Monday, May 6, 2013

BYOD: Build Your Own Device or “ARM’d and Dangerous”

I’m on a plane now, headed to EMC World, and feeling just a bit disconnected as the airline I’ve chosen doesn’t offer WiFi. Time to catch up on unread email and write a blog post – things that haven’t been able to make the priority list when I’m fully plugged in. I pull out my bulky laptop, and immediately wished I didn’t have to lug around what has become an unfortunate boat anchor that precludes juggling both the Dunkin Donuts coffee and the Strawberry Frosted (with Sprinkles) Donut at the same time.

A common complaint of any Road Warrior, certainly – but only a few weeks ago I would have marveled at how light and easy to carry my 11” MacBook Air was, and how wonderful it was not to have to carry a bulky laptop bag as well as a carry-on. This was before I discovered and implemented the most flexible and lightweight technology solution commercially available for $30 USD – my new desktop computer.

Ah, the desktop – I had forgotten what it was like to leave the house without a computer, unencumbered and fancy-free. Even vacations these days, I’m sorry to say, at least involve throwing a tablet into the bag, if not the laptop as well. But there’s mercifully no need to charge a desktop, no need to turn it off or allow it to hibernate (other than proper attention to our Corporate Sustainability Guidelines, of course). Constantly connected at mind-numbing 100mbs speeds to the corporate network, no WiFi drop-out, no RSA token entry to connect to WiFi or VPN, no hassles at all!

I still usually bring my laptop to work, even if not travelling, just for those times while in a conference room or out to a local client site when I either need to present something or need a work interface more flexible for content creation than a smartphone. But not always. And lately, when I do bring it in, I’ve been leaving it locked up in the car instead of bringing it in just to sit unused on my desk next to my desktop.

What did this amazingly liberating technology cost, you ask? Was that $30 USD a typo? Did your employer provide both a desktop and a laptop?

My $30 desktop is a Raspberry Pi. A marvel of innovation, designed originally by folks affiliated with the University of Cambridge to be an educational computer – low cost, easy to deploy, sort of like Negroponte’s $100 laptop, except it still needs a display and a keyboard/mouse. It’s an uncovered circuit board with an ARM processor, not much larger than the size of a credit card, with USB and HDMI ports – enough for networking, a wireless keyboard/mouse fob and a cable to attach my old 19” “docking station” monitor. Power is through a microusb port - it runs off of my Android phone charger. It sits on my desk and asks for nothing, allowing me to do everything my old boat anchor can do, only without the tote bag.

I have found I am not alone in using the Pi for something other than education – it’s a hobbyist’s dream. Hook a 4” or 7” screen up to it, wire it into your car electrical system (or make a simple AA battery pack) and you have a car video system. XBMC, my favorite HTPC package, has already been compiled for the Raspberry Pi. Use it to drive Lego robots, control various instrument sensors – the possibilities are endless and I read of new ideas for using the Pi daily. My dream was more mundane, I wanted to see if I could use the Pi as a full-blown work desktop.

It took a while to receive the Pi- it was backordered from Allied Electronics ( ) for 6 weeks when I ordered it), I was as giddy as a kid at Christmas. It was tiny, even smaller than I expected it to be from pictures. I downloaded the Debian Wheezy distro and imaged it onto a SD card (the hard drive of the Raspberry Pi) right away. I connected to the Raspberry Pi store and prepared to download all of the friendly Linux packages I had used on my last laptop (pre MacBook boat-anchor) – and found out right away that this was going to be a little more involved than the current easy Ubuntu or Linux Mint distros available for Intel/AMD. Libre Office was there, but not a whole lot more. How about VMware View, Hadoop, Syncplicity, Zimbra, all the important stuff?

It soon became like some weird dream out of the late 90s, compiling source code from FTP sites for BSD web servers. But also, a little bit nostalgic and fun.

Hadoop was the easiest – thanks to Tom’s excellent guide to installing at and the fact that, since it’s java based, It didn’t need to be ported to ARM. The job tracker process, however, was a bit too heavy a load for the Pi to be used as both a desktop and a single node cluster at the same time – I use one or the other (this may be a clear call for more Pi).

VMware View was a bit tougher – for some reason, while I can use a View client from my Android phone, tablet, iPad or pretty much anything else, VMware has not yet released a Raspberry Pi client. Thank goodness for open source – no VDI access would have put a serious crimp in my desktop dreams. I was able to compile the VMware View Open Client, but couldn’t get it to work on the Pi – at least not until I found an old bug report on a known issue ( Patched a few headers, and I was good to go!

Installed Chromium with Gash and VLC with minor hacking, then Pidgin and the Pidgin plugin to support Microsoft Office Communicator. Pidgin, unfortunately, wouldn’t work – found another bug, this one related to certificate handling, and was able to get it to work using a simple startup script “NSS_SSL_CBC_RANDOM_IV=0 pidgin”. Now my Raspberry Pi broadcasts my presence info as “Eating a Fried Cheeseburger” 24x7.

I can see a whole new wave of Build Your Own Device taking over corporate IT. Small enough to fit in a file cabinet or drawer, needing only a screen of some kind and a keyboard, who needs more technology than a simple ARM processor with less horsepower than a phone?

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