28.05.2012 18:45

Small, very cheap computers running Linux seem to be all the rage these days. Everyone is talking about Raspberry Pies and announcements for similar hardware from various vendors keep appearing in my RSS reader. FreedomBox community has a thread on their mailing list that mentions most of them.

These devices are interesting both from the software and hardware standpoint. Raspberry Pi is often seen as a modern day equivalent of home microcomputers like Sinclair Spectrum, where children can learn to program in an environment where it's hard to destroy something important or expensive. But I think the hardware perspective is also important: most of these computers come with user-accessible, simple hardware interfaces, like GPIO pins, RS-232 ports and even low-level buses like I2C and SPI. Modern desktop computers have dropped these in favor of very complicated interfaces like USB that make it disproportionally hard to attach simple home-made electronics to them. Combine this with the simplicity that a multi-tasking, network operating system like Linux can offer in terms of Internet connectivity and it's not unlikely that the next hugely-popular hardware tinkering platform after Arduino will be running on one of these simple computers.

Carambola from 8devices is a relatively unknown computer from the lower end of this class. Since it is quite similar to the TP-Link TL-WR703N I saw at 28C3 I decided to get one and try it out.

8devices Carambola on a development board, top

By the way, in Slovene language number 8 is pronounced the same as English awesome. I wonder if something similar is the case in Lithuanian and if that is the story behind this company's name

8devices Carambola on a development board, bottom

Carambola comes in an Arduino-like form factor which you can see sitting on top of the larger development board on the picture above. It consists of a Realtek RT3050 system-on-chip that includes a MIPS CPU, 802.11b/g/n radio, 2 wired 100 Mb/s Ethernet interfaces, USB controller and a few other details. Also on board, but in separate packages are 32 MB of RAM and 8 MB of flash ROM. Apart from Wi-Fi which uses an on-board chip antenna, everything is available on two lines of pins. In contrast to Arduino, Carambola uses a male connector. Unfortunately pins are 2 mm apart, which means you won't be able to simply plug it into a standard protoboard. I guess the development board is pretty much a must for any prototyping.

First of all, while this is advertised as an open hardware platform, the schematic of Carambola itself has not been disclosed (development board design is available though). I haven't yet looked deep enough to check what is the status of the software running on Carambola. There does appear to be a datasheet available for RT3050 and 8devices also has a GitHub account.

Speaking of software, my Carambola came preloaded with OpenWRT Linux (bleeding edge, r30001). Default settings configured eth1 with a static IP while eth2 used DHCP auto-configuration. ssh was installed and running, but since there was no password set for root it would not let me in. I connected a serial terminal to the RS232 port (running at 115200 baud), where I found a shell that allowed me to set the root password. After that I could connect to Carambola through one of its LAN ports via ssh.

Here is the output of a few commands that should give you an idea of what kind of system this is:

root@OpenWrt:~# df -h
Filesystem                Size      Used Available Use% Mounted on
rootfs                    4.6M    276.0K      4.3M   6% /
/dev/root                 2.0M      2.0M         0 100% /rom
tmpfs                    14.7M     40.0K     14.7M   0% /tmp
tmpfs                   512.0K         0    512.0K   0% /dev
/dev/mtdblock5            4.6M    276.0K      4.3M   6% /overlay
overlayfs:/overlay        4.6M    276.0K      4.3M   6% /
root@OpenWrt:~# cat /proc/cpuinfo
system type		: Ralink RT3350   id:1 rev:2
machine			: CARAMBOLA
processor		: 0
cpu model		: MIPS 24Kc V4.12
BogoMIPS		: 212.58
wait instruction	: yes
microsecond timers	: yes
tlb_entries		: 32
extra interrupt vector	: yes
hardware watchpoint	: yes, count: 4, address/irw mask: [0x0000, 0x0018, 0x0c90, 0x0810]
ASEs implemented	: mips16
shadow register sets	: 1
kscratch registers	: 0
core			: 0
VCED exceptions		: not available
VCEI exceptions		: not available
root@OpenWrt:~# free
             total         used         free       shared      buffers
Mem:         30176        14236        15940            0         1760
-/+ buffers:              12476        17700
Swap:            0            0            0

The pre-loaded system looks pretty complete, so I didn't bother with building a custom firmware image yet. gpioctl tool was already installed, which meant I was able to play with GPIO ports (nicely exposed on the development board in a small prototyping area) directly from the shell.

For instance, running this:

root@OpenWrt:~# while true; do gpioctl set 1; gpioctl clear 1; done

produces a square wave with approximately 60 Hz on the first GPIO port, which also gives you a rough estimate of the performance of shell scripting for embedded programming.

In conclusion, this is an interesting piece of hardware, but for which I don't currently have a concrete application. The documentation is somewhat chaotic, with useful information appearing on the wiki, forum and 8devices web site.

I wonder how this hype with small Linux computers will turn out. It reminds me of netbooks in some ways and that didn't turn out all that well, with vendors dropping the light-weight, Linux running solid state computers when their customers realized they couldn't run full-blown Windows software on them.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Digital

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