PotW: The Perfect Project Computer

January 10, 2021

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.

Comments are closed.