A Pi Cluster to Hang in Your Stocking with Care

It’s that time of year again, with the holidays fast approaching friends and family will be hounding you about what trinkets and shiny baubles they can pretend to surprise you with. Unfortunately there’s no person harder to shop for than the maker or hacker: if we want it, we’ve probably already built the thing. Or at least gotten it out of somebody else’s trash.

But if they absolutely, positively, simply have to buy you something that’s commercially made, then you could do worse than pointing them to this very slick Raspberry Pi cluster backplane from [miniNodes]. With the ability to support up to five of the often overlooked Pi Compute Modules, this little device will let you bring a punchy little ARM cluster online without having to build something from scratch.

The Compute Module is perfectly suited for clustering applications like this due to its much smaller size compared to the full-size Raspberry Pi, but we don’t see it get used that often because it needs to be jacked into an appropriate SODIMM connector. This makes it effectively useless for prototyping and quickly thrown together hacks (I.E. everything most people use the Pi for), and really only suitable for finished products and industrial applications. It’s really the line in the sand between playing around with the Pi and putting it to real work.

[miniNodes] calls their handy little device the Carrier Board, and beyond the obvious five SODIMM slots for the Pis to live in, there’s also an integrated gigabit switch with an uplink port to get them all connected to the network. The board powers all of the nodes through a single barrel connector on the side opposite the Ethernet jack, leaving behind the masses of spider’s web of USB cables we usually see with Pi clusters.

The board doesn’t come cheap at $259 USD, plus the five Pi Compute Modules which will set you back another $150. But for the ticket price you’ll have a 20 core ARM cluster with 5 GB of RAM and 20 GB of flash storage in a 200 x 100 millimeter (8 x 4 inch) footprint, with an energy consumption of under 20 watts when running at wide open throttle. This could be an excellent choice for mobile applications, or if you just want to experiment with parallel processing on a desktop-sized device.

Amazon is ready for the coming ARM server revolution, are you? Between products like this and the many DIY ARM clusters we’ve seen over the years, it looks like we’re going to be dragging the plucky architecture kicking and screaming into the world of high performance computing.

[Thanks to Baldpower for the tip.]

Replace Legacy CNC PCs With A Gerbil

There are lots of laser cutters and other CNC machines available for a decent price online, but the major hurdle to getting these machines running won’t be the price or the parts. It’s usually the controller PC, which might be running Windows XP or NT if you’re lucky, but some of them are still using IBM XT computers from the ’80s. Even if the hardware in these machines is working, it might be impossible to get the software, and even then it will be dated and lacking features of modern computers. Enter the Super Gerbil.

[Paul] was able to find a laser cutter with one of these obsolete controllers, but figured there was a better way to getting it running again. As the name suggests, it uses GRBL, a G-Code parser and CNC controller software package that was originally made to run on an 8-bit AVR microcontroller, but [Paul] designed the Super Gerbil to run on a 32 bit ARM platform. He also added Z-axis control to it, so it now sports more degrees of freedom than the original software.

By way of a proof of concept, once he was finished building the Super Gerbil he ordered a CNC machine from China with an obsolete controller and was able to get it running within a day. As an added bonus, he made everything open so there are no license fees or cloud storage requirements if you want to use his controller. [Paul] also has a Kickstarter page for this project as well. Hopefully controllers haven’t been the only thing stopping you from getting a CNC machine for your lab, though, but if they have you now have a great solution for a 3040 or 3020 CNC machine’s controller, or any other CNC machine you might want to have. Continue reading “Replace Legacy CNC PCs With A Gerbil”

Getting Started with Free ARM Cores on Xilinx

We reported earlier about Xilinx offering free-to-use ARM Cortex M1 and M3 cores. [Adam Taylor] posted his experiences getting things working and there’s also a video done by [Geek Til It Hertz] based on the material that you can see in the second video, below.

The post covers using the Arty A35T or Arty S50 FPGA boards (based on Artix FPGAs) and the Xilinx Vivado software. Although Vivado will allow you to do conventional FPGA development, it also can work to compose function blocks to produce CPUs and that’s really what’s going on here.

Continue reading “Getting Started with Free ARM Cores on Xilinx”

Amazon Thinks ARM is Bigger than your Phone

As far as computer architectures go, ARM doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. Since nearly every mobile device on the planet is powered by some member of the reduced instruction set computer (RISC) family, there’s an excellent chance these words are currently making their way to your eyes courtesy of an ARM chip. A userbase of several billion is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and that’s before we even take into account the myriad of other devices which ARM processors find their way into: from kid’s toys to smart TVs.

ARM is also the de facto architecture for the single-board computers which have dominated the hacking and making scene for the last several years. Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, ODROID, Tinker Board, etc. If it’s a small computer that runs Linux or Android, it will almost certainly be powered by some ARM variant; another market all but completely dominated.

It would be a fair to say that small devices, from set top boxes down to smartwatches, are today the domain of ARM processors. But if we’re talking about what one might consider “traditional” computers, such as desktops, laptops, or servers, ARM is essentially a non-starter. There are a handful of ARM Chromebooks on the market, but effectively everything else is running on x86 processors built by Intel or AMD. You can’t walk into a store and purchase an ARM desktop, and beyond the hackers who are using Raspberry Pis to host their personal sites, ARM servers are an exceptional rarity.

Or at least, they were until very recently. At the re:Invent 2018 conference, Amazon announced the immediate availability of their own internally developed ARM servers for their Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers. For many developers this will be the first time they’ve written code for a non-x86 processor, and while some growing pains are to be expected, the lower cost of the ARM instances compared to the standard x86 options seems likely to drive adoption. Will this be the push ARM needs to finally break into the server and potentially even desktop markets? Let’s take a look at what ARM is up against.

Continue reading “Amazon Thinks ARM is Bigger than your Phone”

Creating Black Holes: Division By Zero In Practice

Dividing by zero — the fundamental no-can-do of arithmetic. It is somewhat surrounded by mystery, and is a constant source for internet humor, whether it involves exploding microcontrollers, the collapse of the universe, or crashing your own world by having Siri tell you that you have no friends.

It’s also one of the few things gcc will warn you about by default, which caused a rather vivid discussion with interesting insights when I recently wrote about compiler warnings. And if you’re running a modern operating system, it might even send you a signal that something’s gone wrong and let you handle it in your code. Dividing by zero is more than theoretical, and serves as a great introduction to signals, so let’s have a closer look at it.

Chances are, the first time you heard about division itself back in elementary school, it was taught that dividing by zero is strictly forbidden — and obviously you didn’t want your teacher call the cops on you, so you obeyed and refrained from it. But as with many other things in life, the older you get, the less restrictive they become, and dividing by zero eventually turned from forbidden into simply being impossible and yielding an undefined result.

And indeed, if a = b/0, it would mean in reverse that a×0 = b. If b itself was zero, the equation would be true for every single number there is, making it impossible to define a concrete value for a. And if b was any other value, no single value multiplied by zero could result in anything non-zero. Once we move into the realms of calculus, we will learn that infinity appears to be the answer, but that’s in the end just replacing one abstract, mind-boggling concept with another one. And it won’t answer one question: how does all this play out in a processor? Continue reading “Creating Black Holes: Division By Zero In Practice”

Smooth Moves from Cheap Motors

Building an electric motor isn’t hard or technically challenging, but these motors have very little in the way of control. A stepper motor is usually employed in applications that need precision, but adding this feature to a motor adds complexity and therefore cost. There is a small $3 stepper motor available, but the downside to this motor is that it’s not exactly the Cadillac of motors, nor was it intended to be. With some coaxing, though, [T-Kuhn] was able to get a lot out of this small, cheap motor.

To test out the motors, [T-Kuhn] built a small robotic arm. He began by programming his own pulse generating algorithm that mimics a sine wave in order to smooth out the movement of the motor. An Arduino isn’t fast enough to do these computations, though, so he upgraded to using the ESP32. He also was able to implement the inverse kinematics on his own. The result of all this work for a specific platform and motor type is a robotic arm that has a very low cost but delivers performance of much more expensive hardware.

The robot arm was built by [T-Kuhn] too, and all of the details on that build, as well as all the schematics and code, are available on the project site if you need a low-cost robot arm or a good stepper motor controller for a low cost. There are many other ways of getting the most out of other types of low-cost motors as well.

Continue reading “Smooth Moves from Cheap Motors”

Short Length of Wire Turns STM32 Microcontroller into Good-enough Wireless UART Blaster

Hackaday regular [befinitiv] wrote into the tip line to let us know about a hack you might enjoy, wireless UART output from a bare STM32 microcontroller. Desiring the full printf debugging experience, but constrained both by available space and expense, [befinitiv] was inspired to improvise by a similar hack that used the STM32 to send Morse code over standard FM frequencies.

In this case, [befinitiv]’s solution is both more useful and slightly more legal, as the software uses the 27 MHz ISM band to blast out ASK modulated serial data through a simple wire antenna attached to one of the microcontroller’s pins. The broadcast can then be picked up by an RTL-SDR receiver and interpreted back into a stream of data by GNU Radio.

The software for the STM32 and the GNU Radio Companion graph are both available on Bitbucket. The blog post goes into some detail explaining how the transmitter works and what all the GNU Radio components are doing to claw the serial data back from the ether.

[cover image cc by-sa licensed by Adam Greig, randomskk on Flickr]