What Does One Serve With Raspberry Pi?

The ultra-cheap Linux computer on a circuit board has its roots in the classroom. But the bare-bones computer, dubbed “Raspberry Pi,” has potential to teach industrial embedded programmers some new tricks.

Raspberry Pi, a US$35 credit-card-sized computer sold without keyboard or monitor, runs several Linux distros and can hook up to a mouse, keyboard, HDTV and Ethernet. It went on worldwide sale last month and quickly sold out. It supports Python and Perl programming languages.

But the tiny computer will not replace its fully endowed hardware alternatives. And several design decisions could well limit its performance.

“It’s an advanced, innovative circuit board. It’s similar to a Beagle board maybe. It’s not unlike other Linux PCs. It’s good at some things. It’s a little slow at others,” Eben Upton, director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

Flood of Interest

The Raspberry Pi computer was supposed to be a computer for kids. But its initial audience clearly is comprised of computer geeks, according to Upton.

So many of them tried to get their hands on the device that their buying efforts last month emptied shelves at two United Kingdom retailers. Online visitors trying to secure pre-orders caused a 300 percent increase in Web traffic and flooded servers at distributors Premier Farnell and RS Components with some 600 visits per second, Upton confirmed.

“The buyer demand got a little out of hand in meeting production supplies. We’re in the process of solving that. We’re focusing on ramping up volume,” Upton said.

The foundation has now added a Newark,N.J.-based distributor to handle U.S. sales, he explained.

School House Roots

In computing’s infancy, students would show up for computer degrees with a knowledge of programing from their access to staples such as the Commodore 64 and the TRS-80, noted Upton. That is not the case today.

“We see kids coming into the university now who don’t know anything. We have to teach them programming from scratch,” he said.

The idea to develop the Raspberry Pi computer grew from a need at the University of Cambridge for a platform where kids could learn to program. Upton, who now works for Broadcomm, used to be on the computer sciences teaching staff at Cambridge.

“You have a three-year course at Cambridge but only 22 weeks of contact time a year. It’s really hard to get kids ready to work on computers,” he said.

Design Issues

The board seems to be excellent for education and prototyping. But most of the 15,000 members of an embedded Linux forum that he moderates on LinkedIn have never actually laid hands on one, noted William Weinberg, senior director at Olliance Services and principal analyst and consultant at Linux Pundit.

“It’s a great gateway device for embedded Linux beginners, at the right price, too,” Weinberg told LinuxInsider.

The Raspberry Pi is small in size but does not appear to fit any standard form factors. This could be limiting in some industrial applications, he said.

“As far as real-world applications go, it does have a very nice GPU and so could theoretically serve a range of low-end gaming, consumer device or even IVI applications,” though not on an industrial scale, Weinberg said.

More Gutsy Info

The Raspberry Pi computer board uses a Broadcom RM11-based BCM2835 SoC chip. This chipset (Broadcom A) is not exactly new or cutting edge, but the configuration is representative of much real-world hardware, noted Weinberg.

Additionally, the ARM11-based chipset is old enough that some mainstream ARM Linux distros no longer support it, although embedded SDKs do, he said.

But the computer might fit a variety of consumer uses. Broadcomm positioned the 2835 chip as a multimedia applications processor, added Weinberg.

Hardware Compatible

A Raspberry Pi computer can set the stage for a number of consumer uses that presently are not available for anything close to its price point. For example, it plugs into a horde of available peripherals consumers already have.

“Because you can plug it into to a crappy old television, it makes a snappy computer for someone in the developing world,” said Upton.

That serves a need. Many places around the globe have people with televisions who lack computers. So it is a good way of turning a television into a computer, he added.

More Pi, Please

“The RPi creates an entry-level embedded system that is in the same price range as an Arduino with an Ethernet shield,” wrote Paul Haas, software engineer at ProQuest, in response to a LinuxInsider query posted on Weinberg’s forum.

With the device’s USB host port, it can interface to a huge range of peripherals that are beyond the scope of an Arduino. These include USB cameras, networking, keyboards, mice, joysticks, game controllers, and more, Haas added.

The Raspberry Pi computer is a low-cost way to create an embedded system that supports all of the programming languages available for Linux and most of the supported USB devices, he explained.

“While I am sure that the RPi will displace some existing applications that would otherwise be done with more expensive systems, the big growth range will be in doing things that weren’t possible, or were too difficult, for the lower-end systems,” said Haas.

Tapping Into Needs

The Raspberry Pi Foundation’s computer creation can fill some industrial needs at a very low cost, Upton suggested. These include displays and automation.

“It’s got some potential use in digital signage, maybe. I can see people using it to drive a display. It’s got some use in maybe industrial automation,” he offered.

For example, there are some cases in which people are using PCs to aggregate. That applies to factories where they have to gather data and beam it back to some sort of central point.

“We’ve talked to some factories and see maybe some uses there,” said Upton.

Expansive Potentials

The Raspberry PI computer can fit in nicely as an embedded device at a price not available anywhere else. These uses can include security modules, GPS location mapping clients for OpenStreetMaps and embedded servers/controllers, said Johan Damas in response to the forum query.

“Think about it. If you’re a startup and want to do something like this within a minimum amount of time, why not? Big enterprise might not, of course. But smaller companies who need an embedded ARM board with the specs of the Raspberry Pi are not going to build it themselves due to cost and time,” wrote Dams.

Other suggestions for using Raspberry Pi include digital signage, a thin client integrated with a screen, a UAV controller and a GPS Tracker, he added. Dams is director of software engineering at Genesi USA.

Theory Test

How successful the Raspberry Pi Foundation is in making its low-cost computer an educational necessity remains to be seen. At this point, commercial success through industrial sales is secondary.

“We have a theory that if you reduce the cost of competing to virtually zero, interesting things will happen,” Upton said.

“This is serious stuff for us. We are well into the first generation of our product. This is a production-quality device now. We’re going to take this all the way though,” he predicted.

Full Speed Ahead

The main goal for the company now is getting the focus with computers back into education.

The Foundation was not set up for making computers. Now it is setting up to teach kids to program. Making computers to do that is a necessary thing, according to Upton.

“For the next six months we are going to be very focused on meeting the dual educational purpose of getting the software together and getting the educational books together,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, the Raspberry Pi computer is a viable product that people can order online from anywhere.

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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