March 8, 2021

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It Ain’t Broke, But Should I Fix It?

It Ain’t Broke, But Should I Fix It?

Five years ago, I wrote a series on getting started with your own MQTT-based home information/automation network. Five years is a long while in Hackaday time. Back then, the ESP8266 was a lot newer, and the 8266 Arduino port wasn’t fully in shape yet, and the easiest software framework to get MQTT up and running was NodeMCU; so that’s what I used for the article series, and as a consequence a handful of devices around my house run minor modifications of that basic “hello world”, but doing useful stuff.

Since then, NodeMCU has changed a bunch of its libraries and the ESP32 has replaced the ESP8266 in my parts drawer. If you tried to run my code, you’d find that it won’t run on an ESP8266 without porting or compiling an old version of NodeMCU for yourself anyway, and it won’t run on an ESP32 at all. When [Chris Lott] tried to follow my guide, he discovered that Micropython is probably a better language choice in 2021. To minimize lines of code, I’d agree, although the Arduino and Espressif’s own native IDF have grown into the job just about as well. In short, anything but NodeMCU.

It Ain’t Broke, But Should I Fix It?
Built in an hour, survived for five years.

But my home automation system doesn’t care. Those little guys are running 24/7, flipping bits like it was still 2016. Thermometers, light sensors, and power meters haven’t changed much in five years, and although I’ve revamped the databasing, display, and user control a number of times since then, using a fixed communication transport protocol means that they’re still talking the same language. Indeed, even if NodeMCU is dead to me, the MQTT content of my original series is all still valid, and installing a broker on a Raspberry Pi has only become easier in the intervening five years.

So I’ve got a bunch of legacy code running within the walls of my own home, and it makes me nervous. If the devices fail, or maybe when they eventually fail, it’s not going to be “just flash another ESP8266 and replace it”, because even though I have some ancient NodeMCU binaries sitting around, I know when to throw in the towel. But there’s no good reason to pull them down and start reflashing either. Except that it makes me a little bit itchy, just knowing that there’s orphaned, dead-end code running all around me. Surrounding me. Staring deep into my hacker’s heart.

I know better than to tear down a running system, even though I could do it one device at a time, and each module would surely be a simple, independent fix; even though I’d love the excuse to play around with Micropython and its MQTT implementation on the ESP8266, or maybe even swap some of them out for ESP32s; even though these were all temporary quick hacks that have somehow served for five (5!) years. I certainly know better, right? (Right?)