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This article is from the In-Depth Report Forecasting the Future of Cloud Computing

Hackers Weigh In: 8 Big Things to Do with a Mini Server

We weren't sure what to do with a SheevaPlug, a cheap and powerful home server stuffed into a package the size of a power brick, so we asked a bunch of uber-geeks--Here's what they said
SheevaPlug, Linux, computer, server



© MARVELL TECHNOLOGY

Tiny computers are everywhere—our cell phones, handheld gaming devices and set-top boxes, to name a few—so it should be no surprise that Marvell Technology in Santa Clara, Calif., one of the companies that makes the chips that go into such devices, managed to cram an entire home server into the SheevaPlug, a two-inch by four-inch (five- by 10-centimeter) box that plugs into any wall outlet and is almost indistinguishable from an oversize power supply.

Sheevaplug is designed to deliver storage capacity and processing power for technophiles looking to string together every network-capable device in their house so they can share movies, music, photos and other files, hook up surveillance cameras or create a mini data center that fits in the palms of their hands. Although much of this can be accomplished today using a standard computer server or even a PC costing anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars, Sheevaplug's diminutive size, low price ($100) and minimal power consumption (less than five watts) make it an intriguing option.

Knowing that its current audience consists of tech-savvy tinkerers interested in experimenting with new computing platforms, Marvell designed the Sheevaplug to run on the Linux operating system, whose source code is freely available for anyone to use. Marvell also documented the device's hardware on its Web site so the curious could see how it works. "What we want is for developers to get this kit and come up with nifty applications for it," says Raja Mukhopadhyay, Marvell's product marketing manager.

ScientificAmerican.com found some adventurous alpha geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (M.I.T.) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Carnegie Mellon University, Intel and elsewhere and asked them what kind of uses they could come up with for the SheevaPlug. We came away with eight different ideas:


1. Home automation:
"I would hook it up to a Web camera and track myself in the house," says Nikolaus Correll, an M.I.T. CSAIL postdoctoral associate. "The system could react to my presence by simple motion detection and then turn heating and lighting on and off. It could also detect my activities such as studying, dining and watching TV, and match them to a preset set of [automated] actions. Eventually it could even create a statistical profile of my activities that helps me optimize energy consumption."

2. Desktop computer replacement:
Sheevaplug features a 1.2 gigahertz processor made by Cambridge, England–based ARM, Ltd., 512 megabytes of RAM and 512 megabytes of flash storage—all comparable with what is found on low-end PCs. "Small-scale computing is catching up with the amount of [computer processing power] people need to do meaningful interactive tasks: Web browsing, e-mail, listening to music, and even—if not now, soon—watching movies or TV," says Dave Andersen, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a former CSAIL PhD student. Andersen, whose research demands that he use small clusters of low-power processors to tackle larger computing tasks, sees a lot of potential in using SheevaPlug's processor, memory and storage capacity to make a low-cost computer server.

3. Data-center replacement (with a power strip full of plug-in computers):
In order to keep up with the demands of computer users, data center administrators often must link together large numbers of computers. These clusters are used for large computing tasks like simulating the weather or serving up the billions of Web pages visited daily. These "server farms" collectively draw a large amount of power. (A 2007 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that power used by data centers in the U.S. had doubled between 2000 and 2006 and is set to double again by 2014.) "If these things would replace the cores of a virtualized farm of servers I'd be interested," says Eric Schwartz, a CSAIL system administrator. "If these things can compare with [server farms']…computational throughput at a fraction of the power consumption, that's intoxicating."

This trend toward low-power computing is on the rise. Microsoft recently announced that it is testing servers powered by Intel's tiny Atom processor, the chief competitor to the ARM processor that powers the SheevaPlug. The hope is that, although these servers may require more processors to do the same job as more powerful computers, they will, on the whole, draw less electricity.

4. Data availability:
San Francisco-based Cloud Engines Inc., the first company to license Marvell's SheevaPlug, sells a device called the Pogoplug based on the technology that computer users can connect to their hard drive (via a USB port) to make the entire contents of that drive available via the Internet. With a Pogoplug attached to the hard drive storing your information at home, you could access that information even if you are sitting in a Starbucks a thousand miles away, says Daniel Putterman, CEO of Cloud Engines.

5. Data mining:
Once servers are cheap and ubiquitous enough, they allow for interesting monitoring tasks of all sorts of devices, like vending machines. "Back in the day, some hackers hooked it up to the network, and anyone could connect to it and check the selection and supply levels of the sodas," says Jason Biddle, a first-year master's student in the M.I.T. Computation for Design and Optimization program. The soda machine is no longer connected to the net but, Biddle says, "we tossed around the idea of finding a small Web server [like the SheevaPlug] to bring the soda machine back to its former glory. I'm sure someone out there could use the data to find an unknown trend among soda drinkers." With low-cost and low-power servers, it is no longer prohibitive to start connecting devices to the Net, he adds. "Information from those devices could then be aggregated and mashed up with other streams to lend new insight."

6. Life filter:
SheevaPlug could be used to monitor incoming e-mail and other information, presorting it before you open your in-box. "I think it's important to view this as not only an always-on storage resource but an always-on processing resource," says Luke Hutchison, a fourth-year PhD candidate in CSAIL. "The device has enough power to run a decent machine-learning algorithm. It could sit there logged into my e-mail account and be learning from my reading and categorizing habits and would try to tag or star messages before I get to them based on what it thinks I would be most likely to want to read immediately or classify a certain way."

7. Surveillance:
Video security could also be a SheevaPlug strength. "We're in discussions with service providers about remote service capability," Mukhopadhyay says. "A lot of people have cheap USB [digital] cameras in their home. With SheevaPlug you can plug in a camera, and with the right software, you can get a surveillance camera. These retail for $700 to $800, so you can imagine service providers trying to sell this as remote surveillance."

8. You name it:
Because SheevaPlug uses the Linux operating system and open-source software (both of which can be downloaded for free), it could be a cheap Web server, a source-code repository, a backup server or countless other things. "In general," M.I.T.'s Hutchinson says, "it would be possible to host a lot of different types of services on such a box."

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