Mini computers for the masses

By: Greg Lane


Whatcom student Lynda Moore, who is in the IT program, teamed up with the IT Professionals Club to build a supercomputer with Raspberry Pi computers. The Raspberry Pi nodes on the left are connected to the master computer which Lynda is working on. Photo by Greg Lane.
Whatcom student Lynda Moore, who is in the IT program, teamed up with the IT Professionals Club to build a supercomputer with Raspberry Pi computers. The Raspberry Pi nodes on the left are connected to the master computer which Lynda is working on. Photo by Greg Lane.

The IT Professionals Club at Whatcom Community College successfully assembled and disassembled a supercomputer made up of 32 Raspberry Pi (RPi) boards on May 30.

An RPi is a cost-effective, credit card-sized computer developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. It can plug into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to perform the basic functions of a desktop computer, such as browsing the internet and playing videos and games.

Lynda Moore, an IT student at Whatcom who is working on a cooperative education project centered on working with RPis, led a presentation to the club and provided the information and tools for the club to properly program each of the 32 nodes for the supercomputer.

Moore explained how each Raspberry Pi computer or node can connect to the IP address of a master node and create a supercomputer.

“The supercomputer is a computer that uses all of the processing power of all other Raspberry Pis connected to the master computer,” Moore said. “The instructions come from the master and the nodes all work to carry out given tasks.”

Moore said a supercomputer can perform many different tasks such as weather and temperature calculations, science and medical research calculations, “code-cracking,” and creating fractal sets, which are mathematical sets and equations that create visually complex patterns at a fast and efficient pace.

“They’re like worker bees working for the queen,” Moore said. “One by one the nodes are connected and the master computer puts in commands.”

The cost of creating an RPi supercomputer is significantly cheaper than traditional supercomputers, Moore said, partially because the RPi computers themselves cost around $35.

She said the University of Southampton created a supercomputer from Raspberry Pis and Legos, using the plastic building blocks as racks and frames for the nodes.

Moore said she began working on her project April 23 and she started as a complete novice with RPi computers. She said every Wednesday and Friday she spent hours working, researching, and troubleshooting.

Although this was solely her project, she said, “Christy Saunders helped me tremendously when I needed it.”

Saunders, an instruction and classroom support technician with Whatcom’s IT department, said she was “just there to help if there was an issue and to point her in the right direction.”

Owning an RPi computer at home, Saunders said the usefulness of the credit card-sized computers ranges from “anything that’s practical to fun.”

“There’s people building robots with these little computers,” Saunders said.

As for the future of Whatcom’s RPis, Saunders said she would like to see them used to help students hone their programming skills and get excited about programming.

Corrinne Sande, the head of Whatcom’s Computer and Information Systems (CIS) Program, said the IT department has a few plans for the school’s RPis.

“We will use them for various projects in the CIS courses and the IT Pros Club will also use them for different projects,” Sande said. “As an example, we are working in collaboration with a local business to test the Rachel Pi software on a Raspberry Pi.”

Sande said the Rachel Pi software and the RPis will be used for schools in other countries where students do not have internet access.

RPis programmed with the Rachel Pi software through World Possible, an organization which provides education around the world through new technology and the internet, will help students in need by creating safe computer server, she said.

“Rachel Pi is an example of something really good that people are doing with Raspberry Pis,” Saunders said.

Sande said in the future, the Industrial Control Systems Security class may use the computers for testing a project they are working on.

Although the club helped assemble and then disassemble the supercomputer, Sande said it may or may not be used later. “It is up to the club, but I expect next year we will put it together again as a project.”

Overall, Moore said her work and research with RPis was a positive experience but she recognized a couple problems during the process.

Moore said hardware issues were the most significant obstacle for her project. Monitors at the school lacked HDMI connectors which the nodes need, so they bought 10 converters to bring Whatcom’s monitors up to par with the devices.

Another issue was the difference in keyboard bindings for U.K. computers and U.S. computers. Moore said she spent a lot of time making sure everything translated correctly.

“Networking and cabling issues mostly,” Moore said. “Certain things didn’t work and I had to tailor it to our school’s resources.”

As for her future, Moore said she is now more comfortable with her Linux skills and no longer “feels totally in the dark” about RPi supercomputer assembly.

“This was a fun project and I learned a lot and got a lot out of it,” Moore said.

Moore said she is not part of the IT Professionals Club but enjoyed using her new knowledge and skills to help them work with the project.

“I hope to be part of the club next year,” Moore said.

The IT Professionals Club at Whatcom won Club of the Year at spring quarter’s final Interclub Council Meeting on June 2.


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