BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
The physical computing stack is steadily working its way into organizations in the form of little sensor modules, out-of-the-way telemetry devices and embedded machine control products such as Raspberry Pi computers. These devices may fall under your jurisdiction as a desktop administrator, so get familiar with these technologies now to prepare yourself.
Knowledge of physical components is important from a big-picture perspective. You may not need to become a full-time hardware designer, but having some real, hands-on experience with hardware, sensors and outputs integrated with your existing software expertise can only boost your credibility -- not to mention your confidence.
The physical computing stack includes software, computing hardware, development frameworks, sensors, output devices and the mechanical, electrical, electronic and packaging infrastructure to make something interact with the physical world. Traditional information technology includes desktop applications, web interfaces and behind-the-scenes cloud or database elements. Physical computing wraps that up with buttons, sensors, motors, pumps and various mechanical, electrical and real-world interactive processes. And these physical devices are not necessarily located on a user's desk.
A new car is a great example of practical physical computing. Its stack consists of dozens of computers tied together with in-car networking and lots of software that interacts with engine sensors, valves and motors to manage engine performance, steering, braking, door locks and more. The car's desktop is accessed from the entertainment system's touch-screen display and is frequently connected to the internet via a satellite or cellular link.
Now, scale your car up to the organizational level. All those new internet-connected sensor hubs, telemetry loggers, stealth embedded machine controllers and even remote customer devices require regular maintenance, attention on security and user support. Desktop admins are likely the ones this maintenance will fall to, so it's important to know a little about the hardware you might soon be managing.
Enter the Raspberry Pi computer
The Raspberry Pi is a small but powerful standalone computer board that runs Linux. It has HDMI video, it's network-capable, and it can interact with the physical world through its general purpose I/O pins. It runs a modern desktop, a comprehensive suite of applications, and supports just about any programming language or framework you can imagine. The Raspberry Pi 3 model has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low-Energy, and it costs $35.
The Adafruit kit contains a Raspberry Pi 3, an 8 GB micro-SD card with the latest Raspbian Jessie version of Linux, a project board for connecting sensors and output devices -- such as LEDs -- a wall wart, jumper wires, a photocell, some buttons and a few other components. It has everything you need to start learning about physical computing for around $100.
Once you have a Raspberry Pi and parts to work with, you can also investigate hacker spaces and meet-ups in your area, such as Tech Shop's workshop on getting started with the Raspberry Pi and the Orlando Robotics and Makers Club. Local hacker spaces, public libraries and universities frequently offer beginner classes and workshops specifically tailored for physical computing. If you are in a large company, particularly with ties to engineering and information technology, you might check your organization's internal class listings.
Jump right in
Hands-on, do-it-yourself activities are an excellent way to learn hardware concepts, and Raspberry Pi computers are specifically designed for the job. Once you have your kit, simply hook it up to a TV with an HDMI cable, add a keyboard and mouse, connect the Ethernet port to your network, then power it up with the wall wart.
In short order, a complete, fully-functional desktop will appear on the screen. Click on the system tray menu -- upper left corner of the screen -- to see a list of available applications. If it asks for a login, the user name is typically pi with raspberry as the password.
Fire up one of the web browsers and take a look at the Raspberry Pi organization's website. There you'll find articles, spec sheets, blogs, forums and documentation on just about any topic you could ever imagine concerning the Raspberry Pi. You should also spend some time on the Adafruit, SparkFun and Maker Shed project pages; they have extensive community-driven project breakdowns, tutorials, blogs, forums and how-to's on using and developing on Raspberry Pi computers.
The traditional first program you'd write is blinking an LED. Circuit Digest has a simple-to-follow tutorial on hooking up an LED and the Python code needed to make it work. Python is the default language packaged with the Raspberry Pi and is fairly easy to learn. The Raspberry Pi kit will have the required components.
Expanding your knowledge
The Raspberry Pi and vendor sites are full of projects and resources, so be sure to try a few of those projects on your own. Once you feel comfortable with using Linux on the Raspberry Pi desktop, begin looking at projects, classes and workshops that focus on the general purpose digital I/O. This is where the real physical computing fun happens. The Raspberry Pi starter pack makes it easy to move right into integrating physical I/O concepts with the software and application topics you probably already know.
Tying real-world physical interactions to today's existing systems and business processes will be the big challenge. Current business and product models -- particularly in the area of security -- have a lot of room for improvement. We're at the semi-blank canvas stage of the physical computing stack, and you have an opportunity to help direct where it goes.
Homemade thin clients: Worth the work?
Raspberry Pi, Chromebook make good VDI thin clients
Build IoT apps for the cloud faster