A perfSONAR User's Group

Little Boxes In The Internet Monitoring Biz


http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Markham-suburbs_aerial-edit2.jpg *

Over the last decade and a half, I often paused to wonder about using small computers for network assessment. The market seemed to be made up of exciting press releases about product that no retailer had in stock, or if they did, there was a prohibitive minimum quantity for purchase. Less than two years ago, Raspberry Pi Foundation changed the landscape, by bringing cheap devices, capable of running Linux, to market, for sale at quantity=1. (Amusing that in its initial release, Raspberry Pi orders were limited to one-per-customer, due to demand versus supply, but now larger lots are possible).

Of course, that’s an over-simplification. Products like Texas Instruments’ BeagleBoard-xM, and its little sibling, (Altoids-tin-fitting) BeagleBone (released almost concurrently with Raspberry Pi) are also shaping the market, and the mindset that produced multiple general purpose single-board systems was probably influenced by Arduino culture.  Still, it was Raspberry Pi that was the one reported in mainstream news, and Raspberry Pi that we can’t help but allude to when trying to define the new, available, class of devices.

As a platform for network monitoring and measurement, these inexpensive, power efficient devices enable node deployments in numbers that would have been prohibitive a few years ago, and many have noticed. At the recent perfSONAR workshop in Arlington, the notion of “scaling perfSONAR down to run on Raspberry Pi” was mentioned often, and by various people.

How cheap, you ask? To do cost estimates, one needs to consider all the pieces. Raspberry Pi Model B is famously selling for $39 or so, but in late 2013, one needs about $74 to get a running system. BeagleBone Black includes 2 GB Flash on-board, and a USB cable. Add an enclosure, and BBB is about $60, or about $45 at quantity=10 **.

Besides Raspberries and Beagles, the compact ARM-based market has numerous other players, notably SolidRun’s CuBox line which includes models with Gigabit Ethernet, Olimex OLinuXino, PandaBoard, and many more.

Operating systems that run on ARM-based SBCs include Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora (notably as Pidora),  forks of Android (OxDroid, OMAP3) etc. (See http://www.elinux.org.) But don’t make empty assumptions — compatibility from one ARM platform to another is reportedly limited, although I have compiled things on Raspberry (ARMv6), and run the binary on BeagleBone (ARMv7).  The Google-able wisdom for compiling stuff seems to point to installing cross-compiling environments on a “real” computer, but within PerfClub member experience, it has been demonstrated that pretty much anything, including a Web10G-patched Linux kernel, can be compiled on the devices themselves. The BeagleBone black model, with 2 GB “operational” flash built in, plus an external micro-SD slot, lends itself to keeping a build environment separate from the devices day-to-day working volumes. 

Notable “Little ARM Box” measurement and monitoring projects (that I have heard of):

  • RNP MonIPE
  • CAIDA Ark
  • U. Hawaii SWARM (curiously, no link!)
  • Also: The Ones I’m Totally Spacing On

Another class of objects that’s giving rise to network monitoring applications is SOHO router custom firmware, which can offer a compact, network-enabled platform at a medium price. A particularly attractive aspect of this environment versus some of the SBCs is the communities (like DD-WRT and OpenWRT ) of active support.

All three offer (or intend to offer) nodes to the public to place on end-user networks (although BISmark is swamped with requests).

If you’re looking at deploying many small, cheap devices to do network monitoring or measurement, there is a lot of “prior art” to consider.

* M. Reynolds, 1962 (perf. P. Seeger, 1963)

**Adafruit November 2013


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