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Desktop admins should keep one eye on nanocomputing platforms

Nanocomputers such as the Raspberry Pi platform are making their way into the enterprise. Desktop admins should know what they're dealing with in these tiny systems.

If you aren't familiar with the many nanocomputing platforms that have popped up recently, it might be time to take a look. These Linux-based devices represent rapidly evolving technology that could provide many interesting new career opportunities, some of which may not even exist yet.

Cloud, mobile technologies and the traditional Windows desktop are staples of enterprise computing today, but maker movement techies and ambitious entrepreneurs are ushering in the next big IT revolution. They're creating projects with these nanocomputing platforms that run almost exclusively Linux.

Why should enterprise IT pros, system admins and desktop gurus care? The Raspberry Pi and its Linux-powered nanocomputing cousins are multiplying like crazy, and someone will be responsible for developing, managing and supporting users on all those tiny "systems" once they make their way into the enterprise.

What is a nanocomputer anyway?

The latest Raspberry Pi 2 model B features a 900 MHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 CPU and 1 GB of RAM. It also has 4 USB ports, a full HDMI port, a 100 MB/s Ethernet port, 40 general purpose I/O pins and a VideoCore IV 3D graphics engine. That's a lot of horsepower. It performs reasonably well and is packaged on a 2.25" x 3.5" circuit board. You can perform standard desktop functions, cruise the Web in a modern browser and even watch YouTube. It only costs $35 and runs on several different Linux distributions.

Plug in a tiny USB Wi-Fi chip, add a wireless keyboard and mouse, a battery, and perhaps a small color LCD screen and you have what amounts to a fully-customizable, portable, Wi-Fi-enabled, DIY notebook. Run it without the screen and hook it up to sensors, motors and actuators, and you have a self-contained Internet of Things (IoT) platform. Being a Linux machine, there is a wide variety of servers, programming languages and applications available from the Linux community.

The typical Raspberry Pi Linux machine is extremely reliable, capable and easy to maintain. You burn an image on a micro-SD card, shove it in the on-board slot, boot the darned thing and start computing. If you'd like, you can enable remote login via Secure Shell, set your time zone and decide if you want to boot up on the command line or into a desktop environment. And that's just the beginning.

For example, I've built a conference name badge on the Raspberry Pi. It has a modular design, seamless Wi-Fi, programming and automation capabilities, and it can display a looping 150 MB mp4 30 frame-per-second video on its little color screen for nearly three hours on a $15 rechargeable emergency cell phone battery. I can configure and change everything over my local LAN from my Linux notebook, a Windows desktop or my Samsung smartphone. I can also modify things by simply plugging the Pi into a big screen and connecting a mouse and keyboard.

What nanocomputing means for desktop admins

You might be wondering how this relates to enterprise computing and your career: As devices change and IoT takes off, somebody in your organization will need to know how to develop, maintain, administer and productively apply nanocomputing capabilities. It might as well be you.

With devices like this, once the hardware is attached -- possibly including sensors, actuators, disks, monitors or user interface devices -- you can handle features and changes remotely or automatically over the network. Modularity and standards are far enough along that much of the hardware-side mixing and matching are off-the-shelf easy. Linux is certainly robust and mature. As an enterprise desktop admin right now, you push OS revisions, software and firmware changes down to desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones all the time. All that works the same way on Linux nanocomputers, and there's plenty of security already baked into Linux. That's where there's opportunity for the enterprise IT pro.

Remember the mobile revolution and how much disruption it brought to the modern enterprise? I think about what it will look like when wearables start to incorporate this kind of computing power. My conference badge is a wearable and it's built with off-the-shelf parts.

All of this might be a little ways in the future, perhaps in the one- to three-year timeframe. But the Raspberry Pi Foundation has sold about 5 million Raspberry Pi devices, so far. New designs, like the Beagle Bone series, the C.H.I.P. computer and various Raspberry Pi clones are cropping up more and more. Scaling and manufacturing cost efficiencies will definitely increase the rate of adoption.

So there you have it. Now is the time to investigate how to capitalize on the Linux nanocomputing trend, both for your career and future.

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This was last published in December 2015

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How do you think nanocomputers will affect the enterprise?
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To clarify, Windows 10 can be run on the Raspberry Pi 2. Enterprise admins can thus support the technology using the infrastructure they already have in place.
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