptocurrencies you’ve probably heard most about are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, and (lately) Dogecoin. Bitcoin is the grandfather of crypto, and has been around since 2009. The others have come along since, to address perceived shortcomings or scaling issues with Bitcoin. 

Ways to acquire cryptocurrency

The common ways to acquire cryptocurrency are mining, direct purchase from an exchange, or indirect purchase through an investment firm.

Mining cryptocurrency

Mining is a process where you use computing power and special software to work mathematical problems out. This can be done with CPU power, GPU (video card) power, or custom built ASIC power, and some methods are better for certain coins. For example, mining Bitcoin today requires the custom ASIC rigs to be anywhere near profitable. Ethereum is GPU-mineable, although there are some ASIC miners. If you’re going to mine, check out my miner article from a couple years ago, and browse some of the mining sites like bitcointalk for more information and guides. 

Direct purchase from an exchange

What I’m calling “direct purchase” is going to an exchange site and buying currency there, to be placed into your wallet (the virtual repository for your cryptocurrency). Bittrex and Coinbase are among the most popular in the US and elsewhere. You can use these sites to convert currencies (i.e. turn 1 ETH into ~0.04 BTC or vice versa), or you can purchase cryptocurrency with your own currency (i.e. turn US$34,205 into ~1 BTC).

Some sites take bank transfers, instant debit card transactions, or even credit card transactions, but note that buying cryptocurrency with a credit card may result in a cash advance transaction to your card (with fees, interest charges beginning immediately, and limits for transactions)

It may also be possible to purchase cryptocurrency in a person-to-person transaction. For example, if you want to buy 1 ETH and I have 1 ETH available, I might sell it to you directly and send it to your ETH wallet address. Not everyone knows someone with cryptocurrency though, but it’s an option if you do. 

Indirect purchase through an investment firm or bank-like firm

Many of the smaller consumer level investment platforms (including Webull, Robinhood, and SoFi Invest) offer a way to buy cryptocurrencies through their systems. Paypal offers this option as well, and you will probably find some of the larger investment firms offering crypto services too.

With these options, you don’t need a crypto wallet or an exchange account, just a regular investment account with that company and some money in your account. 

If you visit forums for some of these companies, though, you’ll find people saying “it isn’t real crypto if you don’t have the keys to the wallet.” This is partly true, in that you can’t transfer cryptocurrency to/from your crypto wallet, or make crypto payments from SoFi Invest, Webull, or Robinhood directly. But it is still cryptocurrency, and you can still profit (or lose) from the movement of the currency in these accounts. 

Which should I do?

That’s up to you. Really. 

If you plan to transact business using crypto directly (i.e. you want to buy pepper sauce from Pex Peppers with ETH or DOGE), you’ll want to mine or use an exchange.

Mining is great if you have a lot of GPUs handy and free or cheap power. At the current price of Ethereum, you can probably break even on a current model GPU (if you can find one in stock) in about 4 months of mining. If you built a rig three years ago, you can probably dust it off and bring it back up and do even better. But the price of Ethereum (and other currencies) can go way up or way down. So consider the risk, as well as your tolerance for heat, noise, and power bills. 

Buying through an exchange is a good way to convert “cash” to crypto, if you don’t want to mine, or if you’re taking your mining rig down for maintenance or a move or the like. You can also use an exchange to sell cryptocurrency and convert it to your own currency and even move the funds to your bank. 

If you just want to treat it as an investment vehicle, and hope to profit off the movement of the currency, a bank or finance company is a fine option. You don’t have to worry about the security of your crypto wallet, and transactions are usually faster and less complicated with a SoFi or the like. You can’t transact with businesses or individuals in crypto this way, but for a lot of people in the crypto market, that’s not a problem. 

There’s nothing keeping you from doing two or even three of these methods. I mine with GPUs in a spare room, buy crypto in order to rent hashing power from a marketplace, and hold a bit of bitcoin in an investment account. It all depends on your priorities and your patience. 

Should I buy DOGE or BTC or ETH or WhopperCoin?

I can’t tell you that. For most of my readers, you probably shouldn’t, but I wanted to level the information playing field so you’d understand the options if you choose to do so. 

There’s nothing keeping you from enjoying the DOGE memes and continuing with your investments as they already are, of course. 

Where do we go from here?

I’m going to go check my DOGE wallet. Let me know in the comments what you’re doing with crypto these days, and if you have any questions that are not related to investment advice, which I cannot and will not provide. 

And again, if you choose to use any or all of the referral links above, I thank you. 

Rabbit Reorganization: Building low power clusters from a rabb.it door

As you saw in my 3D Printing series, after years of pondering a 3D printer, I was finally inspired to buy one when a pile of clusters came up on eBay from the defunct rabb.it video streaming service.

In this series, I’ll take you through turning a rabbit door into some useful computing resources. You can do something similar even after the clusters are sold out; a lot of people have probably bought the clusters and ended up not using them, or you can adjust the plans here to other models.

The first thing I will put out there is that these are not latest-and-greatest state-of-the-art computers. If you’re looking for a production environment or DDR4 high density memory, keep looking. But if you want an inexpensive modular cluster that’s only about 5 years out of date, there’s hope for you in here.

The original cluster

eBay seller “tryc2” has sold several hundred of these “door clusters” from rabb.it, a now-defunct video streaming service that closed up shop in mid-2019. As of this writing, they still have a couple dozen available. I call it a “door cluster” as the 42 inch by 17 inch metal plate resembles a door, and gives you an idea of the ease of manipulating and fitting the environment into your home/homelab as it is delivered.

The cluster bundle will set you back US$300, plus tax where applicable. While they’re available, you can get one at this link and I’ll get a couple of dollars in commission toward my next purchase.

The cluster includes 10 Intel NUC quad-core boards (mine were NUC5PPYB quad-core Pentium; my friend Stephen Foskett got some that were newer NUC6CAYB Celeron boards which took more RAM). These boards feature one DDR3L SODIMM slot (max of 8GB), one SATA port with a non-standard power connector (more on this later), Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI out with a headless adapter (to fool the computer into activating the GPU despite no monitor being connected), four USB ports, and a tiny m.2 slot originally intended for wireless adapters.

In the center of the “door” are five NVIDIA Jetson TK1 boards. These were NVIDIA’s first low-end foray into GPU development, sold to let individuals try out machine learning and GPU computing. There are much newer units, including the Jetson Nano (whose 2GB version is coming this month), if you really want modern AI and GPU testing gear, but these are reasonably capable machines that will run Ubuntu 14 or 16 quite readily. You get 2GB of RAM and a 32GB onboard eMMC module, plus a SATA port and an SD slot as well as gigabit Ethernet.

The infrastructure for each cluster includes a quality Meanwell power supply, a distribution board assembly I haven’t unpacked yet, two automotive-style fuse blocks with power cords going to the 15 computers, and a 16 port Netgear unmanaged Gigabit Ethernet switch. With some modifications, you can run this entire cluster off one power cord and one network cord.

What’s missing?

So there is a catch to a $300 15-node cluster. The Jetson nodes are component complete, meaning they have RAM and storage. However, the NUCs are barebones, and you’ll need some form of storage and some RAM.

For the Jetson nodes, you’ll need an older Ubuntu machine and the NVIDIA Jetpack software loader. For the installation host, Ubuntu 14.04 is supported, 16.x should work, and later versions are at your own risk. You’ll also need an Ethernet connection to a network shared with your Ubuntu machine, as well as a MicroUSB connection between your Ubuntu host and the Jetson, to load the official software bundle.

For the NUCs, you’re looking at needing to add a SODIMM and some form of storage to each. I bought a bunch of 8GB SODIMMs on eBay ($28.50 each) to max out the boards. For storage, I tried USB flash drives and 16GB SD cards and had OS issues with both, so I bought the MicroSATACables NUC internal harness for each board, along with Toshiba Q Pro 128GB SATA III SSDs (these are sold out, but there’s a Samsung SM841N currently available in bulk for the same price, about $20 each).

If you do get a cluster bundle with the two-memory-slot NUC boards, you have two options beyond the above. The easy and documented option is to look for 4GB SODIMMs instead of 8GB; you may save a buck or two, or if you’re like me, you may have a box of 4GB SODIMMs from various upgrades and not have to buy anything. The other option is to update your BIOS on the NUC and try out 2x 8GB. For some uses, 16GB will be worth the cost (vSphere or other virtualization clusters). I’d suggest going with a known quantity to update the BIOS to the latest version, and then trying 2x 8GB.

One other thing you may need is a pack of spare fuses. I know they do their job, as I blew a few of them while plugging and unplugging the boards. But you may wish to have a few extras around. They’re the standard 3 amp “mini blade” fuse that can be found at auto parts stores (although my local shops tended to have one card of them, if that, on the shelf). You can also buy a 10 pack for $6.25 (Bussmann brand) , a 25 pack for about the same price (Baomain brand) or a 100 pack (Kodobo brand) for about $9.

Choose your own adventure

There are two paths to take once you have your gear collected and connected.

  1. How do we lay out the gear?
  2. What do we do with it?

I’ll look at my journey on both paths in upcoming episodes of this series. Spoiler: I’ve 3d-printed stacking plates for both the NUCs and the Jetsons, and am still working on how to mount the remaining pieces so I can e-waste the door piece. And as I write part 1, I still haven’t figured out what to do with the clusters.

Where do we go from here?

If you’ve bought one of these clusters (or more than one), feel free to chime in on the comment section and let me know what you’ve done with it. And stay tuned to this post (or @rsts11 on Twitter or Facebook) for updates on the next installments.

Treat, no trick: Free VMware premium training for a year if you sign up by Halloween!

My friend Christopher posted about a 6 month promo for the VMware Learning Zone that was being extended soon. As I’m looking to rebuild some of my VMware expertise (I was a vExpert for several years, but fell out of the program a couple of years ago), I figured I’d give the promo a try.

It turns out that, with the newest link, you can get a 12 month subscription to the “VMware Customer Connect Learning Premium Package” free. It includes the Basic Subscription, exam prep materials for VCP and VCAP (and possibly others), and the VMware Certified Technical Associate content (for the new entry level VMware certification).

You can find the details and “purchase” the free offer at this VMware Learning link. But do it by October 31, 2020.

Note that the VMware Learning portal has a different authentication system/login credentials from the MyVMware portal, the Flings site, or the VMUG site. Or as Christopher said, paraphrasing my gripe:

So while you may have your email in their system in various places, you will probably have to activate your learning portal account if you haven’t had official VMware learning programs before.

The enrollment deadline is October 31, 2020, and will run for a full year once you sign up.

But wait, there’s more

If you don’t already have a subscription to VMUG Advantage, it’s worth looking into. While general VMUG membership is free, the Advantage tier is similar to the old VMware Technology Network (VMTN) which provided home lab/training licenses for VMware products for a relatively small price (currently $200 before discounts).

The evaluation licenses are included under what’s now called EVALExperience. You can get 15 or more VMware products including vCenter/vSphere, NSX, vSAN, Fusion, Workstation, and more, for 365 days per subscription. You also get 20% off VMware training and exams, 35% off VMware Lab Connect, and the only stackable discount on real-world VMworld tickets.

The VMUG site currently has a popup with the discount code ADVNOW which will take 10% ($20) off. Earlier in the year, William Lam negotiated a 15% discount “group buy” which is probably the highest discount I’ve ever seen – 10% codes are available anytime there’s a VMUG UserCon or virtual event, and often even when there isn’t one.

You might check with your employer to see if they will reimburse you for this option, or if you work for a larger VMware customer you might have other license options internally, but if you’re working your way up outside the scope of your current job, VMUG Advantage with the EVALexperience is a great option. It might even get you headed in the direction of vExpert status (which also gets you those licenses, and a whole lot more, in recognition of your giving back to the community).

Money Pit: 3D Printing Part 1 – The Back Story, The Rationale, and The Assembly

This is one topic in a series of what I’m calling “money pit” projects. To be fair, it’ll be money and time pit topics, and nothing that you’d really have to get a second mortgage on your house to do… but things always get a bit out of hand.

This project is the 3D Printing project. The second part is available at First Round of Enhancements and part 3 should be out within a week. 

The Back Story

It all goes back to five or so years ago, when I bought a couple of Banana Pro single board computers from LeMaker in France.The Banana Pro was a Raspberry Pi-inspired board, but with gigabit Ethernet and external SATA on board. Great idea, but they didn’t sell as much as the RPi, so the accessory market was a lot lighter. I think there were 4 cases I found in the past 5 years, many of which were not readily available in the US.

I did order a few cases from China that had a section for the SATA drive, and stocked up on cables for the SATA drives. But I wasn’t too happy with what was out there.I found some of the 3D printer sites where people had built some cases, and thought “someday I’ll get a printer and make some cases.” I said that about every year for 4 years.

Then earlier this year, some more usable cluster kits came onto the used market from the now-defunct rabb.it startup. By “some,” I mean about a thousand of them. (Click on the photo below if you want to buy one of the kits yourself. It is an eBay partner network link but I have no association with the seller other than as a buyer of one cluster kit so far.)Single Board Computer Array with Intel NUC5PPYH and NVIDIA Jetson TK1They each contain ten NUC5PPYB quad-core pentium NUC machines and five NVIDIA Jetson TK1 dev boards. I pondered it for several months (not as long as the printer), finally bought one, and it showed up a week later. (I’ll write more about that project separately, and you can read my friend Stephen Foskett’s Pack Rat series about the rabb.it clusters here.)

About the same time, I broke down and bought a Creality Ender 3 Pro printer from my local geek shop, Central Computers. Central also stocks the Creality-branded filament for $20 per 1kg roll, and they’re about four miles from home. You can also buy directly from Creality, or choose some sellers on Amazon like SainsmartContinue reading

Cisco C22 M3 “Build” report: From Zero to vSphere in… two days?

Hi folks. The pile of project boxes in my home lab has gotten taller than I am, so when a Twitter follower asked me about running VMware vSphere on one of the systems not too far down in the stack, I took the challenge and said I’d try to get it going to see what I could report back.

Disclosure: While my day job is with Cisco, this computer was purchased out of my own pocket and used no proprietary/employee-only access to software or information. I do not provide end-user support for Cisco gear, nor do I recommend using used/aftermarket gear for production environments.

That system is a now-discontinued Cisco UCS C22 M3S. Yes, C22, not C220. It was an economy variant of the C220, more or less, with a lower cost and lower supported memory capacity as I recall. The one I have features a pair of Intel Xeon E5-2407 v2 processors (quad core 2.4GHz) and 48GB of RAM. The RAID controller is LSI’s 9220-8i, and for now I have a single 73GB hard drive installed because that’s what I found on my bench.

This is a standalone system, even though it’s sitting underneath a UCS 6296 Fabric Interconnect that’s freshly updated as well. I have the two on-board Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as a 4-port Gigabit Ethernet add-on card. And by way of disclosure, while I do work for Cisco and probably could have gotten a better box through work, I bought this one in a local auction out of my own pocket.

Warming up the system

The first thing I needed to do was make sure firmware, management controller, and so forth were up to date and usable. Cisco has long followed the industry standard in servers by making firmware and drivers freely available. I wrote about this back in 2014, when HPE decided to buck the standard, even before I worked for Cisco. You do have to register with a valid email address, but no service contract or warranty is required.

Since I was going to run this machine in standalone mode, I went to the Cisco support site and downloaded the Host Update Utility (HUU) in ISO form.

Updating firmware with the Host Update Utility (HUU) ISO

I loaded up Balena Etcher, a program used to write ISO images and other disk formats to USB flash drives. USB ports are easy to come by on modern computers, but optical drives are not as common. I “burned” the ISO to a flash drive and went to boot it up on the C22.

No luck. I got an error message on screen as the Host Update Utility loaded, referring to Error 906, “firmware copy failed.”

Doing some searching, I found that there were quirks to the bootability of the image. A colleague at Cisco had posted a script to the public community site in 2014, and updated it in 2017, which would resolve this issue. So I brought up my home office Linux box (ironically a HPE Microserver Gen8 that I wrote about in January), copied the script and the iso over, and burned the USB drive again with his script. This time it worked.

Recovering a corrupted BIOS flash image with recovery.cap

Alas, while four of the five firmware components upgraded, the BIOS upgrade was corrupted somehow. Probably my fault, but either way I had to resolve it before I could move forward.

Corrupt bios recovery, before and after

Seemed pretty obvious, and I figured the recovery.cap file would have been copied to the flash drive upon boot, but I figured wrong. You have to extract it from a squashfs archive inside the HUU ISO file. There’s even a ‘getfw’ program in the ISO to do this. Easy, right?

Of course not.

Turns out newer versions of OpenSSL won’t decrypt the filesystem image and extract the needed file, and even my year-out-of-date CentOS 7 box was too new. So I spun up a VM with the original CentOS 7 image and extracted there.

  1. Get the HUU for your system and UCS version (don’t use a C22 BIOS on a C240 or vice versa, for example).
  2. Mount or extract the ISO file
  3. Copy the GETFW/getfw binary out
  4. Unmount the ISO file
  5. ./getfw -b -s <HUU ISO FILE> -d .

This will drop a “bios.cap” file in the current directory. Rename it to “recovery.cap” … put it on a flash drive (plain DOS formatted one is fine), put it into the system, and reset your machine. You’ll go from the first screen with “Could not find a recovery.cap file..” to the second screen transferring to controller. And in a few minutes, your system should be recovered.

Preparing to boot the system

This is the easiest part, in most cases,  but there are a couple of things you may have to modify in the Integrated Management Controller (IMC) and the LSI WebBIOS interface.

Set your boot order. I usually go USB first (so I don’t have to catch the F6 prompt) followed by the PCIe RAID card. The RAID card will only show up if supported and bootable drives are installed though. This can be changed on the fly if you like, but I prefer to do it up front.

Check your RAID controller settings. Follow the BIOS screen instruction for going into WebBIOS (the text interface to configuring the RAID card), and make sure that you have disks presented in virtual drives. I had plugged a UCS drive and a random SSD in and only the UCS drive (a 73GB SAS drive) showed up. It did not appear to the F6 Boot Order menu though, as it was not set bootable in WebBIOS. A few key taps fixed this, and the drive appeared. Again, you can change the boot order after installing, but why not do it first?

Moving forward with VMware installation

This is the easy part, more or less. I went to VMware’s site and grabbed the Cisco custom ISO (which should have current drivers and configurations for Cisco components, especially the RAID controller and network cards). You can also install with the standard vSphere installer if you like.

I burned the 344 MB ISO to a flash drive, finding again that Etcher didn’t like it (complaining not being a bootable ISO) but Rufus did. With a Rufus-burned 8GB drive (choose “yes” to replace menu.c32 by the way), I was able to install the vSphere system and bring it up.

On first install attempt, I did see this message for about a second, and had no drives show up.

Turns out this error warns you that log files are not stored permanently when booting from a USB installation drive, and it was unrelated to the missing drives (which didn’t show up because I originally had an unconfigured SSD and no configured drives installed–see previous section to resolve this).

But when I had the hard drive configured, the install went smoothly.

It is somewhat funny that I’m working with 48GB of RAM and only 60ish GB of storage at the moment, but from here I was able to copy over my OS installation ISOs (8GB over powerline networking made it an overnight job) and bring up my first VM on the new system.

So where do we go from here?

For now, the initial goal of confirming that vSphere will install neatly on a C22 M3 with the 9220-8i RAID controller has been accomplished.

Next up, adding some more storage (maybe SSD if I can find something that will work), maybe bumping the RAM up a bit, and doing something useful with the box. It only draws 80-100 watts under light use, so I’m okay with it being a 24/7 machine, and it’s quiet and in the garage so it shouldn’t scare the neighbors.

If you’re looking to turn up an older Cisco UCS server in your home lab, get familiar with the software center on Cisco.com, as well as the Cisco Community site. Lots of useful information out there as well as on the Reddit /r/homelab site.

Have you rescued old UCS servers for your homelab? Share your thoughts or questions below, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.