uncollected thoughts

Project ICECE
11:53am 16th June 2004

Ever since reading about the Mazda MX5 MP3 player some years ago I’ve been interested in adding the ability to play digital audio to my car. At the time I was driving a company car, so modifications were not permitted. Since then I’ve switched jobs, changed cars a few times and switched, but the interest in getting a large chunk of music into the car without carrying around and managing a big stack of CDs has remained.

When looking into how to build the system I was struck at how most people use low-end PC systems. These are, of course, not really much more than toy computers and I wanted something a little more stable and reliable. Given the continuing march of technology and the need to replace everything every four years or so I was lucky to pick up an E450. This is an ideal machine:

  • multiple processors to ensure that mp3 decode is not interrupted by other process activity,
  • good internal storage capacity, including the ability to take advantage of software RAID for reliability,
  • large memory for good caching of tunes being played,
  • easily expandable to allow for future projects,
  • excellent support for Solaris 10, so that I can test bug-fixes, etc. while on the road if necessary. This also means that there is wide application availability (Oracle, great Java tools, etc.)

A couple of people expressed concern at this choice of machine, for a variety of reasons:

  • It’s too big: Whilst not small, the machine fits nicely in the luggage area of my car. See the pictures for details,
  • It’s too noisy: This is just wrong. When booting the machine is quite noisy, but this settles to a re-assuring hum once the Solaris platform management code kicks in to monitor the system.

The system arrived with three power supplies and, though it’s clear that this is good for reliability, the space taken by one of them proved convenient to store the power inverter necessary to get from the in-car 12V supply back to the 230V required by the system. It’s possible that I might build an alternative plug-in power supply unit that didn’t bother with the inverter, but that’s a project for another day.

Audio output is supplied by an Ensoniq AudioPCI and Solaris drivers from 4Front. I was somewhat worried about this part of the project, after originally planning to use an Ultra 60 (which has built-in audio), but it all came together very easily.

The current weak link in the system hardware is the connection from the soundcard to the car stereo - it’s one of those cassette tape based systems. The cable runs from the machine in the back of the car through under the passenger seat and into the cassette player. Replacing the car audio head system might allow for an improved approach, but that costs money (zero cost so far!).

The software used is very simple at the moment, nothing more than an rc script that plays random tracks from the mp3 archive stored in the ~80G /export/mp3 filesystem. That filesystem is constructed by concatenating a bunch of 9G SCSI disks (the root filesystem is mirrored across a similar set of disks). There is no control interface, though the flexible manner in which the system has been implemented means that there are lots of possibilities. General management of the system is performed using an Apple Powerbook and an ethernet cable. The ability to use a normal cable as a cross-over is a great feature of the Apple machines.

Future projects include:

  • A control interface: There are many approaches I might take to this. Currently favoured is to install the Sun Ray Server Software on the machine and then mount a Sun Ray 150 on the passenger side dash. This would fit well with…
  • In car video: Taking three kids on long car journeys is always boring. If each of them had the option of watching their choice of films, television programs, etc. the time would pass more easily. With a four port ethernet card in the E450 it would be simple to connect four Sun Ray 150 terminals and allow both general control of the system and also support each child choosing a video stored in the RAID array. This would probably also require upgrading the RAID array from 9G disks to something larger.

    Given passengers the opportunity to use the system as a general purpose computer would also fall out of this approach.

  • Improved audio output: See the note above about using the cassette based system. Basically, it sucks.
  • Physical improvements: The E450 still has casters at the moment, which is useful when I want to move it around to work on the cabling, etc., but the machine would be much more stable if they were removed. The cabling itself is a little awkward, particularly the audio through to the front of the car. Removing the plastic door sill covers and threading the cable underneath would be better.

Oh and ICECE is In Car Enterprise Class Entertainment, obviously.

Here are a couple of pictures - click for larger versions and more.



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  3. The view from here is that this “quality” implementation can only be the result of a “sick and twisted” mind. Will the E450 be able to control the sat nav? And have you considered Wi-Fi to allow for syncing with your home network when you pull up the drive?

    Comment by Greg — 16th June 2004 @ 1:18pm

  4. istr the e450 lacks a pcmcia interface; have you considered wiring one in somewhere, for 3G wireless networking?

    Comment by alecm — 16th June 2004 @ 1:43pm

  5. ps: give me a shout if you want some 72Gb drives to upgrade the RAID array

    Comment by alecm — 16th June 2004 @ 1:45pm

  6. […] l on Jun 16, 2004 David Edmonson has installed a Sun Enterprise 450 server as his In-Car Enterprise-Class Entertainment System, aka MP3 player. Comments » The UR […]

    Pingback by sunhelp » Solaris-Based Mobile Music — 16th June 2004 @ 3:26pm

  7. Holy crap. The concept of something that large as an MP3 player hurts my brain. You may as well go for an E3[5,0]00; more CPUs, same internal disks. It does seem to take up 1/4th of your cargo capacity, though. Good luck with it. Again, the big questions are how can you integrate satellite navigation capability and/or Wi-Fi?

    Comment by Katz — 16th June 2004 @ 3:58pm

  8. One thought for software could be mserv - http://www.mserv.org/. It has the nice feature that people can ‘rate’ tracks, so its random playlist will be biased based on who is connected and how long since a track has been played. We have it hooked up to an irman http://www.evation.com/irman/index.html at the office so we can use arbitrary IR remote controls :)

    Comment by David Brownlee — 16th June 2004 @ 4:06pm

  9. Um, wow. So by extension you have an E10K for a desktop? You must have a bigass desk…

    Comment by Sahil — 16th June 2004 @ 7:15pm

  10. Nooo…the E10K does double duty AS the desk. Functionality man! Functionality!

    Flip that sucker on it’s side and lay a nice piece of wood on it.

    It also doubles as a nice leg warmer for those cold winter mornings.

    Comment by Chris — 16th June 2004 @ 9:26pm

  11. Of course, you are mad; weren’t you in ‘Fight Club’?

    Comment by Kenny — 17th June 2004 @ 10:17am

  12. iPod?

    Comment by Randy — 17th June 2004 @ 12:05pm

  13. What about resilience? You could cluster a pair of 280s in the same space.

    Comment by Spod — 17th June 2004 @ 1:56pm

  14. Oh, I can just see it now…
    “Dad, I’m sick of this song”
    “Ok, son, just use your terminal to telnet into the e450 and modify the rc script to exclude that song”
    “Can’t we just get one of those dvd players like Jimmy has?”
    “No. Use the supercomputer. You need to learn solaris.”

    Comment by Alex — 17th June 2004 @ 3:14pm

  15. hahaha.. this is too funny.. I understand the whole zero cost thing, but damn, E450’s are HUGE.. and you must never really go anywhere in your fancy SUV :p .. I think the disks would have long since been crashed if I was driving it.

    I do think Sunray is the next evolutionary leap.. but I don’t think video over sunray works very good (at least the last time I tried it). You gotta figure out how to get the magic beans thats in showmetv compiled into VLC :p


    Comment by Tommy — 17th June 2004 @ 6:08pm

  16. This is just senseless…

    Comment by Roger Mialkowski — 17th June 2004 @ 6:27pm

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