DXSpider cluster node on my mini-server

Yesterday i finished the installation of my personal DXSpider node. DXSpider is one of the various software packages out there to build cluster nodes. Apparently DXSpider is the most commonly used, so i went for that.

My mini-server sitting in his dark corner in development mode

I have a spare Asus EeePC 701 netbook which i am using as mini-server for the cluster. The EeePC contains an Intel Celeron 900MHz running at 600MHz, 512Mb of memory and 4Gb SSD drive. The netbook is running Ubuntu Server 12.04, so you can definitely say that it’s a mini-server.

DXSpider is almost 100% based on Perl, so i thought that this would be enough to run the cluster.

Also since it’s a small laptop and has no moving parts it doesn’t make any sound. My living room is my datacenter and i don’t want to watch TV with the buzzing noise fans and disks around me.


The node is running the cluster over telnet, AX25 and packet and has the web interface configured as well.

Now let’s see if  can get some spots in and out.

Cluster node in operational state

Cluster node in operational state

Starting with DX Lab Suite

It’s been a while since i last posted something on this blog. I’ve been busy with work, but i have not been silent on the radio.
In this article i want to talk about another beauty i have found on the Internet, the DX Lab Suite.

Basically it started all when i was in the shack of PA5MW where he had a software program running that alerted him whenever a wanted station was spotted on a cluster. I became interested in finding the same functionality in Ham Radio Deluxe, the software i was using at that moment.
Unfortunately HRD doesn’t have this possibility. On the HRD mailing list, Dave AA6YQ pointed me to a suite of programs that did have this possibility and much much more. Soon i found out that Dave is the author and maintainer of large portions of the suite, great work, Dave!

So i went to the DXLabSuite website and started reading.

What is the DX Lab Suite?
The suite consists of 8 applications, each with it’s own functionality, purpose and strengths. Once you install those individual programs together they start to interact.

Launcher is what the name suggests, it launches the suite. But not only that, it also launches any other software you want to run while running the suite, it takes care of the suites software and database installation and updates. Launcher makes maintaining a suite of 8 programs and 6 databases a piece of cake.

Commander is your rigs CAT control. Commander supports up to 4 transceivers of the most common brands. Commander is in no way as good looking as HRD, but it does what it needs to do. Furthermore, Commander is one of the key pieces of the suite and interacts as the interface between the other pieces of the suite and your radio.

What i use a lot is Commanders Bandspread. Bandspread takes the spots from Spotcollector and displays them in a vertical window as shown in the image. Like this you have a clear overview which station is where, the colors of the callsigns tell you if you already worked this station, if you have it confirmed, if he’s using eQSL, LotW, etc and a double-click in the callsign makes your radio tune in on the frequency, mode, split mode or not.
Bandspread follows your radios VFO’s whether you operate your radio manually or through the software.

Spotcollector is the software you use to send and receive spots. Spotcollector is able to follow up to 4 telnet clusters, one IRC cluster, one web cluster and one packet cluster. Spotcollector takes all the information from its spot sources and aggregates the information and stores it in its internal database. The data in the database can be filtered and displayed according to your needs.
What i like a lot is that you can filter spots by band, which most software can do, but because Spotcollector interacts with Commander, it can follow and display only the spots on which your radio is tuned.
Of course you can filter by mode and a click on a spot sets your radio up for that particular mode the station is working in and tunes your radio to that station, taking in account frequency, mode, offset, etc, etc.

 Now that we have found a spot we might want to work, we can check DXView for all the details of the spot. Two things i like about DXView: On the main view (image left) you can see if you already worked that DXCC and on which bands. Like this you know immediately if it’s an interesting one for you or not.
On World View you can see where you point your antenna, where the station is in greyline. You can pick the station you want to work and click it. Again, also from World View Commander picks up the frequency and mode and tunes your radio, turns your antenna and DXKeeper will filter your QSO display for this callsign so you can see if you worked this station before or not.

DXKeeper is your QSO logging program. DXKeeper keeps track of your awards progress, uploads your log to eQSL, ClubLog and/or LotW, keeps track of your electronic QSL confirmations.
When making QSO’s you typically want to collect all the stations details from different callbook resources and put this information in your log. DXKeeper supports all this and more.
DXKeeper can collect this information directly from the callbook source, or can use Pathfinder to collect that information.

Pathfinder can connect connects to various callbook sources like QRZ.COM, Buckmaster, DailyDX, etc. but also to Google, the FCC database or any other service you would like to use.
You can easily reconfigure the services already configured in Pathfinder although i never felt the need to do this.
After all, most of use use QRZ.COM although a new service called HamQTH.com is becoming more and more popular.
QRZ.COM is changing its policies for querying the callsign database regularly, driving operators to a subscription-based service.
HamQTH.com promises to be free forever. Let’s see if that is true when traffic picks up and the HamQTH.com hosting infrastructure start having problems coping with the traffic.

Then there is PropView. PropView uses VOACAP, ICEPAC, and IONCAP to predict your minimum and maximum usable frequencies between you and the station you want to work and presents that information in a graphical way.
Also you can analyse propagation by monitoring propagation beacons yourself. PropView will use Commander to tune your radio on certain time intervals to check propagation between you and the beacon.

Then, last but not least, there is WinWarbler. This program is used for digital operations like PSK and RTTY. WinWarbler also supports CW and Phone.
For me, WinWarbler is still a bit of a green field. Mainly because i don’t have any experience with digital modes and/or CW.
Talking to people on the DX Lab Suite mailing list i understand that the quality level of WinWarbler is as high as the rest of the suite. It does everything you want from a HAM Radio software program for digital modes. Some people even use it to send voice macros on Phone bands when in pile-ups. So no microphone anymore. This is completely new for me and i don’t know if i’m ready for this. I mean, i am learning CW using a paddle instead of sending with PC…
Ah, that reminds me, WinWarbler doesn’t decode CW. Dave says that it’s against HAM radio best practices. 😉

The DX Lab Suite is a suite you love or you hate. It’s not so good-looking as HRD, but it’s much more configurable and feature rich. Some say that DXLab is over-engineered and has a steep learning curve. My opinion is that this this only true if you want to use the complete suite on the first day. If you start step-by-step, read the manuals (which can be improved, btw), ask the mailing list (Dave is very dedicated to his software and has a lot of patience) you will get there.
For me, as a beginner HAM, DX Lab Suite has everything i need and more. Every time i think: “I wonder if it does this or that” it turns out that the software is able to do it.
This, the perfect support and unlimited possibilities, and the fact that HRD is now going commercial made me install the DX Lab Suite and never look back.

Operating the DX Cluster

What is a DX Cluster?

A DX Cluster is a packet node where DX chasers on any band or mode can post rare or interesting stations that they have worked or heard. Of course other people are doing the same thing too, so you can find new DX as well as telling others about the stations you have worked. Clusters tend to be linked to each other so that the amount of people using them is increased, thereby increasing the amount of posted DX. Other information can be found on clusters such as on-line call books, mail etc. You can talk to other stations connected to the cluster network too, in real time, whether at the node you are logged into or on another node connected to the network. You can also use converse mode, where several stations can talk to each other in the same way. Of course, the DX is still posted to you all the while!
(free from the DXSpider Wiki Page)

Although this is a radio cluster, it is not a HAM Radio DX Cluster

What can i do with a DX Cluster?

If you read the introduction from DX Spider, you have seen that by using the DX Cluster just for checking and posting spots, we are only using a small set of features a DX Cluster can bring us. 
Let me highlight a few features that are nice to know. 

Personal details: If you log on as a regular user of the cluster (and not follow the cluster via some website), you can make yourself known to the cluster by using the following Set commands:
show/dx on 20m
show/dx 10 on 20m
show/dx 20 on 20m

Filters: Using filters you see only the spots you want to see. You can filter the amount of spots,
show/dx 5
show/dx 20

spots of a particular band,
show/dx on 20m
show/dx 10 on 20m
show/dx 20 on 20m
spots for a particular callsign,

show/dx g0vgs
show/dx 10 g0vgs

etc, etc. More examples you can find in the users manual of the cluster software. The DXSpider Filtering Primer by W3BG Jim Samuels is a ducument you must read if you want to know how to tailor the cluster to your needs.
Beam Heading: Want to know where to point your antenna to hear a specific station or region? 

sh/heading zl
ZL New-Zealand-ZL1-ZL: 7 degs - dist: 11238 mi, 18087 km Reciprocal heading: 355 degs
ZL New-Zealand-ZL2-ZL: 9 degs - dist: 11540 mi, 18574 km Reciprocal heading: 353 degs

Announcements: If you really want to tell everyone that the band is open or that today is your sister’s birthday (no, you shouldn’t post that), you can announce that using:
announce full Anyone seen EA7WA today?
and you can see those announcements using:

show/announcements 10

Chat: You want to send a personal message to another operator connected to the cluster? Don’t use the spots for that. Don’t use announce for that. Use Talk!
talk g0rdi Having a good day Iain?
Mail: Yes, if you are logged on the a cluster, you even have a full functioning e-mail system at your disposal. To send an e-mail you would use the following sequence:

send m0azm
Enter Subject (30 characters):
See you Thursday
Enter Message /EX to send or /ABORT to exit
Hi Ian,
Just a quick note to say that I can make Thursday after all. The
appointment I had has cancelled so we are go!

To list your mail you would first use the directory command:
20735 2 ALL GW7SMV 21-Feb 1204Z REC 9E1S QSL TDY 50Mhz....
20823 308 UK G0HDB 22-Feb 2334Z Help - which district code?
20824 105 ALL W9AE 23-Feb 0349Z S0NY QSL address?
20825 2 UK G0LRJ 23-Feb 0806Z QSL REC LZ2CJ/1.CARD NO-750.
20858 2 ALL GW7SMV 24-Feb 0905Z REC S92DX QSL CARD TDY 50Mhz
20921 200 ALL GM4FDM 27-Feb 2203Z Trip to VP8
20949 375 ALL K0MN 27-Feb 0428Z ST0P cards are gd @ ARRL
20950 2 UK G0LRJ 28-Feb 0835Z QSL REC SV9/IZ0CKJ/P EU-187.
20987 569 ALL GD0TEP 1-Mar 1733Z Portable contests
21076 2 ALL G4AFJ 3-Mar 1743Z kh6nd/kh5 qsl received
21184-p 599 GW4HAT G0VGS 4-Mar 1518Z Re: Time
and then the read command to read a message:

read 25

Mail has a lot more functions. To know all of them, again, read the cluster software users manual.
These examples are all based on DXSpider and a telnet connection to the cluster. I know most of you are using client software or websites to follow the cluster and depending on the software or the website you will have more or less features. What i wanted to show you is that there is much more usefull stuff available when you use a native (read: telnet) connection.

DX Clusters, most love them; i hate them. 

Why do i hate the DX Clusters? Because i think they take the fun out of the hobby. I’ll explain to you why:

A typical pile-up of boats

When i work the radio and i follow the clusters, i hardly make any contacts. Why? Because every station on the air is a pile-up. Usually i scan the bands manually. Yes, turning the dial. And scanning the bands you hear much more than looking at a DX Cluster. And you hear them sooner. 
Normally, when i find the next station i want to work, i listen for a while. Yes, i’m a listener. I want to know which station i am listening to and what his operating behavior is so when i want to work him, i know HOW i CAN work him.
This is what happens now that we have the DX Cluster: I found this station i want to work. I am listening how he behaves, what his operating practice is, and BAM!, hundreds of stations start calling him. I look at my computer screen and yes, there he is, spotted on the DX Cluster. Now working that station becomes a whole lot more difficult. Not just because of the pile-up, i know pretty well how to work a pile-up, but because of the <put any swearword here> that keep shouting and don’t listen, that tune their antennas on the calling frequency, that are using 10 element quads with 1kW, that keep asking “What’s the callsign, please?” If you don’t know the callsign, why are you calling?

Ok, if you still want to use the DX Clusters, here are some do’s and dont’s:

1) Make sure that what you post on the cluster is correct. If not, you will have to post the correct spot details again with an apology for the mistake before. Good for your cluster stats, but it does make you look silly.
2) Don’t send spots to the cluster of stations that you don’t hear. You will not believe how many spots you see with comments like “Still not on the air?”, “We are calling you” or “Which frequency?”
3) Don’t share your frustrations or happyness on the cluster. The cluster is for spotting DX. Comments like “New one!”, “Worked with only 1Watt” or “Please go to 10m now” don’t add any value.
4) Never announce yourself on the cluster. The cluster is not built for that, you look pathetic and if you are not a rare DX station, nobody cares.

Are you looking for a DX Cluster to use? Check here.
Are you looking for DX Cluster client software? Click here.

As always, thanks for reading this article. If i say something stupid, if there is something wrong, if i forgot something essential, please let me know by using the comments.