Inveneo Banana Pi Archives

How to Design a Data Center for the Developing World

  1. Posted by Jana Melpolder on September 11, 2015 in the categories: News

Note: Inveneo, in partnership with ARM Limited, LeMaker, and Protocase, is pleased to announce that a winner has been selected for its recent $10,000 Micro-Data Center Design Challenge. Congratulations to William Weatherholtz and his team “Micro Weather” who are the winners of the $10,000 challenge! Coming in second place is “RuggedPOD”, a team from France who was lead by Jean-Marie Verdun. Each member of RuggedPOD will receive a Google Nexus 7 tablet as a prize for his or her hard work and design.

They have different interests. One teaches dance. Another is a helicopter pilot-in-training. One is a software engineer. Another is a carpenter. Still another, a studio artist. But they came together with a shared purpose: to try to improve conditions in Third World countries.

half+of+team+post+hikeMeet William Weatherholtz and team, who just won the Inveneo solar-powered Micro-Data Center Design Challenge for their Micro Weather station design. The team’s winning entry is an object lesson in how creative methodology, a diverse team and carefully considered components selection just might help transform developing societies.

“I have a soft spot for Third World countries and I’m really interested in finding ways to improve conditions there,” Weatherholtz said in an interview. “I felt like this was a project that played to my strengths and my desire to educate.”

The design criteria for weather stations is unique: How do you deal with rain, rust, long-term durability, a lack of power sources, and little critters that like to gnaw on things in the wild? Weatherholtz (pictured to the far right of the nearby photo) and his team (pictured, L-R: Garrett Johnson, Victoria Johnson, Kelly Weatherholtz; not pictured Joshua Wickern, Bradley Weatherholtz, Landon Weatherholtz) embraced a unique methodology that included using Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats philosophy. The approach is designed to help improve team perspective and collaboration during projects.  This was a particular interest because the seven team members were dispersed across the country.

“Everyone was assigned a different perspective,” said Weatherholtz, a mechatronics engineer. “So for example, someone was assigned an aspect of the design that only considered price; someone else would focus on aesthetics, and so forth.”

The team rotated through these different considerations and perspectives and then amalgamated different parts of the design into the one they liked.

The team started by identifying the customer needs and translating those into engineering characteristics:

  • What type of battery was required?
  • How much back-up power would be needed? (the team targeted five days for it to run on back-up power initially but ended up at 2.5-3 days—more on that shortly).
  • What other design considerations might be unique for a developing country?
  • What were the environmental needs of the device casing?

Here’s a look at how the team tackled some of the design considerations.

Battery

Inveneo+winning+design+v3+uprightThis was an extremely critical component that needed to be as reliable as possible. Additionally, the team had to understand how much power they could pack into a small space. Should they push the limits for longer back-up power capability and accept the consequences? Additionally, what type of batteries could be shipped internationally?

“We tried to pick a battery with a very high energy density and moderate size, but the battery is still pretty heavy and large,” Weatherholtz said. “Adding another battery would mean another cubic foot of space and an extra 60 pounds in the design.”

At the end of the day, two and a half days backup capability seemed good enough for most applications, he said. That meant the battery could recharge in four hours with sufficient power, and most places get at least five hours of good sunlight, he added. The team ended up selecting an absorbent glass mat (AGM) battery—essentially a golf cart battery—that doesn’t spill, tip or have vulnerable components inside.

Solar Technology

This was one of those developing-country considerations, where ready reliable power sources are hard to find, if not non-existent. Even though it was the team’s first time working with solar, adopting the technology was key. “It’s a fantastic solution in a remote data center application because a data center is a static structure,” Weatherholtz said. “It allowed us to take advantage of that big fusion generator in the sky.”

Casing

The team considered plastic but wanted the system to be able to take a pounding. So they settled on aluminum, a reliable material, which conveniently could serve as a sizable heat sink. They designed to a worst-case scenario of 50C ambient temperature with direct sunlight, no humidity, and no moving air.

“One of our main design criterion was to make the enclosure—and enclosed electronics—reliable.  For us, that meant it needed to be completely sealed with no moving parts,” Weatherholtz said.

Single Board Computer

The contest criteria specified the SBC. As a designer and engineer, Weatherholtz said he doesn’t really like being shoehorned into a solution, but, that said, “the Banana Pi boards were hard to beat,” he acknowledged. The Banana Pi, based on ARM Cortex-A7 with Mali-400 GPU and running open source software, is designed to be inexpensive, small and flexible.

The technology was “robust, open source and low power,” he said. “When you’re dealing with IoT applications and micro data centers, you don’t have a lot of power and you can’t have a lot of heat, so ARM is best.”

One challenge is that boards such as this typically have two sources of heat — RAM and processor.   The team undertook considerable thermodynamic analysis and determined that getting rid of heat was key. The Banana Pi boards were ideal, Weatherholtz said, because the two sources of heat were on the bottom face and as a result, the team was able to direct the heat in the optimal direction. Had the CPU/RAM been on top, then it would have been more challenging to get the heat out, he added.

Overview+Thermal+Analysis+4+sizedWhat was his biggest lesson?

Weatherholtz and team spent a total of 150 engineering hours on the project, for which competitors used ARM-based solutions to create the “micro-board chassis” designs. They will share the $10,000 prize and the design will be built and deployed in the developing world.

“I really can’t overstate the importance of thermal analysis in projects like these,” Weatherholtz said. “If heat doesn’t have a good way to escape, it’s going to build up and cause high temperatures that make your electronics fail, or at least fail prematurely.”

He added:

“For us, making a low thermal-resistance path out of the case was a main design consideration.  We identified where the heat was being generated (see image right), and then got it out.  Everything centered on that.  Where we placed components, what we placed them on, how we connected them to what they were placed on… everything.”

Written by Brian Fuller, an employee of ARM. This post was originally posted on ARM Community and was republished with permission from the author.

Students Make Innovative Educational ICT Program for Micronesia

  1. Posted by Jana Melpolder on June 12, 2015 in the categories: News

Longtime Inveneo friend and colleague Dr. Laura Hosman has led her students this past semester on an exciting digital library project at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. One of the project’s leaders, Cecillia Tran, is a 5th year Liberal Arts Engineering Studies Major, and she recently spoke with Inveneo to give an explanation of the ICT project. She has been inspired by how people can make a powerful impact just by using older technology in inventive ways. Read the interview below.

  1. Inveneo: What is the SPELL Project?

SPELL stands for Solar Powered Educational Learning Library. Students in the Federated States of Micronesia as well as Vanuatu have no access to Internet or electricity in their schools. Our solution was to create and donate 50 solar-powered mini servers, pre-loaded with educational content, that could be connected to any WiFi enabled device through a WiFi dongle. The educational content our team curated onto an SD card was based through extensive research of what levels of education were needed on the islands. Some of the materials used were various Khan Academy videos on subject matters such as math, writing, and science. Due to a recent typhoon, we also decided to upload weather related content so students are better prepared if another accident were to happen.

SPELL Students and Dr. Laura Hosman

Dr. Laura Hosman (left) with several of her students working on the SPELL project.

  1. Since the Banana Pis are going to Chuuk, will the educational content be in English, Chuukese, or another language?

The educational content will be in English, since students are required to learn English in the classroom. However, there will be some content that is in Chuukese.

  1. What is the role that students play within the SPELL Project?

We divided into four teams. There is a contents and deployment team who are responsible for researching and curating the educational materials that is put on the SD card. There is a design team responsible for creating the outer shell for the mini-server itself so that there is a protective casing and an attached solar panel to power the server. We also have a SPOT team (systems performance optimization team) that is responsible for testing and configuring the Banana Pi (mini server) and WiFi dongle. And also, we have a promotions team that is responsible for the marketing and branding of the project. We even created a website and logo for the team.

  1. How will this project made a difference in Micronesia?

This project will give students who don’t have access to Internet or electricity a new way to receive their education. They will have the chance to be able to interact with electronic devices that many of us are fortunate enough to have easy access to. Our contents team is working very hard to provide a good, substantial amount of information and educational materials that would be helpful. The platform could possibly open their minds and eyes like never before.

  1. What lessons have you learned from this project?

I think we learned a lot of real world skills, especially teamwork; our class was composed of students from many different backgrounds of education. For example, we have many liberal arts and engineering studies majors, as well as electrical engineering, computer science, journalism, graphic communication, and political science. We’ve gained a lot of knowledge and have seen many different perspectives as we’ve moved along through different parts of the project. We also learned that projects will not always go as planned. We have hit many bumps in the road and have had to change directions, but it was a good experience for all of us. We managed to work our way through them. Finally, we learned a lot about Chuuk and the islands, what educational access they have, and how we can make a difference. That’s what excited me about this class: this project really could make a difference and we could reach out to people who are in need. It’s exciting to be a part of a project that would go beyond the classroom and make a tangible difference that matters in the world.

  1. What can the ICT community learn from SPELL’s experience?

I think it’s amazing what a difference a small group of 15 people can make. We were donated 50 Banana Pi brand units, given as part of LeMaker’s non-profit educational program. We turned them into a powerful educational tool that we believe could make a real difference in Chuuk students’ lives, as well as other countries, that may not have Internet access or electricity in their schools.

The ICT community should be aware that anything can make a difference. Products that one may think is outdated can be turned into something incredible that would help people. Sometimes it’s the small but innovative changes that can make a big impact.