Open Source

How businesses are getting creative with the Raspberry Pi

How the $35 Linux board is being used to rapidly piece together custom appliances to solve specific business problems.

The $35 Raspberry Pi Linux computer may have been launched to teach kids to code but the credit-card sized board is increasingly being used by businesses to build custom appliances.

Companies as diverse as IBM and the Financial Times, have used the Pi to power ad-hoc systems aimed at solving specific business challenges.

At the FT the DevOps team were drowning in information sent by its automated infrastructure monitoring software. The Nagios software running on its servers monitors variables ranging from disk and CPU usage to HTTP traffic and emails the team every time the state of one of these variables changes.

Unfortunately these variables change so often the team were getting swamped by emails and were starting to ignore messages from Nagios.

In need of a clearer way to spot when things were going wrong the team turned to the Raspberry Pi. They used a Pi to power a system that changes the colour of a strip of LEDs depending on the state of each server. Green, orange, yellow, red and flashing red represent OK, Unknown, Warning, Critical or Critical for more than 30 minutes respectively. The system was made using a flexible strip of 60 RGB LEDs with an embedded microcontroller wired to a Pi, which runs various Python scripts monitoring notifications from Nagios. More information on how they put the system together is available here.

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The monitoring system made by the FT.
 The Financial Times

Meanwhile IBM is using the boards to glue together proof of concept systems for customers, for example building a system to monitor a factory production line. The demonstration system was built using Raspberry Pi boards, running the Node-RED internet of things event processing engine, to connect Arduino boards to webcams and temperature, pressure and humidity sensors.

"Particularly over the past year we've seen people starting to use the Raspberry Pi board as a sub-component in what we call an industrial or embedded application - using a Raspberry Pi as part of another product," said Eben Upton, one of the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

"We think embedded engineers are using the Raspberry Pi for a combination of reasons - it's low cost, it's high performance and the fact it has an incredibly stable board support package."

To help others use the Pi to create custom appliances in this way the Foundation is releasing a new compute-on-module (COM) version of the board. The COM board packs the processor and memory of the Pi onto a slim board the size of a memory module. The idea of the compute board is to make it easier to bolt together a custom appliance using a Pi, as the compute module can be plugged into a base board with all of the necessary peripheral circuitry. The new board's smaller, slimmer form factor will also make it easier to build products with an embedded Pi.

The compute board has the same ARM-based Broadcom 2835 processor as the original Pi and 512MB of SDRAM, together with 4GB of eMMC flash storage. The module is a 200-pin board based on the Jedec SODIMM form factor.

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The Raspberry Pi Compute Module Development kit
 The Raspberry Pi Foundation

Ahead of making the standalone compute board available the Foundation is selling it as part of a package. The compute module development kit consists of one compute module, compute module I/O board to plug the module into and a couple of adapter boards that convert between the ribbon cable format used on compute module and the ribbon cable format used on the Raspberry Pi Camera, and that will be used on the official display when it launches later this year. It also includes a 5V power supply and micro USB cable for flashing the eMMC from a host PC.

The compute module development kit is available for $230 and the compute module board is expected to be available individually by October this year.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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