I’ve had a ton of fun setting up and configuring a ZimaBoard and CasaOS over the last few weeks! While CasaOS is a great fit for your Home Server projects, I also decided to walk through over 20 other home server projects you can start today. These projects are for everyone, from the beginner, to the tinkerer, to the hardcore enthusiast! Thanks to ZimaBoard for sending this device!
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The ZimaBoard has been out for a little while now but I thought it would be a great time to check in and see how it’s doing, along with the open source project CasaOS which ships with every ZimaBoard. I also wanted to share with you lots of projects you can start today with a ZimaBoard in case you need some inspiration for your tech projects. I’ll cover some of the easy or “beginner” projects that don’t take a lot of work to get going, then we’ll cover some of the projects for the Tinkerer, and then those projects for the hardcore weekend warrior tech types. But first, what is a ZimaBoard?
The ZimaBoard is a self proclaimed “World’s First Hackable Single Board Server” Which means that it’s a complete functioning computer built on a single board circuit and while most don’t have expansion slots, this one actually does. The ZimaBoard comes in 3 varieties, the 232 has an Intel Celeron N3350 Dual core CPU, 2G of RAM, the 432 which has quad core Intel Celeron N3450 CPU with 4G of RAM, and the 832 which has the same Quad core Intel Celeron N3450 but has twice the RAM of the 432 for a total of 8GB of RAM.
Outside of those differences each ZimBoard comes with 32 GB eMMC storage, 2 SATA ports for disk drives, 2 Gigabit LAN ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, and what makes this different than most kits you see out there is the PCIe slot that you can connect PCIe devices to, but more on that later.
It also has a mini display port that can output up to 4k 60 and has a TDP of only 6 watts.
A few other things you might be interested in if you are a geek like me is that the CPU supports Intel VT-x for virtualization, VT-d for hardware passthrough, AES-NI for encryption, and video transcoding, all which will come in handy with some of the projects we’re going to talking about today.
So first, we’re going to start with the “beginner” projects, but don’t be fooled by the name, this doesn’t mean that these projects aren’t technical, it just means that they take very little to get started. We’re going to start with one of the best uses for your ZimaBoard and that’s CasaOS.
CasasOS comes preinstalled with your ZimaBoard. CasaOS is an open source service, I’ll say and not necessarily an OS, it’s installed on top of Debian and many other Linux distributions but I still think that name is fitting. It’s software that focuses on delivering simple personal cloud experiences around the Docker ecosystem, and I think they’ve done a great job on delivering on that promise. You can launch it from the desktop on your ZimaBoard or you can simply connect to it from a web browser on your network.
You’ll be greeted with a dashboard and a few widgets. We can see the time and date, our system status including CPU and RAM usage, our storage along with any additional connected drives, and our network status where we can toggle between our two network adapters. We also get a built-in search bar where we can search using our favorite search engine.
There are two things you’ll be using this dashboard for:
- Installing and managing apps
- Managing the file system including shares.
If we launch the app store and take a look, we can see lots of applications that we can choose to install. The nice thing about CasaOS, is that every app you see here can be installed and configured with a single click. That means no messing with ports, account names, volumes, or any of the other typical things you have to do when installing Docker containers. Also, you don’t even need to know what a Docker container is. You can almost treat this as an app store without knowing any of the implementation details. Some of the apps included in the app store are:
- PiHole for network-wide ad blocking
- Plex or Jellyfin a media server
- Home Assistant for home automation - Nextcloud for a Google Workspaces like experience
and many others that will help you build up your own little personal cloud in no time!
And if you can’t find the application you want in their app store, you can also run any Docker container you like by using the custom install feature in the app store and then either filling out a form, or using the import feature to paste the docker commands, Docker compose file, or appfile (which is an export you create to share with friends from your own apps). Importing configs will fill out the form for you. It’s kind of hit or miss if all the settings will be imported properly so it’s worth a look to make sure they are right.
Once these apps are installed, if they have a web management page we can simply click on the app to launch it and configure it from there.
The other place where you’ll probably spend a lot of time is in the Files “app”. This app is a super elegant way to manage files and share and I think it’s one of the cleanest web file management UIs out there, not only because it looks good and is fast, but also because it makes sharing files super easy, let’s take a look…
After launching the files app we can see a default storage location for our media and documents and from here we can upload, download, and manage files if we like and it even has a built-in file previewer for different file types. If you want to share a file from here, you can simply share the folder from the menu, and then open it from any machine on your local network. That has to be one of the simplest ways of sharing files I’ve seen. If you want to see all your shares you can simply click on this share icon at the bottom and it will list all of your shares.
Since we’re talking about sharing and we’re down here in the bottom left, we should talk about the FilesDrop feature. This is a cool feature similar to AirDrop for Apple devices, except it works on the web and with any device that has a browser.
Let’s say for instance we are on our Windows machine and want to share a file with our phone. Instead of transferring the files through Google Drive and uploading and then downloading them on our phone we can simply do it all through CasaOS. If we click on the FilesDrop button it will launch a new experience where it shows my machine (the Windows Chrome machine) and then any other device that connects to CasaOS and visits this page will also show up here. When I connect my phone you should see another icon pop up. (It says macOS Chrome but should say iOS Chrome but that’s not important.) From my Windows machine I can click on my phone icon and then choose files I want to send to it. If I want to send this photo right here, I choose it, and then on my phone I will get a prompt to save it, I can then save it to my phone! I can also go the other way and upload files from my phone back to my machine, all without the cloud and from any device that has a web browser!
One other feature that you might be interested in when using the Files app is the availability to connect cloud storage. If we click on the plus we can add a Dropbox account, Google Drive, or even another network share on our local network. This feature is really cool for connecting and transferring things from your Google Drive to your own cloud or vice versa. This is also helpful for migrating to or from the cloud and could be even more useful if one day you can back up your data from CasaOS to one of these locations.
Another thing you might be interested in is the storage feature. This feature is limited but allows you to add additional drives to your ZimaBoard in a snap. You just open the storage manager, and click create storage. You’ll get a prompt asking you if you want to add this device and that it will erase all contents from the device. Once it’s created you will see the device in the files app and you can use it for additional storage. There’s also this new merge storage option that will merge all of your storage into one, which seems like a simple way of expanding your storage but this also means that if one drive dies you might lose all of your data. I did enable it and it does exactly what it says, it merges multiple drives into one using mergefs. It’s also pretty easy to undo this too.
Now don’t let the simplicity of this UI fool you, you can still do some advanced things from the web dashboard like access to logs, access to a terminal, as well as the logs from each individual docker container and the ability to exec into them. All in all, I think CasaOS is probably one of the best projects for this ZimaBoard.
The next project I can see people using this for is installing and running operating systems. Windows and Linux run fine on a ZimaBoard and I’ve tested it with Windows 10, Ubuntu Desktop, and Ubuntu server and I am sure many other distributions will run on this board because at the end of the day it’s a x86 intel based system. You won’t have any issues getting or installing drivers because it’s running on Intel hardware. Most things will be plug and plug and play and if you are going to go this route I would recommend picking up a USB hub and a solid state drive for additional storage. Then, you can run or test your software on this tiny little package. It does output to 4k 60Hz so it will look great on your display though it will start to push the limits on what you can do with this little board. Office apps, web browsing, watching video are all fine, anything outside of that and you might need a little more power. You could even dual boot Windows and Linux with 2 drives either by connecting 2 drives or by swapping them each time you want to boot but that’s starting to get into some of the more advanced use cases, and more for the Tinkerer.
This next group of things you can do with your ZimaBoard is dedicated to the Tinkerers. These are folks who aren’t afraid of running Linux headless, know their way around a terminal, know how to exit VIM (first make sure you are not in edit mode and that you are in command mode and then press
:quit, but if you’ve made changes… nevermind, you get the picture)
The first thing I would recommend running on a ZimaBoard for this group is Portainer. Portainer is a great UI to run all of your containerized applications, some of the same applications we talked about earlier like Plex, Jellyfin, Nextcloud, and many others. This gives you a lot more control over which OS you run and which applications you run and you can keep it as minimal as you want, saving on resources. But with that comes a little complexity. But you’re a tinkerer, right?
Another quick project that sounds like a ton of fun is Emulation Station which is the same software that Retro Pi is based on. Just install your OS, Windows or Linux, and then install Emulation Station and your emulators, connect to a few controllers and you are good to go. The ZimaBoard has all of the rest of the hardware you need to play retro games and is compact enough to bring with you on a road trip.
Other uses for a ZimaBoard include some projects that I will definitely use this for and these are diagnostic and troubleshooting projects.
First is a disk wiping station. Having a dedicated little machine to securely wipe disks that I am no longer using is welcomed because my current solution is using an old janky PC. Having something this small and dedicated to wiping disks just makes sense after you use it. I can just boot to killdisk, start a wipe and walk away.
Another thing I use that old janky PC for is updating firmware on devices, especially SSDs. This is usually the case when building new systems or replacing drives in existing systems. I can even do the same for NVMe drives with this PCIe adapter.
Another thing I do with that old janky PC (sorry old PC) is clone disks. I use CloneZilla every now and then to backup or clone hard drives from one to another. CloneZilla has been my go to for years either backing up and restoring images over the network or doing a disk to disk clone. If you’re doing a disk to disk clone you will need to pick up this special Y adapter that lets you connect 2 drives at once, but it’s like 4 dollars in their store. One of the other use cases is simple data recovery. It’s nice to have a small simple machine that I can plug a drive into and run and try to recover files if the drive is no longer bootable. And all of this is easy and accessible using a ZimaBoard.
Now you may have noticed I didn’t mention NAS, that’s because I honestly think the best NAS you can use on this tiny little machine is using CasaOS, sure TrueNAS and OpenMediaVault should work but CasaOS already does this beautifully. And since you are a Tinkerer, you might as well install Debian headless then CasaOS to save resources!
The last group of projects is geared towards the hardcore. It’s for those folks who like to push hardware to the limits or experiment with something that they’ve never tried before. This is where I think the PCIe slot really comes into play. This PCIe slot can be used to connect any PCIe device as long as it can run in a x4 slot, which should be most because the slot is open here at the end.
While I know it’s technically possible to attach a video card to this device, I am not sure that a majority of the people who pick up this device will be doing so. I could be wrong, but I think more people will be attaching smaller devices like extra NICs, wireless adapters, and possibly more sata drives.
This opens the door for turning this device into a router or firewall. Having 4 cores, 2 gigabit NICs, AES-NI, and up to 8 GB of RAM make this a solid choice for pfSense or OPNSense, it’s small, compact, has enough compute and RAM, has dual NICs, and is completely silent. And if you want to turn this into an access point, all you need to do is add a wireless NIC and you a nice little OpenWRT system!
But even if you’re not into creating a router or firewall and you’re the hardcore type there are plenty of projects for you. If you know RaidOwl, he created a high availability cluster with 3 using Proxmox. Which is another use case, and that’s installing a hypervisor. Because the ZimaBoard supports both VT-x and VT-d it can be used to test out the latest HyperVisor.
And if creating and testing virtualization isn’t your thing, there’s the use case that I think that this is great for and it’s for developing and testing hardware. Most developers I know have laptops and don’t have access to a PCIe slot and that can be painful if you are working on a project that requires it, for example machine learning and AI. The Coral TPU from Google is a great example of how you can add a small PCIe device that is capable of doing AI in a small package, and if you can get your hands on one it could fit right in this slot. Having access to AI on a small board like this could let you do local detections from your video feeds so you can detect things like people, cars, and more. There are so many use cases for the hardcore that I could go on all day!
ZimaBoards are super flexible and can be applied to many projects, whether you are a beginner, a tinkerer, or a hardcore enthusiast there’s bound to be a project for you. I am sure that I didn’t cover all of the projects you can do with a ZimaBoard and if I missed one let me know what you’d use it for in the comments below. Well, I learned a lot about ZimaBoards, lots of cool projects, and I hope you learned something too. And remember if you found anything in this blog post helpful, don’t forget to share!
I've had a ton of fun setting up and configuring a ZimaBoard and CasaOS over the last few weeks! I decided to walk through over 20 other home server projects you can start today.— Techno Tim (@TechnoTimLive) July 14, 2023
Check it out!
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🚀 Don’t forget to check out the 🚀Launchpad repo with all of the quick start source files