Insteon, Apple style

Posted by Steve on Wed, 01/20/2010 - 2:07am

Since moving to this house, I had gone from running one 24/7 computer server to three -- actually four if you consider a hibernating laptop. The web site you're looking at right now ran on one of them -- a FreeBSD Unix server. A Windows box ran my home automation set up. The other computer, running Ubuntu Linux, was mostly work related.

Thing is, the juice needed to run these servers and the related hardware was killing me, including the air conditioning needed to counteract the heat they produced in my small office. The three computers together drew about 700 watt/hours. Add a monitor, KVM, DSL modem, router, hub and backup and I was burning about 900 watts/hour x 24 hours x 365 days. At Con Ed's prevailing rates, it costs $1400/year just to run those three computers. That doesn't include the laptop or the A/C.

Last spring I decided that I had to simplify my hardware and by summer I had a plan: I would move everything to one computer. The problem was, the only computer capable of something like this is the one computer I didn't own: an Apple Macintosh. A Mac Pro seemed like the ideal candidate. Using software from VMware, I would be able to run my Linux and Windows software concurrent with the Mac's OSX operating system. All would share the Mac's beautiful 24" cinema display.

Could it really be that simple? Actually, yes it was. I took delivery of my 8 core, 16GB Mac Pro on the morning of Dec 8. By that evening I had Ubuntu Linux and Windows XP happily humming as virtual machines under OSX. XP even ran noticeably faster than it did on my Pentium 4 machine. I was happy.

But the devil's always in the details, and one of these demons was that the Insteon controller for my existing Windows-based home automation software required a DB9 serial jack. Macs don't have DB9 jacks. In fact, Macs don't even have serial ports, just USB and Firewire. While there are USB serial port emulators, there was a larger show-stopper preventing me from moving my existing Windows-based home automation software to an XP virtual machine on the Mac. Under VMware, virtual machines can only access the USB ports when they are the foreground application, or when it has "focus". That would defeat the purpose of running Insteon on a virtual machine because unless XP was the foreground application when an Insteon event fired, the message would never get sent.

If you're a regular reader of this irregular blog, you know that most of my home's lighting is controlled by computers, not by mechanical switches. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can read the background here. The bottom line is that I love home automation, I have a small fortune invested in it and, one way or another, it needs a central controller. And it appeared that I would have port everything over to the Mac. Short story: ka-ching!

The Insteon software I used on Windows is called HouseLinc. For Macs, the Indigo software seemed to be the way to go. As luck would have it, I already had a USB-based Insteon controller laying around from another project which would save me about eighty bucks. But as MY luck would have it, it was DOA. After spending an evening trying to get it working, I remembered. It was a victim when one of my Con Ed feeder cables shorted out in the street a couple of years ago.

I ordered a new 2414U Powerlinc controller from It arrived a week later. As soon as I opened the cover on the cardboard box I knew I was hosed. The device was in pieces -- not as in "broken during shipping" but "some bonehead didn't finish putting it together". What was just as disturbing was that Smarthome didn't sound one bit surprised by my complaint.

Note to the Insteon people: if you don't want Insteon to suffer the same Death By Obscurity as X10, you had better start producing better quality hardware. Only die-hard fan boys will overlook shoddy merchandise. I had to replace my first broken Insteon device two weeks ago: a relay wall switch. It was only three years old and cost $70. That's not acceptable.

Another week passed and I finally received a functioning 2414U. The migration was uneventful and everything worked fine. It was with a bit of sadness that I turned off my Dell Pentium 4 Windows machine, probably for the last time.