What is PHLAN?
The Portable Hybrid Local Area Network is some where between a LAN (Local Area Network), a PAN (Personal Area Network), and a Flan (tasty dessert). The project started nearly 20 years ago and continues to evolve, but was only named during the 2020 Pandemic Quarantine.
A Local Area Network is typically a fixed infrastructure using ethernet and wifi stations not designed to be particularly mobile. Instead they provide a set of reliable resources allowing you and your devices to connect to each other and the rest of the world on a long term basis, consistently, and typically with high bandwidth.
A Personal Area Network is typically a modular mesh of peers using low power technologies like bluetooth not designed to be particularly fast or robust. Insted they provide a means of connecting close devices together, often point to point.
A Flan is typically a scrumptious dessert made from a soft egg custard topped with a smooth caramel sauce not designed to last very long. Expect a flan to disappear moments after being served, even if it hasn't properly cooled.
A PHLAN is typically built like a fixed infrastructure but in a way designed to be portable and modular. It uses ethernet and wifi to allow your devices to connect as if they were at home no matter where you are. Expect a PHLAN to look and feel like your home or office network, but follow you around in your bag. It should be self contained, but easily connect to other networks.
Why is PHLAN?
There are many different approaches to handling mobile devices. Some look for the master device that does everything, like a laptop with built in cellular and all the trimmings. Others look for a prebuilt ecosystem of devices that each have their purpose but magically work together (sometimes, for certain definitions of work). A PHLAN is not designed for these situations.
Some carry around bunch of devices that are great on their own, but don't necessarily mesh together. This is when a PHLAN starts to be useful.
PHLAN was born from the need to not share connectivity between personal devices and the internet, but to share data and connectivity between mobile devices directly when offline and quickly connect to fixed networks without having to reconfigure everything. Basically I needed to bring a slice of the home network with me: file services, web services, DNS, etc.
How is PHLAN?
There is no one best way to build a network, and that holds true for a portable network as well. You can sit and engineer a solution, or you can organically grow one out of need and availability.
The original PHLAN was built around a rooted android phone with mobile tethering and a mix of android and linux services to provide SMB/CIFS file sharing and some DNS. Underclocking the CPU to about 600mhz provided 10-12 hours of heavy activity with a half dozen devices or so (work laptop, personal laptop, work phone, personal phone, tablet, portable video game, and occasionally a media player or a project device.
In 2019 I had the opportunity to pick up a Netgear Nighthawk M1 mobile router. This thing is a beast, easily pushing over 100mbps over LTE with solid dual band wifi and a data offloading feature than easily switches your WAN from mobile to wifi or ethernet. There is some built in file sharing using either a MicroSD card or USB drive, but it's very limited and shuts is prone to overheat.
Shared storage became a need -- the PHLAN equivalent of a NAS -- prompted the purchase, integration, and upgrade of
It's worth noting that both the LaCie and the WD Wireless Pro still show up on lists of the best wireless drives around, boths stock and modified. This is a testament both to grandness of the drives and the starkness of the device space.
The introduction of the Raspberry Pi 4 changed everything. Pi Zeros and 3s have often been project devices and accessories to the PHLAN, the Pi4 is an integral part of the current revision. With a 1tb MicroSD, this functions as both a NAS and the best portable project server to date. The Pi4 has enough horsepower to run file services, Plex with some transcoding, and run a number of concurrent docker containers for any type of services. Check out the PHLAN Pi4 page for details on the specific hardware build and an overview of the software.