Raspberry Pi – A credit card-size PC

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I couldn’t help myself: the first post had to be about the wonderful Raspberry Pi (RPi). I own a “Model B” of these minimalist computers for over a year and now it has become the main pillar of our home IT equipment.

RPi size compared to a typical wallet card

RPi size compared to a typical wallet card

RPi with external case

RPi with external case

Let me tell you first a few facts about it:

  • It features a 700 MHz ARM-based CPU, 512 MB of memory, and plenty of I/O for communicating with it. Since it has a hardware-based h.264/MPEG-4 AVC decoder, it can even play 1080p Full HD video without problems.
  • You can install a wide range of Linux flavors, or appliance-like software for more specific tasks such as media centers.
  • It consumes about 3-3.5 Watt, which means about 5 EUR per year depending on your electricity bill rates.
  • It costs less than 35 EUR. Do you know any other computer for that price? The add-ons can easily double this price (SD card, a nice case, a handy USB hub, etc), but it’s still a bargain.

Specifically, my RPi is configured with Raspbian Linux, so I can use it as a general purpose server. Some of my friends did not bother and simply downloaded a pre-configured XBMC for using it as their media server, which is a very fair idea too.

Drawbacks? Well, I find it difficult to set a good location for it. It looks like a spider with all those cables going out of such small stuff. Also, if you are not used to Linux, it can be a bit painful to configure everything on your own. However, the internet is full of tutorials which show you step-by-step how to do everything, and you hardly ever need to “improvise”.

So what can we have running on it? Well, pretty much anything you can come up with. The following are few simple but useful suggestions which I am currently using:

  • Torrent client – You need 2 days to complete a download, but you are worried about the electricity bills with your Core i7 desktop PC? You can use a super power-efficient RPi and forget about it.
  • NAS Server – Would you like to share hundreds of GB worth of files (photos, videos, music) but the “cloud drives” accounts are too expensive? Just plug some TB external USB drives to your RPi and share it within your private high-speed LAN or with your friends worldwide in the internet. There are several options for it, whether you prefer NFS, SMB or Mini-DLNA.
  • DNS and DHCP Server – Nowadays when you have so many wired and wireless devices connected at home, it scales very badly to connect to them via their local IP address. With this you could have intuitive domain names for them (like myphone-wifismart-tvor microwave-management-port) and access/control them them easier.
  • VPN Server – …but what if you are outside your home? You can set the RPi to be the tunnel between anywhere in the internet and your home network. Once you are connected via VPN to your home, you can see all the devices and connect to them. It sounds silly, but if you would like to change your router policies from outside your home, this is a great solution (that’s how I started, actually). For those with dynamic IP address, I currently use a free external DNS, but I am planning to change that with my new VPS.
  • Web server – For instance, in the near future I will set a backup of this blog in my RPi, just in case my VPS dies.

Of course, there are much more possibilities than that. Just search through the internet and you will find plenty of crazy and/or useful ideas. For instance, there are people who use their RPi as an HD video surveillance server, or they stack together 64 RPi’s and create High Performance Computing clusters, or attach a screen, a keyboard and a battery to use it as a low-cost mobile laptop… with the RPi, only your mind sets the limits!