Have Computicles Arrived?Posted: September 2, 2017
So, I’ve written quite a lot about computicles over the past few years. In most of those articles, I’m talking about the software implementation of tiny units of computation. The idea for computicles stems from a conversation I had with my daughter circa 2007 in which I was laying out a grand vision of the world where units of computation would be really small, fit in your hand sized, and be able to connect and do stuff fairly easily. That was my envisioning of ubiquitous computing. And so, yesterday, I received the latest creation from HardKernel, the Odroid HC1 (HC – Home Cloud).
Hardkernel is a funny company. I’ve been buying at least one of everything they’ve made in the past 5 years or so. They essentially make single board computers in the “credit card” form factor. What you see in the picture is the HC1, with an attached SSD of 120Gb. The SSD is 2.5″ standard, so that gives you a sense of the size of the thing. The black is aluminum, and it’s the heat sink for the unit.
The computer bit of it is essentially a reworked Odroid XU4, which all by itself is quite a strong computer in this category. Think Raspberry Pi, but 4 or 5 times stronger. The HC1 has a single Sata connector to slot in whatever hard storage you choose. No extra ribbon cables or anything like that. The XU4 itself can run variants of Linux, as well as Android. The uSD card sticking out the right side provides the OS. In this particular case I’m using OMV (Open Media Vault), because I wanted to try the unit out as a NAS in my home office.
One of the nice things about the HC1 is that it’s stackable. So, I can see piling up 3 or 4 of these to run my local server needs. Of course, when you compare to the giant beefy 64-bit super server that I’m currently typing at, these toy droids give it very little competition in the way of absolute compute power. They even did an analysis of bitcoin mining and determined a number of years it would take to get a return on their investment. But, computing, and computicles aren’t about absolute concentrated power. Rather, they are about distributed processing.
Right now I have a Synology, probably the equivalent of today’s DS1517. That thing has RAID up the wazoo, redundant power, multiple nics, and it’s just a reliable workhorse that just won’t quit, so far. The base price starts at $799, before you actually start adding storage media. The HC1 starts at $49. Of course there’s no real comparison in terms of reliability, redundancy, and the like, or is there?
Each HC1 can hold a single disk. You can throw on whatever size and variety you like. This first one has a Samsung SSD that’s a couple years old, at 120Gb. These days you can get 250Gb for $90. You can go up to 4TB with an SSD, but that’s more like a $1600 proposition. So, I’d be sticking with the low end. That makes a reasonable storage computicle roughly $150.
You could of course skip the SSD or HDD and just stick a largish USB thumb drive, or 128Gb uSD for $65, but the speed on that interface isn’t going to be nearly as fast as the Sata III interface the HC1 is sporting. So, great for a small time use, but for relatively constant streaming and download, the SSD solutions, and even HDD solutions will be more robust.
So, what’s the use case? Well, besides the pure geekery of the thing, I’m trying to imagine more appliance like usage. I’m imagining what it looks like to have several of these placed throughout the house. Maybe one is configured as a YouTube downloader, and that’s all it does all the time, shunting to the larger Synology every once in a while.
How about video streaming? Right now that’s served up by the Synology running a Plex server, which is great for most clients, but sometimes, it’s just plain slow, particularly when it comes to converting video clips from ancient cameras and cell phones. Having one HC1 dedicated to the task of converting clips to various formats that are known to be used in our house would be good. Also, maybe serving up the video itself? The OMV comes with a minidlna server, which works well with almost all the viewing kit we have. But, do we really have any hiccups when it comes to video streaming from the Synology? Not enough to worry about, but still.
Maybe it’s about multiple redundant distributed RAID. With 5 – 10 of these spread throughout the house, each one could fail in time, be replaced, and nothing would be the wiser. I could load each with a couple of terabytes, and configure some form of pleasant redudancy across them and be very happy. But, then there’s the cloud. I actually do feel somewhat reassured having the ability to backup somewhere else. As recent flooding in Texas shows, as well as wildfires, no matter how much redundancy you have locally, it’s local.
Then there’s compute. Like I said, a single beefy x64 machine with a decent GPU is going to smoke any single one of these. Likewise if you have a small cluster of these. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Odroid boards are ARM based, which makes them inherently low power consumption compared to their intel counterparts. If I’ve have some relatively light loads that are trivially parallelizable, then having a cluster of a few of these might make some sense. Again with the ubiquitous computing, if I want to have the Star Trek style “computer, where’s my son”, or “turn on the lights in the garage”, without having to send my voice to the cloud constantly, then performing operations such as speech recognition on a little cluster might be interesting.
The long and short of it is that having a compute/storage module in the $150 range makes for some interesting thinking. It’s surely not the only storage option in this range, but the combination of darned good hardware, tons of software support, low price and easy assembly, gives me pause to consider the possibilities. Perhaps the hardware has finally caught up to the software, and I can start realizing computicles in physical as well as soft form.