Sunday, June 22, 2014

IoT: Real "servers" (PCs) are in your future (as base stations)

While Nest and others using embedded ARMs as base stations for your home "Internet of Things (IoT)", I see a real server in the future. There is only so much you can do with these embedded (usually ARM based) servers when you don't have a disk or memory management.  In particular, with the greater demand for these base stations to talk "native" Internet/Cloud (e.g. more heavy protocols like AMQP, XMPP, etc), it starts to tax an unadorned ARM SoC.

While a "PC" sounds like overkill, I am expecting to see more and more Intel Atom and ARM based, fully solid state, base stations with all the usual bells and whistles we are used to getting with a PC.
What bells and whistles?  Memory protection/management, robust storage, system busses, rich peripheral support, etc.

Let's call them SBCs (Single Board Computers) , which is what they really are.  Until now, SBCs were firmly in the domain of the industrial embedded market.  You don't mess around with unreliable consumer tech like SD cards and low end Chinese market chips (e.g. All Winner, etc) when you are building a security base station for an office building or other 24x7 "install and forget" monitor and control systems.

I've played with the wonderful Olimex ARM boards (like the OLinuXino LIME), but they are "new". There are hardware glitches, limited driver support (I can't just buy a wi-fi  board and expect it to work) and I don't feel that the Linux distribution is fully baked yet. Plus, I have to cross compile (from my Intel based laptop) and I run into all the "this isn't ported yet" problems that come with cross compilation.

With the coming of the Minnow Board MAX, Intel based SBCs are getting cheap enough (and low power enough -- No fan!) to become serious alternatives to the crop of low end ARMs.

What is wrong with the current crop of Cortex A based embedded systems?  The biggest problem is reliability (or at least the perception of) and OS support.  Sure there are Linux based distributions but are they as reliable and mature as their Intel based cousins?  I'm talking about real embedded distributions. I don't need or want X windows with a bunch of media apps.  But, are Intel SBC based Linux distributions any better?  Maybe. But that isn't what I am recommending.

Ubuntu/Debian/Fedora/etc server editions are (perhaps) ideal here.  They, for the most part, are already rock solid (when you have thousands of servers running 24x7 in a data center, you might as well say the OS is "embedded" grade since you can't practically login and deal with OS "issues").

I can see running Ubuntu 14.04 server (stripped down a bit) on a Minnow Board.

Now, the target market for the Minnow Board is for those who want to play with SPI, GPIO, I2C, etc -- they make a point of saying it is an "open hardware embedded platform" and not a PC. But, it seems to have specs to the contrary:  64 bit Atom, 1GB RAM, USB,  SATA2 support, ethernet, etc.

That sounds like a PC to me.  And, if I can run Ubuntu (or Debian) Server on it, it fits my IoT base station needs.   These days, most peripherals I interface to (including my own homebrew ones) can be accessed via UART (via a USB adapter) or native USB.  Do I really need to put my Bluetooth or GPS receiver on SPI these days?  (IMHO, Linux is pretty clumsy when accessing bit banged devices that don't already have kernel support.)

And, at $100, it certainly competes with the current crop of ARM boards.
Then again, if you can accept a Fan in your base station, it is hard to beat a repurposed ASUS Chromebox ($149) which comes with 2GB RAM and a 16GB SSD.


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