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Tinkering with a small computer

A quick primer on the Raspberry Pi for those who are not familiar with it.  This is a small credit card sized computer which runs on 5 volts of electricity and allows you to use it as the core computer in projects, or even a project itself.   Students all over the world have used them to create robots, while hobbyists have attached cameras to them and turned them into a wildlife cam which connects to a network and sends photos to their email.   Others have used them to create full fledged arcade machines capable of playing 100's of games all inside of a standard arcade cabinet.   The array of projects available to this little computer is only limited to the owner's imagination.

At the price point of $35, the cost of ownership is welcoming for those on a limited budget.    My work has partnered up with a company which uses these computers combined with different sensors to display total wait times in queue's and countdown timers so customers know how much longer they will need to wait until their work order is completed.   To me, this was the closest I have ever come to a real world use for these that was not published in a magazine, posted on the Internet or created by hobbyists.   Knowing this, I was inspired to obtain one for myself last summer and I have had some fun with mine off and on.

Right now, it sits in a drawer with a network cable connected to the network with a network cable and power cord to give it life.   There is no monitor or keyboard hooked up to it, but it is a silent device which has plenty of power behind it.  I sometimes log into it from work remotely to monitor my home network or it's general health.  I used this computer when our power was out to check if it was back up.   Once the power had come on, it booted up immediately to allow me to connect in.  Below, is an example of one of the tools I used.  I know this is probably complex looking, but the part I can focus on is in the upper right corner of the screen which shows the total Uptime for the computer.  Using the uptime published, I was able to determine about when the power was restored to our complex by a few minutes. 

Example of Status monitor - Glances

Using tools like this allows me to see the overall health and the stability of my Raspberry Pi computer.  With relative ease and functionality built in.  Any field highlighted in red indicates an issue that needs to be paid attention to. 

I have not really come up with any final use for the Raspberry Pi computer yet, but I know that is the fun of owning one!  Having leased web hosting servers in the past for resale as part of my web hosting business I used to run, I was able to see first hand how the backbone of Internet sites run.  We all have seen pictures, TV Shows, or movies where they go into server rooms in buildings and there are literally hundreds of them running at the same time, cooled by massive amounts of fans, and many different cooling methods.  A typical server runs over $1,000 and is quite capable of hosting many web sites.   The server I am leasing now, is one of those computers in a data center very happily serving this page that you are on right now to your computer.

With the Raspberry Pi computer, I can hook up a thumb drive, install software on it, and literally turn it into a web server with very similar capabilities.  The thumb drive would hold the contents of the web site and the computer would do the rest.  With some network configuration, one could allow visitors from all of the world to connect to it.  This is not a viable solution though for heavy traffic and with a spike in traffic, it would overwhelm the device simply because it is not made to function solely as a web server.  That is not to say though, that there are a few web sites online using them and doing fine.  They simply cluster or hook multiple units together to combine them into one larger server.

I can also use the Rasperry Pi computer as a network print server so I can share my printers with our mobile devices on the home network, allowing us to print from our phones or tablets as needed.  It uses very low power to the device and while it can perfectly perform the task given to it to pass print jobs to the printers, it is terribly in my opinion a waste of power behind it.  It is a shame just to have it do this and nothing else, so we can add more functions to it.   There is a network wide ad blocking system which can be installed and hooked up the network.  With a little configuration on the devices we are using, or the router that they connect to, everyone can surf the web ad-free and without the fear of browser hijacks.   This is an excellent addition to the little computer!   Let me tell you - browsing the web without ads is a nice clean experience and is an odd feeling for those who have not done this before. :)  P.S. you won't find ads here!


This is an example of the interface which can be loaded at home using a web browser to see the statistics as well as update it's filters etc.


Adding the ad filter and print server, are all good and well, but I can also make it a mail sentry which retrieves email from this server and all of my other emails and puts them in one place for easier retrieval while out on the road.  One of the most interesting and intriguing uses I have seen for this is using it as a backup system for Network Addressable Server (NAS) so I can remotely log into the network and access any files I store on a hard drive attached to it and even store them on there.  Much like you can do with DropBox, but cheaper if you have the spare hardware. :)

These are just a few of the things which can be done and that is only scratching the surface, but for me, I have not yet added all of these items to the Raspberry Pi, I will do so in the future and probably have more projects in the works.



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