WDLabs PiDrive Node Zero

The PiDrive Node Zero packs 314GB of storage, a Pi Zero and a two-port USB hub into one compact package.

I’d be the first to call out the Raspberry Pi, and more so the Pi Zero, as being less than ideal choices as network attached storage, but they still make a great media server, classic game emulator, or tinkering web server. In these cases having plenty of storage is essential and staves off the inevitable running out of disk space when you’re installing lots of packages, or compiling a large project.

With a full-sized Pi it’s possible to connect a USB memory stick, and the prices aren’t so bad these days; in fact WDLabs stock a sleek 64GB + microSD combo that wont stick dangerously far out of your USB ports.

With the Pi Zero, however, you need a USB hub, so things quickly start to look untidy. Western Digital aim to solve this with the Node Zero. It’s a compact combination of USB hub, Pi Zero and 2.5″ hard drive that could easily be VESA mounted behind a screen or tucked away in a tidy case.

The hub is cleverly designed, connecting to both the USB and power ports on the Pi Zero one one side of the PCB, and presenting two full-sized USB ports and a microUSB power socket on the other side. An injection-moulded plastic assembly keeps the whole thing secure so there’s no undue stress on the Pi at any point. You can tell that Western Digital have thrown their weight behind the project, because this sort of PCB design and injection-moulding doesn’t come cheap or easy.

The drive and USB Hub are connected via the USB port on the Zero. The GPIO header is also completely unused, leaving plenty of options for expansion, but since the kit comes assembled you’ll have to unbolt and disconnect the Zero to add a header.

What’s in the kit?

The PiDrive Node Zero comes with, of course, the 314GB 2.5″ hard drive that gives it its namesake. A few people might turn their noses up at the old style of “spinning rust” hard drive, but they still bring a very competitive capacity/cost ratio. While you can hook an SSD up to the Pi, you wont see any boost in speed since it’s limited by the USB 2.0 bus.

The kit also includes a Pi Zero. This came as a surprise to me, but a very welcome one. It’s also pre-assembled, so when it arrives you just need to plug in the power, screen and keyboard and work through the OS setup. This is a great proposition for those who want to quickly get started with a Pi, and would rather be choosing their web stack of choice than fiddling about with bolts.

A mini HDMI to HDMI adaptor cable is included. It’s a cable rather than a solid adaptor, which means it wont transfer any of the strain from a typically sturdy full-sized HDMI cable over to the port on the Pi. It’s also necessary, since the Pi’s HDMI port is quite recessed within the plastic casing; although a micro HDMI to HDMI cable would serve just as well.

Finally, A slightly customised NOOBS card provides the install files needed to prime the hard disk, which ships empty. This gives you a choice of operating system to install and includes a novel way to make use of the storage in the way of “Project Spaces.”

Project Spaces

A “Project Space” is simply a vanilla install of Raspbian Jessie Lite which you can use to test code in its own isolated environment, preventing elements of your separate projects conflicting with each other. Each space has its own /boot and /root partition, so you can have different settings in config.txt.

I chose to install a Raspbian Pixel desktop environment, followed by 5 workspaces which is the maximum. The workspaces were 8GB or 16GB – enough for a single project – and the Pixel desktop filled the remaining space.

Once you’ve dirtied a workspace, you can move onto the next one and blat the whole drive when you need to refresh for further testing. Alternatively you can restore an individual workspace with a bit of dd trickery. While NOOBS (for good reasons, it’s for beginners!) doesn’t support reinstalling a single OS, it’s actually really easy just to boot up in the Pixel environment (with oodles of free disk space) and take a disk image of the /boot and /root partitions of each Project Space. Once you’re done with your project, you can copy any important files into a backup folder on your main partition, and then blat it with your source image.

Having lots of disk space really streamlines processes like this, and saves the need to keep a stack of SD cards handy. As I frequently need clean workspaces to test new products and re-test installers, or chase bugs, I have typically juggled an alarming number of SD cards which I’ve totally lost track of. Having everything on one disk is much less hassle, and I can save those SD cards for my finished projects.

What I’d like to see

Make no mistake, I’m really thrilled with what Western Digital are doing here. To the sceptic, WDLabs is just a marketing or R&D effort from a big storage corporation, and that might be the case. But it’s a great one. They are bringing what they do best to the world of Pi, and are sticking by their promise of engaging with Pi community members. They’ve certainly engaged with me, and clearly managed to secure Pi Zeros in quantity too- which seems like a vote of confidence from Raspberry Pi.

The PiDrive, despite having the oft-scorned “spinning rust” variety of drive, is a well thought-out product that has brought me very real productivity benefits. I’m using the full-sized Pi 3 powered version every single day at Pimoroni now, and am planning to replace my SSD-dangling-off-an-official-touch-screen setup with WDLabs new display + hard disk enclosure (I’m half way there).

I’d love to see some software, or modifications to NOOBS, from WDLabs that supplies a foolproof UI for re-flashing individual partitions. While it’s easy to do with `dd`, it’s not exactly tidy and can be prone to error if you mistype something and blat the wrong partition. It’s tricky, though, since you often want to do a little setup so you’re not re-flashing to a vanilla OS image and having to run “apt-get update && apt-get upgrade” immediately after booting. Perhaps I should just fudge together a tool myself?

I’m still on the fence about whether I’d like to see an Ethernet port on the Node Zero. It feels a little like it’s missing, but I can’t really put a finger on what exactly I’d use it for if it were there. I don’t have cabled internet at home, and my desk at work is already such a spaghetti mess that I tend to avoid it. However, the two USB ports are a teensy bit restrictive when you want to hook up a mouse, keyboard and some sort of network connection for initial setup. Nothing I couldn’t fix with one of our 3-port + Ethernet USB hubs though!

Perhaps my only real complaint is the hard-drive LED. It’s unholy bright! Blindingly so. Nothing that can’t be fixed in a jiffy, though. I pushed a small nub of blu-tac onto mine. Assuming you can still see to apply the blu-tac!

BilgeTank!

Between defending our creative use of hammers and our usual antics, we also took a look at some Western Digital products, including the Node Zero, check it out:

 
  • skemp

    What do you mean by this? “WDLabs new display + hard disk enclosure”, do they have a case for the official display?