Finding Computers Everywhere

For a long time one of the standard Slashdot jokes about any new hardware announcement was, “But will it run Linux?”  It seemed like people were trying to load Linux on everything, including a wristwatch.

Because of the structure of the code, it’s fairly easy to recompile for various hardware targets, and as new processors come along people will port Linux to the new platform.  This is either done because they have a pet project for that architecture, or in some cases by companies who want to use it in embedded products.  For just the costs of the port the company can have a full-fledged operating system that can scale from just a bare-bones kernel implementation all the way up to a full-fledged desktop (with X11R6 and KDE or Gnome). 

One of the first such projects to get widespread attention was probably the conversion of the Linksys WRT54G to run other firmware.  Due to the GPL, Linksys had to post their kernel modifications, so people had something to use to get started quickly with the hardware. 

One such example is the OpenWrt project, which provides a Linux distribution for the WRT54G (and its cousins, such as the Asus WL500G Deluxe).  It provides more AP/Router/Firewall features than the stock firmware, with the ability to choose additional packages and functions.  Of course there’s a limit to what you can do, since the system has limited RAM and flash.  Depending on the hardware revision, it has a 125MHz, 200MHz, or 216MHz processor with 16MB of RAM and 4MB of flash (unfortunately, v5.0 and later reduced the RAM and flash, which makes them much less flexible).

But it turns out that Linksys has another device, the Linksys NSLU2, which is a “bring your own drive” NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.  It has a 266MHz xScale processor (ARM), 8MB of flash, and 32MB of SDRAM.  The USB storage capability opens up more possibilities, since it’s now possible to store a much larger set of operating system files.  The flash memory can be used for the bootloader, which would then load the OS off of the USB storage device.  A fairly robust community for the NSLU2 (also known as “the SLUG”) has sprung up, with people using them for a variety of purposes such as a low-power/quiet media streamer or as a car computer.  Others have used USB hubs to add various devices, such as audio and webcams.

It seems that these development efforts are driven by the twin desires to have a cheap computer and to be able to tinker.  Their work has allowed for some fairly impressive accomplishments with some inexpensive hardware (the NSLU2 typically sells for about $80, and the WRT54G for about $50).

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