As any Engineer will tell you, in order to stay sharp and ensure you’re on top of your game you have to be able to have a lab environment available. Some Engineers run their labs on their personal laptop, others choose to use a virtual machine, and those with a bit of expendable income may even use a cloud-based solution such as Linode. But, all of these options have their strengths and weaknesses. If you use your personal laptop as a lab you run the risk of messing up the OS you use as your daily driver. Labs are for breaking, so that makes this a poor choice. If you choose to use a VM, it adds another layer of abstraction and can even lead to incompatibilities or obstacles of which you may have to work around. Still, using a VM is a better alternative to using your daily laptop as a lab environment. Using a cloud environment can be even more complex and not to mention far more costly with recurring fees.
The optimal solution would be have a spare computer available to do labs with in order to avoid the complexity of virtual machines and the recurring cost of a cloud environment. But, a spare computer comes with at a cost, as well. You can purchase a used computer, but that comes with its own set of risks. A lot of repair shops and pawn shops do not buy computers second-hand because of the risk of purchasing a stolen computer or one that doesn’t function properly. So, to avoid that risk and find a economical solution, I pose a solution.
A lot of Engineers have heard of my pick this week, but may not have used one. It’s called a Rapsberry Pi. These small, cheap RISC-based computers once received a bad rap due to their poor performance and low memory capacity, but all that changed in 2019. In late 2019 the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B. It comes packed with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A72 CPU, 802.11ac WiFi, a Gigabit Ethernet port, USB 3.0, two 4K micro-HDMI ports, and up to 8 GB of RAM. You can buy the 8 GB model as a kit from Canakit for just a little bit over $100. This will get you a housing, some thermal controls, a power source, and a memory card. Another way you can purchase this little powerhouse is as a kit called the Raspberry Pi 400. Some Engineers may recall Ian talking about this kit back in episode 29 on November 8th.
Enough about specs, though. The Raspberry Pi 4 isn’t just a summation of its components. It represents almost endless possibility. With just one of these running a free Linux distribution of choice, it becomes a place to learn, experiment, and do things you would normally never do on your daily use system. You can use it to learn to code classic games, explore different RISC-based Linux operating systems, pull off different red-team tactics with Kali, and even play old games with RetroPie. If nothing else, this will be one of the most versatile computers you’ve ever used. I used one years ago to teach myself about SSH, the Linux command line, and even used one to block ads with an application called Pi-Hole for a while. At their price point, it’s easy to purchase a few of these and have a robust lab environment. And, if you get deep into coding, learning ML or AI, you can always purchase a Turing Pi Cluster board and put in several compute modules for just a bit over $300. With this you can host your own cloud application, easily learn Kubernetes, Docker, Serverless compute, or even start to build your own ARM infrastructure. Like I said, the possibilities are endless, all at a reasonable cost.