At Atlassian we use wallboards as information radiators to broadcast data from our Jira and GreenHopper systems out to the software development teams. This “always on” graphical display makes everyone in the team aware of project status by default because nobody has to go digging for information.
We use wall-mounted 46-50″ HD TV displays, and have used a variety of systems to drive them from old PCs to microATX systems. Recently we’ve started driving wallboards with AppleTVs, which is pretty cool, so I wanted to share how we did that.
The first thing we ever used for wallboard was old desktop computers. Old desktops are great because they’re old and unwanted, and it feels good to make them useful. The problem is that they’re desktops, and unless you need an always-on hairdryer in your workspace they use way too much power and put out way too much heat for just driving a display. Most of our desktops are Mac Pros. They can use up to 1100 watts* of power, which is simply massive. Because they use so much power (doubly so in an office because it takes more air conditioning to counteract the heat output), you’re not really making a savings by putting them back into service as build monitors.
So we switched to Mac Minis. The Mini only uses 85 watts of power (13 times less than the Mac Pro) and is still a “real” computer, i.e. you can get a command prompt on it. They cost about A$840 each and look pretty cool strapped to the back of the display bracket:
These have been pretty good. But then Scott pinged me one day:
Have we thought about getting Apple TVs to power our build monitors?
So I checked it out. An AppleTV cost A$129, but it doesn’t have a web browser. FireCore aTV Flash is a $20 piece of software that jailbreaks AppleTVs and lets you install a WebKit-based browser on them. In theory this would allow us to run our build monitors off of an AppleTV.
The kicker for me with this idea was that an AppleTV only uses 8 watts of power. This is about the same amount of power as the lightbulb in your microwave.
So, for A$690 less than a Mac Mini we can have a wallboard computer that uses 9% of the power, and only 0.7% of the power of a Mac Pro. We’d need 138 AppleTVs to use the same amount of power as 1 Mac Pro!
So I got cracking and bought an AppleTV. Installing Firecore aTV involves jailbreaking the device, which breaks your licensing agreement with Apple but apparently doesn’t break the law. Firecore provides accurate and concise instructions which work perfectly as of 2011-Aug-22. Once you jailbreak the AppleTV you just install aTV Flash then install Couch Surfer Pro to get access to the web browser.
At the end of that you have an Apple TV with a WebKit browser enabled. You just browse to your Jira instance and log in to get cookied up. Typing a URL character-by-character with the onscreen keyboard is painful, so it’s a good idea to create short URLs for your wallboard ahead of time using bit.ly or a similar service.
And it works! The browser seems to render the wallboards accurately, if a touch slowly. One large ball of blu-tack later we had our first AppleTV-powered wallboard:
The Couch Surfer browser is based on WebKit, the same open-source browser engine that Safari and many others are based on, so the outlook for future compatibility is good. The main risk with this arrangement is that Firecore aTV is essentially a hack (it literally patches the software image of the AppleTV before you load it onto the device). Safari isn’t intended by Apple to run on the AppleTV, so it could stop working at anytime. Second, developers might be using the Mac Minis as more than a web browser (for example, pulling stats with a cron job), and the AppleTV obviously can’t do that. However, if the developers are watching movies on the wallboards, then this is an excellent solution.
If you’re keen on setting up a wallboard for your team, be sure to check out:
- Our Wallboards 101 Guide;
- James Hatherly’s blog post about wallboards; and
- Tony Atkins’ Summit 2011 presentation “Unifying team processes using Jira wallboards“.
* : Power figures are at peak load, e.g. a Mac Pro doesn’t always use 1100 watts, but it would get pretty close if it was fully maxed. Just showing a wallboard uses a lot less power than this. Exactly how much less? You’d need to get an electrical doohickey to measure the actual draw to find out. Power figures do not include the display, which draws about 150 watts for the 46-inch model.