raspberry pi supercomputer 5
September 14, 2012

Lego My Raspberry Pi

There’s something very magical, very simple, very romantic about the Raspberry Pi computer. Has anyone ever used the word “romantic” to describe a piece of computing equipment before? Good, glad to say I’m your first.

The Raspberry Pi is the result of modern technology, yet has its roots in the earliest days of computer science.

Designed with a desire to bring the excitement of programming and computer science back to youngsters (and reignite a familiar passion in those who began their careers at this age) the creators of Raspberry Pi wanted to teach students how to build an infrastructure, rather than build things on top of existing platforms.

In many ways, the Raspberry Pi harkens back to the days of the home-brew club in California where Steve Wozniak got his start and showed off the very first Apple computer. Hand-wired and soldered in a garage, Wozniak built this now primitive computer with the excitement of what this piece of kit could do as well as what it would do. These early computers were as much about the promise of a new era as they were a virginal footstep into the same.

Suffice to say, we’ve come a long way since the Apple I. It’s an oft quoted claim, but the original iPhone contains significantly more computing power and advancements than was in the Apollo Lunar Module.

And we carry these things in our pockets and use them to stalk ex-lovers and play fart sounds. Perhaps technology is lost on us.

Well, not all of us.

For those uninitiated parties, the RaspberryPi is a credit card sized computer in every sense of the word. Just as the first Apple I was not much more than a computer board to be plugged into a screen and a set of keys, the Raspberry Pi is a tiny board with a few more advancements. Yes, it can be plugged into a display and a keyboard, but it also houses an HDMI port, a USB port, LAN port, SD Card slot and 256MB of RAM. Out of the box, it’s capable of the basic tasks of computing: Spreadsheets, word processing and, of course, games and 1080p video. Linux or Windows can be booted from the SD card slot. The rest is up to the programmer, and this sort of open-source, wide open field of dreaming has given many hackers and enthusiasts license to aim for the stars and bring ideas to life, all on a chip no bigger than your wallet.

There’s even a 5 MP camera attachment available for these kits. This little development was announced a few months ago during Raspberry Jam, an event in the Pi’s home of Cambridge. For only $25, Raspberry Pi owners can add a camera to their mini-computers, which themselves only run $25 for the Model A and $35 for the Model B.

In fact, since the Raspberry Pi first made its way onto the scene earlier this year, the main limitation to the imagination of these dreamers was the availability of these tiny units. In July, this little problem was taken care of.

“Up until now, we’ve had to restrict purchases of the Raspberry Pi to one per customer because the demand has been (and continues to be) so high,” said the Raspberry Pi Foundation in a press statement from the July Jam event.

“As of this morning, you’ll be able to buy as many Raspberry Pis as you want from both RS Components and element14/Premier Farnell.”

Well, just so long as you don’t want to buy more than 4,000 a day.

With this new availability of these potential-packed, powerful computers, hackers and tinkerers alike began to dream big.

Really big.

The technology behind Raspberry Pi might not be all that elementary, but the simple math behind a latest proof-of-concept stunt is simple enough: If one Raspberry Pi is capable of doing so much on such a small chip, how much could multiple Pis, linked together, be capable of? How about, say, 64 of these units?

Professor Simon Cox with the University of Southampton, and his 6-year old son, James had an idea of grand— and yet not so— proportions, yet they weren’t able to see this idea fully realized until they had the access to as many Pis as they needed. Granted, they didn’t need 4,000, but being able to pick up 64 in a day was a good start.

“As soon as we were able to source sufficient Raspberry Pi computers, we wanted to see if it was possible to link them together into a supercomputer,” said Professor Cox in his own press statement about he and his sons’ latest achievements.

And here’s where some of the romance comes in to play.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation’s goals have already been realized in this one project. James, the younger Cox, spent his entire summer learning all about computer science on these Raspberry Pi units, programming these Pis using the Python programming language as well as MIT’s Scratch. Then, these 2 generations came together to build something truly outstanding in a very simple way: A proper supercomputer housed inside racks made of Legos.

The racks, built by James, not only offer an easy-to-assemble modular housing, they’re also colorful, fun, and most of all, dirt cheap.

In fact, keeping the costs to a minimum was a prime directive of the Cox boys. With the price of supercomputers astronomically high, the concept of being able to build a powerfully small unit could dramatically increase the learning potential in any university classroom. All told, Professor Cox says he spent just under £2,500, or a little more than $4,000— not counting Ethernet switches to connect the nodes—to build his dreams.

Each Pi is decked with a 16GB SD card and uses a free implementation of the Message Passing Interface to connect and run in tandem with each other.

Keeping in the true spirit of the Raspberry Pi ethos, Simon and James are sharing their methods with the rest of the world.

“We installed and built all of the necessary software on the Pi starting from a standard Debian Wheezy system image and we have published a guide so you can build your own supercomputer.”

As a crowning jewel to their achievements, a proverbial raspberry on top of this computing sundae, if you will, the Cox boys saw only one test fitting of their Lego supercomputer.

“The first test we ran — well obviously we calculated Pi on the Raspberry Pi using MPI, which is a well-known first test for any new supercomputer.”

It’s this getting back to basics, this return to the essentials of computing which the founders of Raspberry Pi will send youngsters back to the proverbial drawing board to create a new wave of technological advancements. Building on top of existing achievements is fine, but when dreamers are given the ability to think outside the box, to build something brand new on top of something they’ve built themselves, then can new unrealized ideas truly take form.

Image Credit: Simon Cox

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