Kurobox

Epilogue

The original Kurobox fell short of expectations. Key pieces of code and information were never released by Buffalo, the non-upgradeable RAM, and lack of IO interfaces dramatically limited the audience who could make use of it. Some of these issues were mitigated in subsequent hardware releases, but ultimately Buffalo switched to ARM processors. All Kurobox information and development is now documention at NAS-Central.


Introduction

The Kuro Box was announced as a $160 toaster-sized PowerPC Linux system for hackers. “Kuro” means “expert”, and the kanji characters on the case mean literally “expert box”. Its small size, attractive case, and accessible internals make it an interesting network appliance.

Overview

The hardware breakdown:

  • Freescale 8241: 200MHz SoC with 603e-based core
  • ADMtek AN983B: 10/100 PCI ethernet Tulip clone
  • Silicon Image Sil0680A: PCI Ultra ATA/133 controller
  • Atmel AT90S2313: 8-bit microcontroller
  • NEC D720101GJ: USB2 OHCI/EHCI host controller
  • 64 MiB of soldered RAM
  • 4 MiB of flash ROM

It comes without an ATA hard disk, but the in-flash kernel requires one to be attached or it errors out during boot. There is a small fan, but with both disk and fan running the system is still very very quiet. Four LEDs shine through a mirror panel in the front: POWER, LINK/ACT, DISK FULL, and DIAG. It has just two external ports, on the back: USB and ethernet. On the back there is also a switch and a red pushbutton. On the motherboard there is are pads to which one could attach their own serial port. The microcontroller is accessed via the second (internal) serial interface, and controls the front LEDs and power, also providing watchdog functionality.

For software, it comes with an unknown version of U-boot, a modified 2.4.17 Linux kernel, BusyBox 0.60.5, and a couple other tools. The system boots fine from flash alone, but a Windows-only setup tool is provided to initialize a user-provided hard disk with a standard set of tools. The flash filesystem runs telnet and ftp daemons, and uses DHCP (with a hardcoded fallback) to set its IP address.

History

The Buffalo LinkStation is a successful Network Attached Storage device for the home market, released in the US in Feb 2004 but selling before that in Japan (it was designed by Buffalo Japan). The Kuro Box was created to sell off older LinkStation inventory when a new revision was released, and was initially sold by a Buffalo sister company in Japan for extreme power users, Kurouto Shikou.

Demand in Japan for the Kuro Box soon exceeded the LinkStation leftovers, so new runs were made, and the Kuro was soon offered in the US via Buffalo USA. Wanting to avoid confusion between the hacker-friendly Kuro and the home user-friendly LinkStation, Buffalo created a new “Revolution” brand to sell the systems.

Buffalo was one of the companies that had difficulty complying with the GPL last year, regarding both the Linux kernel and BusyBox, which are still shipped in some of its wireless routers. Since then, they seem to have put more effort into meeting their GPL obligations, and happily the Kuro website announces source availability on the front page, with more updates to come. (One would certainly hope that a product targeted at Linux hackers would offer complete source code.) In fact, the US press release for the Kuro even contains an endorsement from Erik Andersen, the BusyBox author who had an initially rocky relationship with Buffalo.

Present

It is a concern for Buffalo that LinkStation customers could break their systems with Kuro hacking tools. Not only could returns to retail stores have financial impact, the LinkStation is intended to be a centralized storage device for the home or even small business; rendering it useless could leave some very upset customers (even if they broke it themselves).

Currently, most Kuro responsibilities fall to a single Buffalo USA engineer with other, more mundane, responsibilities as well. Despite that, new orders are shipped almost instantly, and the Kuro community seems well supported so far.

However, detailed hardware and programming specifications are not yet available. This is partially due to a rushed US release, and partially because of communication and prioritization issues with the division of Buffalo Japan that originally designed the Kuro. These issues are being worked on. It’s reassuring to note that although the Kuro’s hasty release left its printed documentation and web interface in Japanese, English versions soon appeared on the website, so hopefully the missing hardware documentation will be available soon.

Future

Buffalo is running development contests (with prizes) to see what can be done with a Kuro. The software it comes with, including Samba and netatalk, makes it trivial to set up as a NAS (like a LinkStation with a custom hard disk). Ideas for improvement include packaging a Dynamic DNS client, weblog software, and a photo gallery system for a website-in-a-box. Kurouto Shikou has run similar contests, with the winners including MPEG and mp3 streaming servers, a USB webcam, and using the Kuro as a node in a massively parallel filesystem.

Despite the Kuro’s young age, it seems that there are already thoughts about a Kuro II. Possible improvements could include more RAM, a faster processor, a serial port, another USB port, and even a Mini PCI slot. Choosing a newer Freescale processor with more integrated IO could even reduce the development cost, since fewer external chips (ethernet, USB, ATA) would be needed and board complexity would be reduced.

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