How could the humble Raspberry Pi help get more ARM servers in data centres? Chris Tyler, one of the people behind Raspberry Pi Fedora Remix, shares his thoughts
For over a year, a small group of researchers from Seneca College’s Centre for the Development of Open Technology in Toronto has been working to adapt the popular Fedora Linux distribution to run on Raspberry Pi.
This distribution is one of the select few that can run on the tiny board without further modifications, and was officially recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
However, the primary focus of the college has been to prepare Linux software for the inevitable arrival of the ARM architecture in data centres.
We had a chat with Chris Tyler, Seneca College’s industrial research chair for open source technology for emerging platforms, to discuss the work his team did for Raspberry Pi and how the group’s efforts on the system could help spur on the growth of ARM-based servers in the data centre, as well as future releases of the Fedora OS.
Mixing it up
Ontario has emerged as one of the leading destinations for companies seeking a skilled workforce, outstanding research facilities and low business costs. In 2011, Toronto ranked fourth in a list of top tech destinations for software start-ups in the world, coming up behind Silicon Valley, New York City and London. The Canadian province is home to over 18,000 ICT firms including Siemens, Intel, Google, IBM and Cisco. It is also where Raspberry Pi Fedora Remix 14 was developed.
“Ontario students and faculty have helped to make Raspberry Pi a reality,” said Eben Upton, director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. However, the team from Seneca didn’t work on the miniature computer because of its educational benefits, or out of admiration for the low-cost British design.
The reason is much simpler: the open source experts believe that over the next few years, ARM servers will take the world by storm, and they will need software. “We are anticipating that these low-energy ARM devices will be very popular in data centre applications in the years ahead. They can offer a potential 90 percent reduction in energy, space and cooling requirement over existing systems,” Tyler told TechWeekEurope.
In summer 2011, while the team at Seneca was busy working on Linux-ARM conversion, Raspberry Pi appeared. “We got in touch with the Raspberry Pi Foundation and said, look, we’re working on a software stack, and although we were not focusing on such small devices, we think it would run well on Raspberry Pi.”
In September, the college received an early prototype of the hardware from Cambridge. The team took the Fedora release, added some kernel modifications and had the miniature computer up and running that same afternoon.
Both researchers and students worked on the distribution over the next couple of semesters, and last spring the college released Raspberry Pi Fedora Remix 14. “That was a preliminary release, and worked moderately well, but not nearly as well as we’d like. So we went back to the drawing board, to work on Fedora Remix 17, which we’re just about to ship,” explained Tyler.
The updated version will be much easier to use. According to one report, a seven-year-old child sitting in front of a brand new Raspberry Pi was able to complete the initial configuration of Remix 17 in minutes. There’s also a much larger selection of software available, and more “hacker” tools for users who want to test the limits of their board.
“I’m not sure every iPhone/iPod user will be comfortable with it, but at the same time anyone who is interested enough to spend some time with the device will certainly be able to use it well, including children of elementary school age,” said Tyler.
Beyond the upcoming release, Fedora Remix 18 will borrow fragments of a framework from another successful Raspberry Pi distribution, Raspbian (offshoot of Debian), and will be considerably faster than the current version. The team from Seneca hopes to finish it by December.
Tyler told TechWeekEurope that although in theory the adaptation process itself is fairly straightforward, the limitations of Raspberry Pi make it an interesting challenge. “By their nature, ARM platforms are incompatible with x86 PC systems. In addition, by modern standards, Raspberry Pi has a fairly small amount of memory – just 256 MB. Consider that it has to be shared with the GPU, and you can see that it can get difficult.
“There is no installation phase, so you can’t ask user the questions you should normally ask. You have to make assumptions about how the system will be set up. There is no boot environment, no BIOS.
“We had to do some tuning and careful package selection to find a usable environment that works with that memory framework and low-power CPU.”
Tyler believes that the work done at Seneca College, including its efforts with the Raspberry Pi, will eventually help boost the popularity of ARM-based servers amongst the world’s data centre builders.
“Something that we keep discussing in the ARM server space is the concept of ‘hyperscale’ – really, really high density systems. A lot of hyperscale precursors are starting to appear now, but it is just a dress rehearsal before the release of the 64-bit ARM platform. This will happen in about 18 months, and by this point, ARM will be in a good shape to take off in the data centre.
“Our role is preparing the standard software stacks, so the companies can take existing applications and transfer them to the ARM environment with minimal effort.”
Even though hyperscale is not a development exclusive to ARM, the British chip designer has beaten traditional vendors to home in on the trend, according to Tyler. “I think we are seeing a delayed reaction from traditional vendors. Intel is trying to respond with the Atom system-on-a-chip, but after decades of ‘faster, hotter, bigger’ thinking that’s taking place in that world, these new products don’t really measure up,” he added.
“There’s an opportunity for ARM to come in and say ‘let’s do computing in a different way’, and be quite successful with it.”
As for Fedora Remix, Seneca College is far removed from the ruthless self-promotion seen in the consumer space, and Tyler wants to see Raspberry Pi users do things differently too, mixing up their use of operating systems. “I would really hope that because it’s just a matter of switching SD cards, people will experiment with a range of different distributions, and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each. You swap an SD card, and you can try out a completely new system. That’s one of the joys of Raspberry Pi.”
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