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A website that runs on a solar-powered server in Barcelona (lowtechmagazine.com)
335 points by peey on May 29, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 103 comments

When I was unemployed a while back i went to sign up for unemployment.

You could only do things on the site during government business hours.

On the surface it was frustrating, but it also made the site feel 'alive' in a way that I hadn't felt since the days when even professional company sites had an about page that the 'webmaster' created with maybe a pic of the server, or his cat.

I have an idea in my head for a sort of "banking" (not a real bank and I wouldn't use that word) app and that it would be amusing to have it recognize bank holidays and typical bank hours.

This reminds me of a couple local bulletin board systems back in the day. They would only be online overnight, when the sysop's parents didn't need the phone line.

I had the opposite problem. My BBS had a dedicated line but was only open during the day because my dad didn't want me to keep the computers on overnight.

That's how I ran mine. It was mostly for my friends and I to play LORD and Falcons Eye. I could only run it on the nights I remembered to turn off my parents bedroom phone :D

You just reminded me of a couple of BBS we had locally when I was a kid that where only on for a couple of hours a day but never exactly on the hour, everyone would start dialling our early to try and connect.

We had a thriving BBS scene despite been a poor northern town because of a historical oddity that meant local calls cost a fixed price whether they lasted 30s or two hours.

I love my modern computers but there was something cool about computers then (or simply the optimism of youth).

It felt like they where going to change everything..and then they only sorta did and not always in ways I’d have wanted.

I guess that’s what people thought of the telephone, wireless and steam engine though.

FWIW, in the USA that was the norm during BBS' heyday--local calls costed the same no matter the length of the call. And you might be paying a different company for your local service vs. your long distance service.

You’re joking, but I used to have a bank account at Poste Italiane (the Italian national post service... don’t ask). You couldn’t access anything on the website, not even your balance, between 22 and 6. We’re talking about 2010. Not sure if things have evolved since then (I closed my account soon after that, and it was an odyssey... but that’s another story).

The Canada Revenue Agency wouldn't accept my tax filing until after 6am. This year.

Maybe 2 or 3 years ago I had the IRS tell me to come back during business hours as well to download a form.

Do tell us about the odyssey!

Sorry, I just read the reply :)

If you're still interested, basically I opened my Poste account in the city where I lived as a student at the time. I then graduated and moved elsewhere, but when my debit card expired, I got a letter that told me to pick up my new one... in the old city's office, hours away from my home. There was no way I was going to lose a day just to go there, pick up the card and go back, so I decided to just open a bank account somewhere else. But then I couldn't move my money there because the Poste debit card acts as an authentication device (you swipe it into the OTP device that Poste provides), both on the website and in person, so I couldn't transfer or withdraw my money, or even close my account at an office. I had to spend money to send a _raccomandata_ and wait 30 days for my money to finally be transferred to my new account. Fun times.

Poste Italiane (the Italian national post service... don’t ask)

Still to this day the single bank that never incurred any fees for using their ATMs as a foreigner - at least that's my experience.

bhphotovideo.com observes the sabbath

https://www.holyclock.com/ """ HolyClock is a free service for closing websites on Shabbat and Holidays. The closing occurs before Shabbat enters, for each visitor individually, based on their physical location in the world at the given time.

With HolyClock you can prevent desecration of Shabbat by visitors of your website. A visitor who is located where Shabbat has begun, is redirected to a temporary closing page until Shabbat ends. """

I'm really interested to know how many have bought the $9/month Premium plan. Doesn't seem that expensive considering you can enroll as many as 3 whole websites! ;-)

Looks like you need the premium plan if they aren’t your host.

Not really. You can still submit orders and use the site just fine, they just make it clear that they won't process or ship orders on the sabbath.

>Open 24/6 >Online checkout will be closed while we observe Shabbat from 8:15pm ET Fri until 9:45pm ET Sat. Although online ordering is unavailable, you may still add items to your cart or wish list.

Ah, my mistake! I misremembered from the orders I've placed.

Oh man when I was into photography I remember that.

It also gave some character to the site, making it clear that people were behind it. Of course they are, but the site too then felt a bit more personal.

So does Adorama.com.

This is the most amusing comment I've seen on HN all year.

My local ICBC bank app/website (Argentina) disables several operations outside of (10 to 3) banking hours.

- Forex buys and sells are disabled

- "Large" transfers are disabled (over some silly amount on the order of $2K)

- And my personal favorite, you can't see or pay your credit card bill (for Mastercard ONLY), and you get a "this function is not available right now, call the bank at $BANK_WORKING_HOURS_ONLY_NUMBER" message.

And I thought that Nación bank was awful because I couldn't buy USD or units in the investment fund!

At lot of online newspapers here only allow comments from 9 to 5, for moderation reasons.

On my bank you can only do online Foreign Currency exchange during banking hours. It always give me the sense of urgency and to plan ahead if I need to replenish my other accounts.

Makes you think they do some human review, or don’t want to expose themselves to a currency crash or rate error when they could take a while to pull the plug.

What was your home currency? Was it subject to any currency controls?

There are some websites here that close down on sunday due to religion. Bank transfers used to be delayed in the weekend until monday, but i think they fixed that

I think the ACH money wiring system already only works during business hours. Which is frustrating to no end. Servers need not sleep.

Wouldn’t an old Android phone make pretty efficient web server? (24+ hours battery life, WiFi and cellular data, DC charging, low-power built-in display)

Here’s a http server: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/6329468/how-to-create-a-...

The display is the worst part of the phone, in terms of efficiency as a web server. There's no need at all for a display; visitors and developers alike connect to web servers from a remote machine. The display hardware and graphics processor on the SOC consume a significant amount of power.

Would the effect of the display hardware on battery life not be mitigated by simply keeping the display turned off?

Not sure how much that would help the power draw of the graphics processor, but it would remain idle at the very least.

Yes, the idea was to keep the display off. I didn’t think about the graphics card.

Just gate the clocks.

Unless you also want to use it as a phone.

Yeah, I would think so. The onboard battery is probably more than sufficient on some of them as well. The pi is probably more useful for connecting to sensors and things like that, though.

Old laptop is even better. Android might pause your applications so they won't respond to the requests. There are ways to overcome that, but it will eat much more power. And those ways might break with new Android versions, probably because Android creators hate when some app does not allow their phone to sleep.

What I don't understand is why nobody does some kind of cheap battery backup for PC. Even cheapest UPS costs a lot and good UPS costs like a PC. While laptop battery is pretty cheap and provides a lot of power. All I need is few seconds to properly turn off the machine when power cuts.

+1 for laptops as home servers. Built in KVM and UPS, small form factor, generally optimised to have a small heat and power footprint. Have done this quite successfully for 20 years, each laptop lasting about 5 years as a small homeserver or router, having already been used as a laptop for 2 years prior.

I used to run an app on my old Android phones that turned them into a web based security camera. I'd plug them in around the house when we'd leave for vacation so I could keep an eye on things.

Found this a couple weeks ago in a comment on HN: https://pocketweb.io/

Serves a website from the app on your phone, and their service acts as a proxy to send traffic there.

Years ago I put a Wordpress on a HTC Desire. It was grindingly slow because of the MySQL backend. Static or near static sites should be fine though.

There are some impressively small systems: http://linuxgizmos.com/tiny-arm9-module-runs-linux/

You can install NGINX with Termux.

Presumably to optimise this website would mean different things? For example would it be better to read from the flash drive or cache things in RAM power-output-wise? I think that's a question we never ask. We would for example consider a memcache versus none for performance reasons but probably never for power output reasons.

Very interesting!

Have we not been optimising for power usage for the last ten years at least? It's really important for tablets, phones and laptops.

No not really, websites have been using more and more video, images, JavaScript.

I'm sure the average website of 10/20 years ago uses less resources, and by extension power than the current average website.

I suppose you could argue we do more with each unit of power, I would contend most of that has been wasted on non core frivolities that aren't worth the cost though.

Devices have all made great advances in improving battery life, both by advancing battery technology and by having on the fly adjustments of things like screen brightness.

Content providers however haven't really done much. Do you think app and web developers give much thought to battery life when they make their products? If they ever optimize it's for reasons such as responsiveness (which drives customers away if it's poor), and battery life is at best a sideeffect.

The hardware side of things, yes. The software side of things (outside the OS), not so much.

I would argue that's way outside the scope of software development.

First, you can't really know how various things are implemented in hardware. Something that saves power on one machine will increase power usage on another. This would be a big step backwards in terms of abstraction.

Second, and more important IMO, is that it's just not our job. Hardware people should make efficient hardware, and software people should make efficient software. The meaning of efficient depends on the context.

I think in context here, it’s about not making software that does more work than necessary. Aka efficient software.

Much software doesn’t need to be efficient in design, just efficient in terms of developer time. But if power consumption is a consideration, making the software itself more efficient in its design (if not implementation details) becomes more of a requirement.

And, finally, there’s always people writing embedded/firmware. The line between software and hardware is blurry.

I feel like that disconnect in the middle is why I can't leave a supposedly idle website open (even minimized) on my laptop while on battery power if I want it to last. Mobile seems to be headed in the right direction though.

Maybe a micro-kernel that just runs the networking stack and couple of drivers for any custom h/w they're using?

I also wonder if by optimizing for some combination of battery life, battery size, device size, Cost, QPS required, Sensors on-board we'll end up with something that has interesting monitoring capabilities in very remote regions.

Either way the RAM needs to be powered so just cache anything you can.

Great idea to show viability of solar setups! I’ve installed a simple solar panel / charge controller / battery solution in a van and was surprised how simple it is to get up and running. The tech is really reliable and is super affordable.

Mind sharing a few details?

I'll share details of what I installed a few months ago in my 37 foot sailboat. It will be more of a counterpoint to "how simple it is to get up and running." But it enables a great many luxuries in our live-aboard lifestyle.

-4x 100 Ah LiFePo4 batteries (BattleBorn brand)

-3000 watt charger/inverter unit (Victron MultiPlus)

-3x 360 watt solar panels (LG Neon R)

-Solar charge controller (Victon SmartSolar)

-System controller (Victron ColorControl GX)

-Battery monitor (Victron BMV)

-A lot of heavy wiring, ranging from 4 gauge to 4/0 gauge. Some segments are designed to handle 400 amps (12V DC, if my system was any larger I would have gone with a 24V or 48V design to keep wire sizes reasonable). Of course it has to be stranded and tinned wire for a marine environment, so think along the lines of $5/foot.

-An assortment of bus bars and circuit breakers. 100A breaker for each battery, 400A fuse for the main connection, $120 bus bars, etc.

It was a very interesting project for me personally and really a lot of fun, but solar can easily become a serious project as your scale beyond maybe 500 watt-hours per day. I haven't done a final cost summation of my project but I'm sure it was over $10,000.

I've heard good stuff about Victron products, especially for boats. Is there a particular reason you chose it?

Also, do you have a diesel or gas engine as well? I know larger sailboats generally do; not sure about 37'. Presumably, solar and batteries would not be sufficient to replace that with an electric motor, unless you only used it sporadically. I can't imagine wanting to get stuck for days when it's both cloudy and not windy.

It seemed to be the most DIY-friendly product line with a complete selection of things that I wanted. Plus very popular so lots of armchair experts out there in the related Facebook groups. :)

We have a 36 HP Yanmar 3JH2E so that would be about 27,000 watts. Now say that wanted to give up the ability to approach hull speed while motoring, maybe 1/2 of that would be OK. So call it 12,000 watts, or 1000 Ah in a 12V system to motor for an hour. Our batteries were close enough to $1,000 for 100Ah so it will cost you $10,000 to have enough batteries to motor for 1 hour.

The solar capacity to get you into the barest realm of running that motor or charging a sufficient battery bank would be 3000 watts...minimum. The most I have heard of on a 40-50 foot monohull is 2400 watts. A catamaran could get you there, but you will give up looks and be spending $100,000+ on panels, controllers, wiring, mounting, etc. And weight is crucial on a catamaran so bust out more cash to make it lightweight.

All this means that realistically you will have 1 hour or less of electric motor run time. I have only been sailing for 5 months so take this with a grain of salt, but I usually have somewhere to get to before dark and I also don't enjoy waiting days for favorable weather or inching along at 4 knots in crappy wind. And I like traveling on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. I use the engine to keep our speed above 6 knots. So if I was to go with electrical propulsion I would put in a generator (probably a DC generator).

Sailing Uma has some YouTube videos about electric propulsion on their sailboat. Their style of travel is much different than mine. They sail a lot more!

If we're talking sailboating YouTube channels, check out Acorn to Arabella. Two guys building a wooden sailboat from scratch. It's great fun.

I'm not OP but also have Victron gear. They're widely regarded as having some of the best stuff. For us geeks there's a lot you can do.

All of their components network together using a documented protocol. Their color control panel runs a custom Linux distro[1] and MQTT which can be used to monitor everything and change settings. They have a lot of open source too.[2]

1: https://github.com/victronenergy/venus

2: https://github.com/victronenergy

I have nearly an identical setup in my bus home, with 300Ah of CALB LiFePO4 batteries (half the price of BattleBorn) and 1800W of solar.

The solar is the easy part. It's everything else that makes it complicated.

Would love to see pictures of the setup.

I'm sure this has been posted here multiple times.

Oh yeah that was just the highest result on Algolia's HN search. It's definitely one of the evergreen sites that gets posted pretty regularly.

And this website:


is still more readable.

As the site mentions elsewhere, they have a relatively power-hungry fiber router that needs a constant 10W, currently still running on the grid. In that sense, the website isn't entirely solar-powered. This seems to be the state of things going into the future--computation may get more efficient, but pushing signals to far-away distances will always take more power!

Why are routers so energy intensive? I would think that with fiber the cost would be that of producing light which seems to be low cost.

Doesn't seem like a design point that any of them ever care about. It's easy to waste a lot of power if you treat it as a don't-care.

To add an anecdote, those Comcast modem/router combos get really hot and are constantly running their fans. They probably have some pretty poor software on average and aren’t running power management daemons.

10W is practically nothing. You can get solar panels for under US$0.50/W. I paid $125 each for brand new 300W panels.

Very cool project. Will the traffic boost from HN first page throw electricity consumption over an edge?

Nah, its summertime in the northern hemisphere, plenty of daylight. Wouldn't recommend submitting in the winter though.

This does highlight a possible new definition for 'progressive' websites. Websites that add features as more power is available.

It seems to be a static site, so traffic surges should not lead to significant CPU spikes. Maybe the RAM and network controllers pulling a bit more power?

There’s still a Webserver running, serving the site. It might not saturate the CPU before the network is saturated, but I’d still expect a significant spike in CPU usage.

One of the big finds for me when reading this was that it was my first exposure to their vendor, Olimex.

You can technically run a full HTTP web server (with TCP/IP stack over SLIP) on a PIC microcontroller, which would be far more efficient than this setup.

I have been building a web server on an ESP32 since I saw the re-launch of this site with solar.

It's been tough deciding tradeoffs, and the way I've munged my images to be smaller still is not nearly as nice as whatever dithering technique they're using.

And traffic handling is another thing, what with my not-at-all-compliant socket server crashing as soon as it has to field more than 2000 connections at once, or if any of the connections tries to send more than 54Kb at once.

It's not nearly as power-effecient as a PIC, but it gave a tiny bit more flexibility. (Original prototype was MicroPython to prove it would work, which gave me a repl to live-tweak things, and now I'm using C).

But then the routers would have more compute power than your server.

Would that meet the demand? How does a PIC uC serving static HTTP perform?

They explain that they have two batteries (a Li-Ion and a Lead-Acid) but are going to stop using the Li-Ion and buy a smaller third battery so the web server can “shut down” rather than just using both batteries and letting the web server run 4 days without sun.

Neat, but this seems like it’s engineered to shut down, not engineered to stay up. I wonder if it’s on purpose.

From https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/about.html#offline:

> Less than 100% reliability is essential for the sustainability of an off-the-grid solar system, because above a certain threshold the fossil fuel energy used for producing and replacing the batteries is higher than the fossil fuel energy saved by the solar panels.

Looks like it's a messaging thing, mostly to show that such a website can be done. They discuss energy usage wrt environmental impact a lot on that page.

EDIT: that is to say, it's definitely engineered to shut down, rather than to stay up

I find it interesting that the pictures on the site are a) served as lossless PNGs, and b) dithered.

Removing the dither, and switching to heavily compressed JPEGs, would reduce the file size of the images by ~60% (I've just done it in Paint.NET), thus reducing network usage per request, which in turn would shave a bit off the power consumption.

I live in Barcelona, most of our days are sunny. I don't think they will have that much outage, only in spring time (rain season) is more or less cloudy, but in general you have really great weather.

I tried something similar with a 40w panel, 9ah 12v lead acid battery and a raspberry pi. Unfortunately the RPI would always drain the battery to empty each night which I think trashed the lifespan of the battery. Now I just use it to charge my phone.

Possibly something like an ESP32 would suffice as a web server.

Would be interesting to see the spec required for doing the same thing, but with 99.9% uptime.

I worked on a data logger project that required solar power in the mountains. We had to size the batteries for the longest expected run of cloudy days, then size the solar panel to be able to nearly charge the battery bank in one day, since the region we were in had normal weather patterns of 3-5 days cloudy, 1-2 days sunny.

I have off grid pv powered telecom systems that for the last 18 months have averaged seven nines uptime, but they also cost a lot more than a small home built setup. Typical setup is sixteen 360W 72 cell panels on a ground mount, big Schneider charge controller, lots of battery.

I am wondering that too; I have a bunch of ESP32 chips that even have microSD card support, and that peak out at around 1W of power (I think). It's relatively easy to write an HTTP server for the ESP chips with Arduino or uLisp, and it's also relatively easy to get 10,000 mAh batteries; I wonder if I could get close to 99.9% uptime if I were to jury-rig something like that.

I also wonder which webstack would optimise best for power consumption. I suspect that something like nginx with lua and redis might be a good starting point, but that is only a very rough guess.

edit - thinking about it, I am a mile off. Will be something like compiling a custom server and having no OS.

Battery capacity to carry it through a few days of storms, enough solar to keep it charged on overcast days. I'd say less than $300 worth of hardware.

I wonder how long a mini server powered by solar can survive. With the assumption that the server is airsealed and the solar panel cleans itself. Are we talking about 10 years. Or maybe 50 or more?

There are known examples of solar panels still working at 70% of their original power after 40 years.

All in all it's a rock that generates electricity when illuminated.

This reminded me of Spud, the potato powered server.


Too bad it is only accessible from localhost. Otherwise you are using a bunch of routers and other infrastructure which is not solar powered.

If you find this fascinating, as I do, I have a VP Eng job at a company of ours that recently went public. Ping me.

Duplicate - Posted the same +40 days ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19654446

individual submissions without upvotes and no comments do not count as duplicates per https://news.ycombinator.com/newsfaq.html

If I find info/stories interesting and worth sharing I will share it on HN. Now the point is that I should also try to make conscious decisions on when it is most likely to get votes? (Different time zones/regions = different preferences).

But I understand that no votes should maybe not count as dup.

The point is just that you shouldn't link empty discussions as "duplicates", unless they got many votes but no comments (happens rarely), or something has been submitted repeatedly (e.g. some people submit the same thing every two days). Submissions don't get traction for whatever reasons all the time, no need to fret over it.

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