Hackit: SheevaPlug


A few months ago, we introduced the SheevaPlug, a 1.2GHz ARM processor with 512Mb of RAM, 2 usb ports, an ethernet port, and an SD card slot. In that article, we asked: “What would you do with one?”. We received tons of responses, 118 comments and counting. Scientific American had a similar idea and asked some “hackers”(MIT students) what they would do with it (thanks, grisspy). We thought maybe we would weigh in with our opinions. Join us after the break and in the comments.

#1. Home Automation
Summary: “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.

Eliot: [Nikolaus] has an interesting idea about leveraging the extra processing power to do object recognition and then having the home react accordingly. The phrase “home automation” points out one of the SheevaPlug’s shortcomings; despite plugging directly into the wall, it doesn’t do powerline communication.

Caleb: Note how he avoids mentioning x10. It’s a nice idea, especially once he gets to the “statistical profile” bit.

#2. Desktop Replacement
Summary: It’s small and fairly powerful. It could replace your desktop.

Eliot: No dedicated video hardware means you’ll have trouble replacing even your Apple TV with this. No one is scrambling to build an ARM desktop.

Caleb: What advantage does this have over a netbook? By the time you add a display and input aren’t you close to the netbook bottom of the line, minus the easy portability?

#3. Data Center Replacement:
Summary: “If these things can compare with [server farms’]…computational throughput at a fraction of the power consumption, that’s intoxicating.”

Eliot: This sounds like a terrible cluster. Having a dedicated AC-DC converter for each processor is NOT efficient.

Caleb: For small applications, this makes sense. Like doing a cluster in your home, or possibly office. It seems like their performance would be lacking in larger applications. Anyone care to weigh in here?

#4. Data Availability
Summary: Connect a hard drive to it, access the data from anywhere.

Eliot: This is definitely a good use. There are very few applications that get the software right and we’d love to see improvements. The USB host port could make initial setup much easier.

Caleb: I like this. If it really is plug and play, it is a great solution. I’m guessing you could even have software with it that would let normal people set this up without modifying their router settings?

#5. Data Mining
Summary: Connect stuff to the internet to gather statistics.

Eliot: This is a user friendly way to add network capability to appliances. It costs more than an Arduino, but it should be much easier to get started collecting, storing, and hosting data. It has a serial interface for connecting whatever you want.

Caleb: He is talking about making every day objects share data right? The title lead me to believe he was going to have these things crawling the web collecting data. This seems like overkill. If you can rig a machine not meant to send that data,with sensors and custom code, you can probably program a development board like Arduino to relay that data for cheaper than the SheevaPlug. Am I way off base here? Assume they have a unit to collect data at the home office, that cost 5 times as much, but they save money on each cheaper unit in the machine(in the field) that calls home. That would be a more cost efficient way to do it wouldn’t it? Maybe my take only applies if you are doing a lot of appliances, like beverage machines.

#6. Life Filter
Summary: Use it to filter your email.

Eliot: Innocuous looking hardware for running interesting daemon processes on a network certainly sounds like a fun project.

Caleb: Yeah, I guess that could work. I don’t understand the necessity with all the filtering available for email as it is. Maybe he’s referring to some illusive future data that we need filtered. I’ll just stick with here and now. Email filter? Really?

#7. Surveillance
Summary: connect webcams for cheap surveillance.

Eliot: This has been solved and many of them even feature external inputs already.

Caleb: IP cameras are pretty cheap, they can be found for far under $100. Is this a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist? Maybe this could add some feature like facial recognition or something.

#8. You Name It
Summary: SheevaPlug is versatile, it would make a good cheap server.

Eliot: The lack of x10, powerline networking, and WiFi makes this platform undeserving os the hype. It could be a replacement for all the router hacking we’ve covered… but it costs more.

Caleb: Web server and source code repository were mentioned frequently in the comments on our article. It seems that this thing may not be perfectly suited for anything, but it’s small and cheap enough to be used for a lot.


We saw many of the ideas above listed in our comments, as well as climate control, corporate espianage, proxy serving, media serving with a NAS, IRC, Firewall, torrent box, clustering, SSH, art installations, and more. These guys came up with some good uses, but nothing compares to our commenters.

59 thoughts on “Hackit: SheevaPlug

  1. On net-enabling webcams:
    A crappy IP-enabled webcam is about £70. A Sheevaplug + a much higher quality USB webcam is £100. Now add a USB hub and more webcams. Maybe add some preprocessing to them. Much better than buying scads of crappy IP cams.

  2. All your criticisms are spot on in my book.

    I think my best use case for it would be as a way to create a VPN among friends/family. Something they can just plug in and they don’t have to worry about.

  3. Looks like it’s just a demo device for their SoC. It has usb 2.0, 2x gig-e, 2x sata, 1x pci-e, flash and ddr sdram interfaces, and usual goodies such as uarts, gpio etc. mpeg ts for video and spdif for audio. Oh and it’s not ARM, just an “ARM-compatible”, they say it implements ARMv5te (i.e. ARM9 devices without java support (jazelle) ) but i’d prefer to have a real arm core and not worry about inevitable incompatibilities. And they don’t list prices, you have to register. :/

    See here: http://www.marvell.com/products/embedded_processors/kirkwood/index.jsp

  4. holy crap. I’m reading the datasheet and it’s a pdf file with embedded ms excel attachments… I didn’t even know it’s possible.

    And this ‘datasheet’ more of a summary, but it’s best i could get. It’s just 140 pages long, with random parts cut out. Eg. the reset/initialisation is described down to meaning of bits in individual registers, and we get even timings and test ciruits for JTAG/SDRAM/etc interfaces, but there are gems like “For additional details, see the [blah blah] 88F6281 Functional Specifications” everywhere. And looks like i’d have to register to get the said document. Do not want.

  5. Using the servers as data points for USB enable sensors would allow the distribution of a “plug, play, and monitor” sensor array that could be mailed or fedexed. Pre-configuring the devices, a sensor array could be deployed across a region by mail. Along a similar line, the devices could data log and then transmit on schedule. Radiation, pollution, seismic events, etc. could all be monitored on the cheap.

  6. I have ordered one, I was planning on using mine as an endpoint for a darknet VPN between friends using openvpn, and also have a USB drive plugged into it to use as a fileserver.

  7. I see a ton of uses for it but only if they’re made so the psu, usb and an added 1394 buss could be configured to be shared if desired.

    all of my uses would be security/encryption based including motion detection, etc. as mentioned. i’d also consider making a prime number generator for **massively** large primes; a central controller could assign tasks to newly added nodes.

  8. needs wifi.

    after that, surveillance. they could be used to process, store and communicate information about what they see and hear. they’re small, affordable and could be installed anywhere with an outlet. they could operate over a distributed network, easily updating new devices and compensating for the loss of others.

    yeah, needs wifi.

  9. Could you use a USB wifi dongle? Though ARM drivers might be a bit of a problem perhaps…I don’t really know enough about such things. But maybe one with open source drivers would work? Otherwise just buy a cheapass wifi router and have that feed to the ethernet…but that adds a lot of cost and size, kinda defeating the point of a lot of the suggestions.

  10. I agree with the SheevaPlug needing wifi. I rigged a DC-AC converter for my car for wardriving and I believe this could be a smaller solution than lugging a netbook/laptop around. Possible even run a mobile data center or maybe my own Google street view vehicle. XD

  11. I’m still thinking this is perfectly suited for commercial/industrial espionage.

    1. Plug it in behind someones desk at your competitors HQ
    2. Have it set up an ssh tunnel to your location
    3. ???
    4. Profit!

  12. @wdriver

    This would be rubbish for the car. Invertors are hugely inefficient. Why waste space converting DC to AC and then back to DC again? A much better solution in that instance would be to get an Car AC-AC power supply and use one of the many other small systems/motherboards powered directly.

  13. Why are you guys so into powerline networking? I’m currently working on the beginings of a home automation project. X10 and Insteon have both done research into networking the house via powerlines. It works great until there are more than 5 devices trying to do bi-directional communication, spamming sensor data and checking for updates. It becomes nearly impossible to differentiate between noise and signal very quickly after this point. Things eventually get places, it’s just no where near a timely manner. My solution? Zigbee, cheaper, wireless, and it meshes. (they make one in an SDIO config)

  14. I see a perfect use. The same as older hardware I currently use.

    Setup Linux with VNC server. This is the access to the Unix network of high performance computers (i.e. 16+cpus with 128+ Gig memory). Corporate standards say use Windows XP desktops and laptops. To run our software, we need high powered Linux and Unix. Using a Sheevaplug (or old hardware) offloads the desktop interface CPU and memory usage leaving the big machines to be loaded up with jobs.

    You try running a 128 Gig job when 2 people forgot to turn off the screen saver on their VNC sessions.

  15. It would be great to get absurd amounts of these and do all of these things. The house tracks your movements and turns lights on and off accordingly. The house monitors outside activities and uses facial recognition to say “Your friend Soenso is here,” over an intercom system. If you leave the house you could connect over the net and access any files attached to it and view your cameras. If you are out and a friend shows up it could send notice to you and you could speak to them. The funniest/creepiest way would be to put all the cameras behind masks of your face. These are all possible if almost entirely pointless.

  16. “Eliot: This sounds like a terrible cluster. Having a dedicated AC-DC converter for each processor is
    NOT efficient.”

    That’s how google’s doing it, an they DO do it efficiently. Although technically it’s every two processors.

  17. I have one and am in the process of making it the center for my ZigBee coordinator. It will plug into the USB port and I can easily run all of my ZigBee targets. It connects to my network so data and commands can be easily transferred or processed immediately.

  18. I got one to water my lawn. I picked up a few 24V relays at a buck a pop, a USB to GPIO adapter for 40 and this for a hundred. Now I read in data from NOAA parse it to a mysql database on the plug which will alter be used to decide if I want it to water. Instead of having a single plan I can now seperate all the io and they can each have their own plan. So I can now water the flowers up front 3 times a week and the yard once or twice. I am also looking at using the extra gpio I have for controling the lights around the home. The final project is to add soaker hoses to help maintain my foundation automatically using the plug to decide when, which zone, and for how long to maintain it.

  19. i once worked in a callcenter of a internet provider and the free wifi there gave you an external ip and you were connected right to the countries backbone, giving you insane down- and -upstream. I’d use one of these little thingies to run a hidden TOR server, this would hopefully boost TOR’s performance a bit!

  20. I just got my SheevaPlug a few days ago. The home automation / security thing is clearly a sweetspot, especially for people who travel extensively. OTS security software is crap and very inflexible. Never mind the ambition of face reco, tracking individuals, etc. just being able to script things like motion detection sensitivity, snooze, remote panic button, etc., is highly worthwhile. Nothing you couldn’t do with an old laptop, of course, but low power and discreet.

  21. I think what you all are missing is that the one for sale by Global Technologies (which is who Marvell links to) for $99 is the development kit. As I understand it, if you want a production run of them, you can customize them. It has PCI-E headers, SATA headers, dual ethernet capable, and a lot more. The board is designed to do many things, but for the dev kit, they only included a few things. It could also be much smaller. I tore mine apart as soon as I got it. a good half of it is the mini-usb/SDIO part that is used to programme the board and the power supply. If you were going to cluster them, i imagine you could order them with the power input being 3.3/5v.

  22. thats my man peters (i ama guy) he is so sexy when heys nude i didn’t do him it would be so fuck_in gay if i did @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@ night that is not day i’ll whate hehe 8)( olo

  23. emule, torrents straight to SD card. Media center to xbmc.

    Then connect to it by using my iPhone or g-phone’s x server or vnc.

    Can this thing be run by solar, if torn down and str8 DC to batteries.

  24. I cannot believe that not one of you guys have actually thought of the ‘Homeplug 1.0’ standard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HomePlug_Powerline_Alliance. Add this type of functionality to the device and what do you have? A server/network device/x10 type controller unit/ surveillance security device that just happens to communicate over the power lines in the house. As long as the wall sockets are on the same phase as the sheevaplug you can connect to it anywhere in the house without cabling.

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