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Marvell's Plug Computer rethinks form factor of PCs and servers

One of the most unique things that I saw at CES 2010 was Marvell's Plug Computer, a new miniature PC form factor.

One of the most unique -- and, frankly, puzzling -- things that I saw at CES 2010 was Marvell's Plug Computer. The semiconductor company has taken the chips it makes for small devices and channeled them into launching a new miniature PC form factor.

The idea is that this plug, which is about the size of a power brick, is a mini PC that plugs into the wall and is always-on. It essentially becomes as a plug-and-play server. It consumes about one watt of electricity. It has a 2GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 2GB Flash storage, an Ethernet port, a USB port, and runs a version of Linux.

Marvell has opened this up to OEMs and developers and invited them to build on top of this concept, and the company has had more than 10,000 downloadeds of its development kit. For companies, developers, and startups that are interested, you get more info at PlugComputer.org.

I talked to Marvell vice president Simon Milner at CES and he provided an introduction to the Plug Computing platform.

This is an interesting concept. I'm just having a hard time thinking of some really interesting uses for this, other than a really basic home server with a small Flash drive.

Am I missing something? Anyone else have ideas for what you could do with something like this?

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

46 comments
vandalais
vandalais

Hasn't this been around for a year or so? The best application I can think of would be for security systems or video surveillance. A lot of people are giving up their landlines and are only using their cell phones. The main reason they still have landlines are just for monitoring their security systems. I would have to think of the device more in terms of an internet appliance and not as a computer.

RichardG123
RichardG123

Does it have a quantum photon emitter? I could serve as a night light.

gregory.szumowski
gregory.szumowski

Jason, I suppose you can do anything you want with it. Even a low powered home server. I have a Linksys NSLU2 which I put Debian Linux on and use it as a small file server. See: http://www.nslu2-linux.org/wiki/Debian/HomePage You can probably use this for the same purpose and it would be easier to set up.

vasov
vasov

Minor adaptation to this device can open so many possibilities. E.g if modified to use power networks..then it would have an option to connect to power-line networks (http://computer.howstuffworks.com/power-network1.htm). Just think of warehouses, manufacturing facilites, hard to get to (or too expensive to get to) areas where wireless is not the solution, recabling would be near impossible or too expensive, and you already have a powerline. Now this is not specific to this device only, but its size makes it so much easier to apply, and if preconfigured (by skilled consultant or manufacturer) so much easier to implement sans disrupting the existing infrastructure. Then, imaging if LG/Smag makes an intelligent bakery device (lets say it makes breads or just simply makes nice croissant and bagels). Over the net you place the order with your 'local baker' and by the time you get there it's done and ready for you to pickup, because the web site is talking to the bakery devices. Having PCs/routers/antennas is not going to work for the local baker (just imagine the cable clutter + heat), but a hardened small unit that hooks up to the net via powerpoint is much more plausable. I hope you get the idea... Overall, I found a lot of the new gaget type devices on CES are marketing themselves in the sphere of media management/home user. I think this could be wrong in a sense that the market is saturated, not the best of times for consumers and there is a large potential in applying these devices in inudstrial facilites and embedding them to home appliances, vehicles and alike. How close are we to driving in our car in to the garage at home, and as you drive in, car connects to your home network and syncs it's media library with your home server/computer? with something like this unit (size wise), adapted to draw juice from the car battery, with extended USB port on your car panel and added wi-fi receiver, not that far at all.

bcasner
bcasner

If this had WiFi built in, so I could just plug it into a convenient unused outlet and have it immediately connected to my home network, I might buy one.

david.wells
david.wells

Add Ethernet over Mains and you have an inter PC channel. Use this for Home Automation, grid computing, whatever. David

aiellenon
aiellenon

You guys haven't been around too much, huh? do a bit of research on these things, it's been available since March 2009, I purchased a dev kit last year and received it the last week of May 2009, there is a website devoted to it, and a wikipedia page. Although the specs are different from the ones mentioned in this article. what should have been mentioned in the original article (information would have been available at CES) is the support group website, which I am sure is listed on all the brochures from the even. http://www.plugcomputer.org go, read, learn what people are already doing with "The Plug" - also you can do a search of the blogs on zdnet and you'll see articles from 11 or 12 months ago about the plug. I think there were a couple more in june/july. according to the documentation the dev kit (pictured in the article) has 2 gigabit network ports on-board, but only 1 physical port connector attached, it also has 2 SATA ports on the board, but again, no connectors. The device is supposed to be for people to tear it apart and design new devices from it. The dev kit is still available from globalscale technologies for $99. with bulk discounts, rumour mill has it that if you buy somewhere around 10k of them the price drops to $50. You can get there from the previously mentioned link above (top right of the page has a "buy" link) or just go to: http://www.globalscaletechnologies.com/p-22-sheevaplug-dev-kit-us.aspx Enjoy, have fun, get 1, get 5... there is a guy out there that made a beowulf (shevawulf I think he called it) with them, 8 - 15 (I forget how many). The biggest complaint from the people using it has been the lack of available port connectors vs. the on board hardware, AND the lack of an FPU. There are people using USB hubs with USB ethernet dongles to use the device as a router/firewall. it is being used as a LAMP server, torrent server, home security device, webservers, vpn devices, email servers, and the list goes on, one guy is using his as a doorstop.... go read, learn. Next time when asking "I wonder what this can be used for..." try a quick search online before posting to the world on the internet... (hope I didn't make anyone too mad, I know I'm not perfect, but I rarely keep up with developments in technology these days, and I have owned one of these for almost 8 months now. I guess I just assumed that if I knew about it then anyone else in this business would have heard of it by now...)

wg_schmitt
wg_schmitt

Plug the Marvell into a UPS and plug in a MagicJack into the USB and you have a phone system at $19.95 / yr? (less hardware cost)

brokenspokes
brokenspokes

That looks just like an Apple Airport Express, except it doesn't have an audio interface.

Doc_Nasty
Doc_Nasty

Hey, this rocks. Now all i have to do is plug it in under a secretaries desk, slap a glade sticker on it, and run wep/wpa hacking software on it till it breaks thru, connects to my servers, and then i can start taking control of the networks from remote. Or, I can plug this into the 'emergency lights' just outside the doors and nobody will be the wiser. Oh yeah.. great idea.. but too easy to use for bad intentions. Didn't we test this with a mobile phone in a box that was mailed to someone on vacation?

pdf6161
pdf6161

Put it into your car with a usb camera. Twice my daughter has been falsely accused of driving without her seat belt. Big hassle. This would be a simple way to remove all doubt.

caliban
caliban

Maybe use it netted with several netbooks as "thin clients" in the home or business.

edwardwstanley
edwardwstanley

Surveillance equipment storage for tiny deployments of light use, if you add a network device over the power, it might be pretty slick.

thehcasboi
thehcasboi

If this thing has a 2ghz processor and the ram, why not use it as extra processing power in a very small form factor and energy usage as well. In today's green days we need something of this sort to boost the computing power with out having to add large machines and such to the mix.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Router ADSL Modem Firewall Mini Security (say webcam manager) Server Custom VPN device for your office travelers Print Server Wireless Router Wireless Extender IT Pro's server toolbox IT Pro's Network Scanning tools Turn any USB disk in to a NAS

dogknees
dogknees

Remember, the vast majority of "computers" are not PCs or servers, they're built into equipment. Same here. I would think any product you're designing that you might want to add some smarts and internet access to would be a candidate. It's certainly a lot easier to get up and running than a normal embedded computer. Plus the toolset available is vast compared to the embedded industry.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

home modem / router / gateway - combined or as individual units.

clint.hanna
clint.hanna

Just one or two more devices built into this might make it take off. I'm thinking wireless networking + bluetooth, camera, motion/heat detection, LED touch screen, LED lights (different colours :) ... Applications: smart homes, communications, fun ... maybe security if it isn't, itself, vulnerable.

nytephenix
nytephenix

Interesting concept though if it had a second network port, I could see where it would make a great firewall/router for a network, because that doesn't take much to run those.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

it looks like it has only 1 USB & 1 network connector. The USB for the flash drive of only 2 GB. So if the application is backups, then I will have to have a separate network drive with enough capacity. Someone mentioned house apps. But for that to work your house devices would have to be configured so that they plug directly into a router. Maybe house devices are manufactured that way? I assumed they had special cables to plug into a card in your PC. For every app I can think of the Plug will have to network to a router to control/communicate with another computer. Why not just use the other computer to do the job? Maybe I'm wrong about that. I kinda like the concept, but will have to wait to see what apps people create for it.

karl.sumwalt
karl.sumwalt

Running Home Automation applications! Home DNS with network storage?

bboyd
bboyd

Easy way to take a USB ported printer to a network. or As an industrial PC inside or attached to a device you want network control of. I use small DC powered industrial PC's occasionally with about the same capabilities. Usually with a VGA or DVI output though.

PaulStinkyKnowles
PaulStinkyKnowles

In the corporate environment that I work (UK Government) our users have thin clients and don't have USB access. For them to be able to access files on USB sticks or cameras they have to physically go to our IT department and plug their USB stick / camera into one specific dedicated PC, that PC then scans the USB for all manner of nasties and then allows them access to the files, but not from there ;) they have to go back to their desk and access the files over the network via the deicated PC. With these Marvell devices we could have one in each office, loaded with all the government approved scanning software. BTW this is part of the GCX standard UK government IT systems, so could be useful over here.

PJfromOttawa
PJfromOttawa

After reading "Now all I have to do is plug it in under a secretaries[sic] desk" my mind was already in the gutter. Or maybe I'm speaking for the majority?

aikimark
aikimark

If you put a small UPS between the wall and this device, or plugged directly into your existing UPS, this could be part of your home security. With 2GHz processor, you could process multiple video data streams. You could plug phone jack into USB adaptor (better yet, replace the LAN port with a phone port) and use it as an answering machine.

AstroCreep
AstroCreep

I was thinking along the lines of a simple web server, print server, web-filter, specialized security device (personal firewall, VPN concentrator, etc). But the first thing that popped into my head was "Network Monitor"; just slap Nagios or something similar onto it and have the logs/data saved to shared storage.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Might be easier for a user to set up a device like this, just plug it into the wall and plug PC into the device. It could be all pre-configured.

josepht
josepht

The thing that this Plug computer is missing is HomePlug capability (networking over electrical wiring). If this device had HomePlug compatibility, it would be extreamly versatile and useful. You could plug it in anyway and configure it to be a wifi router with no further cabling. Same goes for functionality as a print server, remote sensing, remote USB, webcam server, etc. Currently, in order to use it with any network connectivity, you need to be sure that it is within range of a wifi router or you need to have network cabling running to it. A true "Plug Computer" should only require that it is plugged into the wall outlet.

rswatsenbarg
rswatsenbarg

www.pogoplug.com will show you a simple yet elegant implementation of this device.

MikeG3b
MikeG3b

Point-of-sale, data acquisition device, industrial process controller, patient monitor, solar panel controller, smart power grid monitor & controller, etc. There are thousands of ways to use a plug-in computer. It's got built-in wi-fi and bluetooth, so you don't need a physical connection to hook up to it. It sounds as though all you have to do is get reasonably close to it with a laptop and you can communicate with it. Very cool, very innovative device. Kudoo to Marvell! That's the kind of innovation that drives this industry.

Dr. John
Dr. John

It could be a great NAS device, utilizing ever cheaper, ever larger, USB drives, offering hot swap and use of just about any storage medium.

mathew.gauvin
mathew.gauvin

Any of the virtualized plug n play appliances out there would be perfect for this. It brings a whole new term to plug n play. My fear is that it may also be a new physical attack vector. Hacker sneaks in, plugs this thing loaded with goodies into any outlet under someone's desk. It's small and innocuous.

3circles_z
3circles_z

I could see it's use as a VPN device.

.Martin.
.Martin.

and it could be a firewall or a print server

AstroCreep
AstroCreep

The majority who would have read that post would have thought the same thing. Come on now, we're all IT geeks, right? I'd be suspicious of who didn't giggle at that a little bit.

polnicheck
polnicheck

It could form the basis of a wireless computer controlled lighting system that would control how various house systems turn off and on as well as almost anything else that uses house power, say automatic window blinds, windows that could open and close etc..Radio Shack has or had an electronic cordless system that did much of that on a simpler scale.

NickHurley
NickHurley

The way the users I take care of, manage to inadvertently kick anything larger than a regular plug from their sockets, I don't see that angle working to well here, plus with its size its would hog a whole extra port on the power strip.

mathew.gauvin
mathew.gauvin

The thing I love about Cory Doctorow's scifi is that many times it uses technology that exists right now to build near future timelines where amazing things happen technologically and socially. I'm imagining that his next plot could involve a group of people setting up their own darknet all over the world by plugging these puppies into internet cafes, gas stations, office buildings, external house outlets, etc. Instead of having a virtual botnet based on hacking people's computers, you could have people plugging these in all over the country/world.

josejuan.casimirorios
josejuan.casimirorios

I also think that another ethernet is missing by default. Maybe adding an usb adaptor for ethernet through the usb port?

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

When I first saw it, I thought it could really be a home run in the home security niche. If only it had a second port. Interesting concept, in any event.

3circles_z
3circles_z

I'm looking for ways to keep computing even if the gov declares marshall law and takes over the Internet in the US. This may be a solution, if you've got gmail I'm grey.leroy Thanks

.Martin.
.Martin.

cables can be a bit iffy. your also limited by the USB port.

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