Happy Birthday, Raspberry Pi

March 6, 2013

I’ve posted here several times before about the Raspberry Pi single-board Linux computer, developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This past Friday, March 1, marked the one-year anniversary of the market introduction of the Pi.  (OK, if you want to be picky, it went on sale on February 29.)  Sales of the diminutive computer have greatly exceeded anyone’s expectations, with more than one million units sold in the first year.  As Liz writes on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s blog,

It’s been a crazy, wonderful year, and usually I’d have a lot to say about it. We never thought we’d find ourselves in the position we’re in today, with a million Pis sold, a sprawling community, real evidence that kids are picking the Pi up and learning with it, and new friends from all over the world.

But you hear from me all the time. So for today’s post I’ve asked members of the Pi family to share a few words with us about the way this year has looked to them instead.

The Raspberry Pi computer ships without an operating system installed; the customer needs to download an OS and store it on an SD memory card in order to make effective use of the device.  When the Pi was first introduced, the recommended OS was a version of the  Fedora Linux system.  That has now been supplanted by Raspbian Linux, a derivative of the highly-regarded Debian distribution. (A version of Arch Linux and a port of RISC OS are also available for the Pi.)

Raspbian is an impressive accomplishment, not least because the work was done, almost entirely, by two people: Mike Thompson and Peter Green.  Getting a suitable distribution built was a bit tricky.  The Raspberry Pi uses an ARMv6 procesor.  Debian has a port to the ARM architecture, but it is for a later version of the processor, the ARMv7.  In order to use the floating-point arithmetic hardware in the Pi’s processor, Thompson and Green had to rebuild ~19,000 packages, using an ARM cluster built in Thompson’s basement.  (There were also ~17,000 non-executable packages that did not need porting: help files, fonts, and man pages, for example.)  The full story of the Raspbian port is given in an article at Ars Technica.


Raspberry Pi Has an App Store

December 21, 2012

I’ve posted here several times before about the Raspberry Pi single-board Linux computer, developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.   The Pi has proved to be extremely popular since it was introduced earlier this year.   The Foundation has now announced the opening of the Pi Store, a marketplace for applications for the Pi.

Currently, the Pi Store has 29 selections available, all but two of which (The Chimera game engine, and the game “Storm in a Teacup”) are free.   Eight of the entries are issues of the MagPi community-led magazine, which has articles for a range of users.  One of the notable applications is LibreOffice, the free open-source office suite, which has a range of capabilities comparable to Microsoft Office.  (I’ve written about LibreOffice before, most recently here.)  Another is the Asterisk open-source telecommunications software, which provides a set of building blocks for telecommunications systems, such as a conference bridge or a PBX.

If you have a Raspberry Pi, the store is directly accessible via an X application in the Raspbian OS (a derivative of Debian Linux for the Raspberry Pi).  It is also accessible on the Web.

Wired also has an article on the launch of the store.


Raspberry Pi Gets More Open Code

October 24, 2012

Today, in a post on its Web site, the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced that the source code for the video drivers used in its $35 single-board Linux computer would be available under an open-source license.

As of right now, all of the VideoCore driver code which runs on the ARM is available under a FOSS license (3-Clause BSD to be precise).

According to Alex Bradbury, author of the post and lead Linux developer at the Foundation, all the software running on the Pi’s ARM processor is now open source.  (The post has a link to the source repository.)

This development will please advocates of free and open-source software.  It should also make it easier for developers to make use of the graphics acceleration capability that is part of the Pi, including those who are porting various OS environments to the device.

We’ve been excitedly following the progress of FreeBSD, NetBSD, Plan9, RISC OS, Haiku and others. All these projects could now potentially port these libraries and make use of the full hardware accelerated graphics facilities of the Raspberry Pi.

I have seen some grousing that some of the code that runs on the graphics chip itself has not been open-sourced.  I don’t know enough about the hardware to evaluate this claim, but it seems to me that half a loaf is preferable to none, especially since the original goal of the Raspberry Pi project was largely educational.  In any case, Broadcom, the chip vendor, has taken a significant step in the direction of openness, and deserves credit for that.

Ars Technica also has an article on this announcement.


Raspberry Pi Gets Memory Boost

October 15, 2012

I’ve written here a few times about the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s bare-bones, low cost ($35) single-board Linux computer, the Raspberry Pi, designed originally for educational applications.  Today, in a post on its Web site, the Foundation announced that all Model B boards would henceforth ship with 512 MB of memory (rather than 256 MB).   The announcement also noted the release of new firmware versions to facilitate access to the additional memory.  (The announcement has a link to download the new versions.)

According to Eben Upton, author of the announcement, and a founder and trustee of the Foundation, a number of people had suggested adding a “Model C” board, with more memory, in addition to the existing lineup.  But the Foundation wanted to keep the $35 price point, so it worked with its suppliers to provide the additional memory on the Model B without raising the price.   Both new orders, and existing orders that have not yet been filled, will receive the upgraded Model B.

Ars Technica also has an article on the upgrade.


Legos + Raspberry Pi ?

September 16, 2012

There seems to be a growing interest in the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s bare-bones, low cost (ca. $35) single-board Linux computer, the Raspberry Pi, designed originally for educational applications.  I noted earlier this month that the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory was offering a free online course in operating system design, based on the Raspberry Pi.   This past week, Wired has published an article about another interesting development from the UK.

Though small, the little computer has respectable capabilities.  The first offering, the Model B board, mounts a 700 Mhz ARM CPU, a GPU, 256 MB of memory, audio, HDMI, and RCA video outputs. an Ethernet connection, and two USB ports; there is also a slot for an SD memory card.   Simon Cox, a professor of computational methods at the University of Southampton, originally bought a Raspberry Pi to use with his six-year-old son.  He then got the idea of using a number of the devices to build a supercomputer — with a case made out of Legos!

The resulting computer (the Wired article also has a set of photos) cost about £ 2,500 (a little over $ 4,000), not including networking equipment.  It has 64 Raspberry Pi computers, each with a 16 GB SD memory card, giving a total of 1 TB in addition to the on-board memory in each device.   The nodes communicate with each other using the Message Passing Interface standard, developed by the Argonne National Laboratory.  Professor Cox has a Web page with links to a number of resources, including instructions [PDF] for building your very own supercomputer.  You can even install a FORTRAN compiler.

The setup developed by Prof. Cox and associates is not ideal in some ways; for example, it requires 64 power supplies, one for each Raspberry Pi.  But it seems like an excellent tool for teaching students about massively parallel computing.


More Raspberry Pi

September 8, 2012

At the beginning of this week, I posted a note about the free, online course in OS design offered by the University of Cambridge, for the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s bare-bones, low cost (ca. $35) single-board Linux computer.  Interest in this project seems to be growing.

Technology Review has a short hands-on review of the Raspberry Pi, by Simson Garfinkel, who is an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey CA, and a well-known writer on security and digital forensics.   Prof. Garfinkel’s review is focused on the device as an educational tool: “Can a $35 computer persuade kids to put down their smartphones and try their hands at programming?”  Despite its small size and low cost, the Raspberry Pi is a fairly capable machine, at least by historical standards.

… you’ve got a 700 megahertz Unix workstation with hardware accelerated 3-D graphics—something that would have been state-of-the-art in 2001 and set you back several thousand dollars.

As Prof. Garfinkel points out, you will need a few things, besides  the board itself, to put together a complete system: a keyboard, mouse, and monitor.  He did encounter a few problems in using the machine.

The main problem that my kids had was that the current version of the Raspberry Pi’s operating system didn’t work flawlessly right away, and needed some tweaking to support some keyboard layouts, wireless cards, and sound hardware.

These are hardly unusual problems for a brand-new hardware device running newly-ported software; still, getting started may be a bit daunting for complete beginners.

In other news, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has announced that a new revision 2.0 of the computer is being introduced.  There are some small changes in interface and I/O specifications; probably the most noticeable change is the addition of two mounting holes in the circuit board.  The Foundation has also been able to arrange for board production in the United Kingdom, because of the strong initial interest in the device.


OS Recipes for Raspberry Pi

September 3, 2012

Earlier this year, I posted a couple of notes here about the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s bare-bones, low cost (ca. $35) single-board Linux computer.    The idea behind the Raspberry Pi is to provide a cheap computer that can be used in quantity, particularly in educational settings.

Now PC Pro, a UK computer magazine, reports that the University of Cambridge has made available a free online course on building a basic operating system for the Raspberry Pi.  The course has twelve sections, including an Introduction and lessons in three areas:

  • Using the OK LED [Beginner]  These five lessons focus on basic OS-level programming, controllling the OK LED on the Raspberry Pi board.
  • Screen Series [Advanced]  These four lessons cover drawing and manipulating text and simple graphics objects on a screen.
  • Input Series [Advanced] These two lessons discuss drivers and linking in the context of keyboard input, and the construction of a simple comand-line interface.

The seteup required to take the course is not too elaborate:

In order to complete this course you will need a Raspberry Pi with an SD card and power supply, as well as another computer running a version of linux, Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, capable of writing to the SD card, and installing software.

The lessons include some theoretical background, exercises, and worked solutions.  The site also has other materials on the Raspberry Pi.


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