Hardware for the holidays: Why not open source?

A real, useful, open source computer, the $35 Raspberry Pi is powerful enough to use as a PBX. A DIY laptop is coming, too

It's the quiet week of the holidays. What better time to contemplate open source hardware? Just think, every design of every little component has a nonrestrictive open source license. It's enough to bring a Yuletide tear to your eye.

Two projects have caught my attention. While neither is exactly crucial to your IT department, both are signs of things to come and provide a crucial insight into what makes open source work when you do it right.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Why I left my MacBook for a Chromebook | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

The Raspberry Pi as PBX

First, I've taken delivery of a new Model B Raspberry Pi. This is a tiny, fully functional, single-board computer you can buy for $35. It was designed and developed by a U.K. nonprofit, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, with the aim of revitalizing computer education, and it's amazingly flexible. The design was intended to make it the perfect platform for open source software projects, so it runs a full version of Linux derived from Debian.

What caught my eye as a holiday week project was the introduction of the Pi Store. It's now possible to get serious open source software for the Pi, including the LibreOffice productivity suite (which follows on from OpenOffice.org) and the Asterisk VoIP switch. We use Asterisk with FreePBX as our phone system, running on a dedicated PC server in our server room. The idea of migrating the central switch to a Raspberry Pi is very appealing, so we've been working on a test system (between family meals and gift opening).

We're attempting to use a full port of both Asterisk and FreePBX to the Pi. Asterisk is very resource-intensive, so we've disabled the video system on the Pi and added all the storage we can. Since FreePBX provides a Web interface, there will hopefully be no need for anything other than the Raspberry Pi connected to an Ethernet cable once it's all working. Looking at the tiny board -- dwarfed even by the Ethernet cable -- it's amazing to think we're attempting to cram a whole telephone exchange into it.

This is the home hacker equivalent of the trend that's changing data centers. Low cost, low-energy, high-function computing is now available in ways that are unleashing the Innovator's Dilemma on the data center. Google, for example, hasn't turned to big-name hardware suppliers like IBM to build its infrastructure. Instead, it's using enormous numbers of disposable processor boards to deliver highly redundant compute power. Google is able to do this because of open source. With software independent of hardware -- no per-CPU licensing, just the four freedoms -- Google is empowered to use low-cost hardware and even to redesign it to work better.

A DIY open source laptop
The second project isn't one we'll be attempting at home over the holidays. Andrew "bunnie" Huang is building a completely open laptop. That's not just a matter of going to an electronics store and buying generic parts and a case. He's designed the whole thing from scratch, ensuring at every step that the design can be freely reproduced by anyone else who wants to do the same, assuming they have the necessary skills.

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