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Hi. I'm a Unix Administrator, mathematics enthusiast, and amateur philosopher. This is where I rant about that which upsets me, laugh about that which amuses me, and jabber about that which holds my interest most: Unix.
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Saving money the "techie" way

Posted 04-20-2011 at 12:42 PM by rocket357
Updated 04-20-2011 at 12:54 PM by rocket357

The economy has been screwy for some time now, and even at work we're starting to see the effects of economic downturn. Granted, I'm not trying to purchase a $42,000 server with my *own* finances, but even so I've felt the effects of the struggle both at home and work. So my wife and I discussed some ways to save money, and we realized that our entertainment budget had quite a bit of fat.

Time for an entertainment budget diet.

First off, our ISP is comcast cable (sucks, I know). The beauty of Comcast is that a few years ago the actual hardware here was owned by Time Warner, and the people here were happy with Time Warner. Then Comcast bought them out (locally), and suddenly everyone jumped ship. Comcast had a rough transition period and service was exceptionally flaky for my area. Everyone (including me) migrated to Bellsouth or some other ISP.

Ok, Bellsouth. Ugh. I hate them more than I hate Comcast...so after a bit of time I looked back at Comcast. Sure enough, they worked hard to get back to their normal level of crap service (as opposed to the "utter crap" service during the transition period), and I returned. Why? Because during a debate with a Bellsouth rep, he actually asked me why my internet connection mattered to a server I was running at my house. Yes, a public server. No questions about "running a public server violates our blah blah" or "Hey! You can't do that!". No, I got "umm, how is your lack of internet connection interrupting your server access?" Obviously the tech didn't get what I was saying. In a fit, I returned to Comcast.

Alrighty. Comcast did a reasonable job returning service to our area (during the few months I was with Bellsouth), and right away we noticed something peculiar. With virtually no one on Comcast, the speeds were absolutely amazing. I re-routed all new cable for my house so I could put my cable modem as close to the source as possible to squeeze every ounce of speed out of our connection (very low quality cables in my attic, unfortunately). After the cable upgrades, the speeds were astonishing.

31 Mbps download? You bet. 6 Mbps upload? On a bad day! I had to replace my router to take full advantage of the speeds...

I also set up a script to round-robin ping a few big companies as a very low-tech log of internet outages, and over months I got well below 0.001% packet loss. I was in heaven.

That was a few years ago. Fast forward to today, and my cable bill is getting painful. It's nearly 200 USD/month. The same old problem came to us: we don't watch 99% of the channels we pay for, and of the channels we do watch, 99% of the shows are crap. We wanted a way to select just a few shows, and we wanted to be able to watch them whenever we had time (my wife and I are busy people...I manage 80% of the homeless/unemployment data that goes to Congress each year, and my wife (in my work-related absence) is putting in full time raising 2 kids). Enter netflix and Hulu. Time for some planning/mathematics:

Netflix is great...with the exception that my wife and I didn't really care for the idea of letting our 48" LCD TV go to waste by watching everything on our computers (and I don't run Windows, so using Microsoft Silverlight is impossible for me...and yes, I've signed the Netflix on Linux petition). Hulu already has a Linux client, but again, no joy for OpenBSD users. I had to find a way to watch these services, and preferably on my TV. I looked, got suggestions from friends (boxee looked alright), and finally I settled on the Roku XD (a combination of things pushed my decision, but ultimately it had the features I wanted at the price I wanted).

Roku + Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu Plus ended up being insanely cheaper than the cost of the same services on cable (~$300/year for the services (not including the one-time fee of $79 for the Roku box), compared to ~$1200/year for cable TV). Nice.

Once I got that figured out, I swore I'd find more. I've seen Magic Jack commercials on TV, so I decided to give that a try...$40 for "hardware + 1 year subscription", and a junker computer that I could run it on (already had the junker just laying around), and I could lop another $30/month off of my cable bill (Comcast Digital Voice). Suddenly my Comcast bill is looking better, at around $40/month for my high speed internet. Sweet...the planning phase is complete (as I can't drop my Comcast internet haha).

Now then, time to implement all of this madness. Theory is fine and dandy, but without a working implementation, theory is just that: a vaporous idea that means nothing in the real world. I did things in reverse (Magic Jack first), and immediately ran into problems.

Magic Jack isn't a plug-n-play service (well, in my case it isn't because I'm using it a bit different than I think it was intended to be used). It depends on too many underlying factors (internet explorer...ugh) to be "production-ready". Nevertheless, I moved forward with this experiment, briefly paying both the Magic Jack fee and my Comcast Digital Voice in case of disaster (note: I couldn't migrate my Comcast phone number over because I was playing it safe...I had to send out emails, facebook messages, etc... to distribute my new phone number so I could try it out). The very first thing I noticed is that the Magic Jack is quiet. It's hard to hear people. About 3 seconds of poking around in the application gave me the answer: apparently the default volume settings are "conservative"...I bumped them up bit by bit while my wife was on the phone with a friend so we could set it appropriately.

The next issue had more to do with Windows than Magic Jack. Windows firewall had to have exceptions added after a reboot (what the?? why did it work before the reboot?). The battery in the junker computer had also died, and after each reboot the system thought it was 2004 again. This made internet explorer hang (certificate validation failure) while trying to access the magic jack site (for various automated tasks, like synchronizing contacts and such). Once I got all of that sorted out, Magic Jack was solid and stable. (Though I must say, googling for their error messages leads to forum QnA's that rarely had helpful information).

Next up is the Roku. I purchased one at our local Best Buy and had it up and running shortly after getting home. I initially connected it to our wireless (for lack of a long enough ethernet cable), but decided to purchase an HDMI cable + ethernet cable to fully realize the potential of this little box (the picture for HD streams is unbelievably crisp and vibrant now, and wired is a decent bit faster than our wireless). Movie selection in Netflix leaves something to be desired, but it's not completely out because Amazon Prime allows us to purchase or rent movies that aren't available on Netflix, and all three carry TV stuff (I prefer NatGeo documentaries, personally, but there's a bit of something for everyone in my household).

Now the biggest problem we have is lack of concurrency (daughter wants to watch something that son doesn't feel like watching). Might have to get another roku soon...haha.

Bottom line: we turned a $200/month bill into a ~$65/month bill...and the new system matches our needs better. Can't beat that. Maybe in the future I'll setup a second internet connection (not Bellsouth haha) and load balance the two with an OpenBSD pf machine...and then setup QoS so they don't step on each other's toes...and perhaps setup a caching proxy...and maybe a caching DNS server...and OpenLDAP to manage access to all of these services...and...ugh. It's never ending =)
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    Sounds like a sweet deal, and on top of the money you save, You now have utilities that you can manage yourself. Customer service is no longer what it implies ... They hire large groups of people, who can read off of a script, and if the answer is not there, They just transfer you to someone else who is reading that same script. You can save a bit of sanity as well as $ ;-)
    I enjoyed reading this and think that people can gain a bit of insight through viewing it. Keep it up!
    Posted 06-30-2011 at 01:13 PM by Hevithan Hevithan is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Hey Hevithan, that's an excellent point...I hadn't thought of it like that, but that is indeed another benefit. The fewer minutes I waste being on hold the better =)

    And while I'm updating this post...here's a two-and-a-half-month update:

    I love my Roku. God, do I love that thing. I let my Hulu subscription expire because we never use it. Everything we could ever want is in Netflix and Roksbox (I'll post a follow-up to this concerning Roksbox...it really does rate it's own post =). My wife spent every minute of her free time for the first few weeks catching up on old episodes of "Deadliest Catch" (RIP Captain Phil), and I set up Netflix on my daughter's Wii to reduce contention haha. My daughter, oddly enough, discovered the "Super Mario Brothers Super Show" and fell in love. It was a bit depressing for her when I told her that the show ran some 20 years ago, and there wouldn't be any new episodes... =\

    Magic Jack has given us a bit of trouble (all relating to the old computer it was running on), so we moved it to a laptop we had laying around (now our phone has a built-in battery backup? Win). Unfortunately if the power goes, we still lose internet, so I still need to invest in a UPS to run the modem and router (neither should take much power, so the UPS wouldn't have to be "enterprise-telco-grade" in terms of cost...).

    When our ISP has hiccups and short bursts of downtime, we REALLY notice it now. That is the biggest downside to all of this, but if I ever do setup that Soekris net4501 I have sitting on my desk, I may hook up a second ISP so we can load balance between them to reduce downtime. That'll cost us some more, of course, but I think ISP's are starting to get the hint, as more often you see advertisements to the effect of "no longer requires phone service with us!" or the like.
    Posted 07-01-2011 at 09:30 AM by rocket357 rocket357 is offline
  3. Old Comment
    My nephews and niece also stumbled across the Mario show, I feel your pain.
    Netflix on Wii has one drawback it only lists a portion on what is available (even in comparison to what is seen on Xbox or PS), The kids here have it, But I installed homebrew on the Wii so now they get tons of stuff(whatever I download). I put VNC on the wii, so now we can access my laptop and look up sea creatures and lions, and whatever they want. running video is choppy though.

    Quote:
    That'll cost us some more, of course, but I think ISP's are starting to get the hint, as more often you see advertisements to the effect of "no longer requires phone service with us!" or the like.
    The bundle package was popular when digital TV, cable internet, and cable phone was new ... I think they are just starting to realize that anything can be done on the internet now. radio,tv,phone,planners,alarm clocks ... it's all online and there is really no need for anything other then an internet connection (advertisers caught this early), but with this growing reliance on connectivity the technology that runs it is going to need to be tip-top.
    Anyway, I'm taking up all your blog space haha, I'm just gonna go read the other one and end this comment before I run on for 5 pages.
    Posted 07-01-2011 at 01:43 PM by Hevithan Hevithan is offline
 

  



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