Ben Broderick-Phillips ’13 at OpenCompute

Ben and Andrew @ OCP

Ben Broderick-Phillips (’13) and Andrew Cencini (faculty) caught in a rare moment of being dressed well.

About two weeks ago, I traveled to San Jose, CA for the OpenCompute summit – a gathering of people working on open-source data center hardware and software.  It was a good event, and my friend Steve White and I did a brief introduction to the hardware hackathon that took place there (we submitted winning entries in previous years, so we sat this one out).

But perhaps one of the most exciting things was running into Ben Broderick-Phillips (’13) at the conference.  Ben is currently working as a software engineer for Nebula, and doing great work.  He was showing off some cool and groundbreaking work that he has been doing at Nebula, and by all accounts has been helping to give Bennington a good name in the technology industry.  Hopefully, we will see Ben on campus some time this spring.

Another Hardware Hackathon Win

Cheesy Fingers installed in a Facebook OpenCompute server

On June 19th, I traveled to Facebook headquarters to compete in the second OpenCompute hardware hackathon.  The team was comprised of Steve White, Dave Kaplin and Matt Gambardella of Nebula, as well as myself.  Our previous entry won the first hardware hackathon, and involved wireless server debugging (it was called Cheesy Fingers).  Since then, Cheesy Fingers has entered production, and we were even able to test it out in a Facebook server!

Our entry this time was a wireless server debugging aggregator – basically, a device that hooks up to our wireless mesh network and sends and receives data to and from the servers in a data center rack.  We built the device, codenamed “Big Cheese” on top of the popular Raspberry Pi single-board computer. Continue reading

Scenes from Make Me Dangerous

This spring, I’m teaching an intensive introductory computer science class called “Make Me Dangerous,” where students learn computational thinking skills, Python programming, how to use Unix, and a variety of topics from the various nooks and crannies of the discipline.

Today was “hands-on hardware day (part I)” for the class, where students disassembled and explored a variety of computers and computing equipment.  Through this exercise, students became familiar with the various hardware components in a computer, and formulated some great questions on how computers work at a more fundamental level (for example, how the quartz crystal in the system clock oscillates at a given frequency, forming the main ‘heartbeat’ of the computer as it fetches and executes instructions for programs and the operating system).  We also looked at memory hierarchy, talked about how operating systems manage hardware resources, and discussed various evolutions in the hardware space.

Hardware we dissected included:  a Sun SPARCstation 5, a raspberry pi, a 300 baud modem, 3 dell desktops of various configurations, and an older dell laptop.

In addition, last week, the class went over to one of the the video studios in VAPA to take pictures in front of a green screen.  They then wrote Python programs to remove the green pixels, and replace them with an alternate background.  The class has been learning programming and computing using an approach called media computation, where students write programs to create and manipulate images, sounds and video while learning core concepts of programming.  It has been an interesting approach and has allowed for a lot of fun projects like green screen day!

OpenCompute Hardware Hack

This past week, I traveled to Santa Clara, CA to participate in the OpenCompute Summit.  OpenCompute is an open-source hardware project that aims to democratize the world of data centers (the places full of hundreds of thousands of servers, where things like Facebook, Google, Bing and Twitter live) by openly sharing and evolving hardware, software and mechanical designs.

One of the more exciting things that occurred during the conference was a “hardware hackathon” where teams made up of engineers and researchers from industry and academia came up with a novel idea to contribute to the OpenCompute project (students at Purdue had previously developed a biodegradable server chassis!).  As it turns out, the team I was a part of took first place in the competition – the prize being support and funding from the OpenCompute Foundation to file a provisional patent application for our idea, which also becomes a new mainline project as part of OpenCompute.

Visualization of our team’s component (CAD by Jon Ehlen of Facebook)

The idea that we developed was a true interdisciplinary approach to the problem of management and monitoring of servers in data centers.  We combined electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering and computer science to come up with a design for a module (codenamed “Cheezy Fingers” – long story…) that plugs into the debug header of an OpenCompute motherboard, and uses a hyper-local low-power wireless mesh network to transmit sensor, location and status data about servers, as well as to provide a mechanism for locating, identifying, and gaining remote access to the serial console of a server.   The design is based on what we know of the challenges Facebook has in managing their OpenCompute-based servers (hundreds of thousands of them), and is designed to be a low-cost, low-power component that can be easily snapped-in as a retrofit to their existing servers, as well as to any other OpenCompute server in the wild.

Our team hard at work (Jon Ehlen, Facebook; Andrew Cencini, Bennington College; David Kaplin, Nebula; Steven White, Nebula). Photo by Jill Juarez.

We had about 12 hours to discuss, evolve, and model our design – though we had also been discussing the idea in advance.  Our team was made up of two electrical engineers from Nebula – Steven White and David Kaplin, myself (the computer scientist/software guy), and Facebook’s mechanical engineer in charge of storage design, Jon Ehlen.  We had a blast working together – Jon built a beautiful CAD model of “Cheezy Fingers” in SolidWorks (see picture above), and Steven and David specced out the components and schematics.  For my part, I specified the data protocol and aggregation design, as well as wrote some C code for the serial connection that will run in the Linux kernel to retrieve locational information and blink the chassis LED using IPMI.  The judges remarked on what a thoughtful and complete submission we had – especially given it’s something we could begin mass-producing within the next 24 hours or so.

All in all, it was a great time, and a fun way to bring together people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to solve a real problem and make a real and meaningful contribution to the open source hardware community.  Ben Broderick-Phillips and Pratham Joshi are currently spending their FWT working on other projects with Nebula, which are slated to become contributions to the OpenCompute project as well.  Look to hear more about their work in the near future…

Update 1/21/2013: Some nice media coverage of our project here.

Update 1/24/2013:  Welcome GigaOm readers!  (GigaOm story here).


Behind the Scenes of Goodwill’s Computer Recycling

This past Monday, my Computing Ecology class traveled to Pittsfield, MA to visit the headquarters of Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires to learn about what happens to electronic equipment donated to Goodwill.  Prior to the trip, we had been reading about and discussing the difficult and not widely reported state of affairs related to e-waste recycling – an all-too-steady stream of stories of environmental and human devastation resulting from the export of toxic electronic trash to Asian and African countries.  So, what happens to electronic equipment donated to Goodwill?  Does that e-waste end up on a container ship headed to Guiyu, China?

The short answer, and overwhelmingly positive news is this:  Unwanted electronic equipment donated to Goodwill is recycled responsibly via the Dell Reconnect program.  Frank Engels, CEO of Goodwill Industries fo the Berkshires, several members of his staff, and Jamie Cahillane of the Center for EcoTechnology generously gave our class a behind-the-scenes look at what their organizations do – including the collection and processing of electronic equipment for recycling.  We toured the Pittsfield facility to see the massive amounts of electronic equipment donated by households and companies – enough to fill a tractor trailer truck every two weeks or so, destined for Dell’s recycling facilities.

Prior to visiting Goodwill, we had been curious about what might be happening with all of the unwanted computers and electronics dropped off to Goodwill collection boxes.  As it turns out, not only is the equipment responsibly recycled, but Goodwill also is paid by Dell for each pound of e-waste collected – which helps pay for job training and placement for people in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont region.  All in all, the visit to Goodwill helped not only show the sheer volume of electronic waste we generate (in our sparsely populated region, no less), but also how organizations with a social conscience can help stem the tide of toxic dumping – and still remain financially viable.

Much work remains to be done – in addition to electronic waste, there also exists a huge opportunity for additional work to be done with textiles, plastics and more difficult to recycle household goods like microwaves.  As a result, we left with our original questions answered, but also with a whole host of new questions to think about.

The field trip also included one additional learning experience – where the spare tire is on the college vans.  Once the flat tire was swapped out, we were on our way back to Bennington with time to spare before afternoon classes began.  Quite an adventure!

Field Trip: MIT Flea Market

This past long weekend, some students and I took a field trip to the MIT Swapfest flea market. It was a fun trip and a great way to see all sorts of strange and interesting computer and electronic equipment, as well as get some great deals.

I hadn’t been to the MIT flea market in about 12 years, but it was still going strong, with hundreds of vendors selling their wares. The crowd generally tends to be quite friendly, and loves sharing stories and lore about the very rich and colorful world of computer science and engineering that has developed over the past 60 years or so in the greater Massachusetts area.

Vendors had everything from old tools, computers and computer parts of every type and variety, gigantic capacitors and other electronic components, 8-bit Nintendo cartridges, lab and test equipment, and even a model schooner made entirely out of beer can fragments. There was also one vendor who had a bunch of old cryptographic equipment from WWII (primarily different variations on the German Enigma machine).

Some of the more notable hauls by faculty and students were:

-2 oscilloscopes
-1 power supply
-1 guitar EFX pedal
-1 Sun SparcStation IPC
-1 Sun SparcStation 5
-1 bar code scanner

If you missed the trip this time around, don’t worry. The Swapfest starts up again on Sunday, April 21 2013, and I suspect we’ll make another trip in the Spring.

Andrew Blum’s TED Talk about TUBES

Thank you to everybody who came out for this past Friday’s Science Workshop talk!

As I mentioned during the Q&A in response to Todd Pykosz’s great question about Internet infrastructure, there is a very good book by Andrew Blum called “Tubes:  A Journey to the Center of the Internet” (review), and a corresponding TED Global talk he gave that discusses the physicality and monumentalism (or lack thereof) of Internet infrastructure.

Both the talk and the book are fascinating, and he will be speaking via Skype to my Computing Ecology class on 10/15 (which will be followed by a walking tour of Bennington’s Internet infrastructure, led by Ted Martin and…. Todd Pykosz(!) of Bennington’s IT department).  Participants from the class will be welcome to photographically and textually document the tour and infrastructure, some of which may end up being shared on this blog…

Anyway, enjoy the talk and the book. “Tubes” is on reserve at Crossett Library and available through the Bennington College Bookstore.