The Raspberry Pi Phenomenon

Growing up in the eighties was a very exciting time for a young boy with geeky inclinations. It was the birth of the computing age, when for the first time in history, you could own your very own console or PC for an affordable price and use it for games, word processing or, best of all, tinkering.

I first learned to program on a clunky looking IBM XT, and although my first few programs were largely rubbish, it was an enchanting experience making a machine do things that you tell it to do. My DIY tinkering wasn’t limited to just consoles and PCs. I remember playing with electronics, chemistry sets and Meccano kits that my father still had from his childhood.  Making things out of bits of technology was the ultimate pastime for me, as it was for other likeminded geeks. My disposition hasn’t changed very much over the years, which is why the Raspberry Pi phenomenon is one that delights me and brings back fond childhood memories.

The other day I walked by the desk of DevOpsMike and saw a small traffic light blinking and flashing away there. I stopped to talk to him about it, and one Nerdgasm later, I learned it was reporting on the status of builds for a massive cloud platform that POSSIBLE has developed and maintains.

That’s the sort of fun and inspired geekery that the Raspberry Pi phenomenon is fuelling in generations old and new. To learn more, I decided to put a few questions directly to Mike.

Q: Hi DevOps Mike. Is that your full name?

A: It’s not on my birth certificate, no, but I was given the name on my first day at POSSIBLE and it sort of stuck.

Q: For the benefit of the tech geeks, tell us about the blinking traffic light on your desk.

This project is the result of a couple of weeks tinkering at home with a Raspberry Pi, a soldering iron and a novelty USB hub. My goal was to have a physical build monitor which would keep me up to date with what is happening on our TeamCity build server, although that was really just an excuse to play with some fun technology.

The core of the hardware is a Raspberry Pi with a PiFace extension board to simplify hardware interaction. The traffic light shell is a cheap USB hub from Amazon. It was so cheap it only had a single, red LED fitted, which I gutted of its USB innards and rewired with some LEDs and resistors that I bought on eBay.

The operating system is Raspbian “Wheezy” with Mono installed. The build monitor is a custom C# console app which uses an open source IO library that I wrote specifically for the PiFace, and a wrapper around the TeamCity REST API, patched to work on the latest Mono build.

The light scheme is pretty basic at the moment. When a build is running off of the master branch the red light comes on, and when any other build is running the yellow light comes on. The app polls TeamCity every 15 seconds to get the latest status, and then turns the red and yellow LEDs on or off to suit. I’ve got plans to extend this scheme to include signals for broken builds, deployments in progress, disco and PANIC!

Q: What is the Raspberry Pi and why is it important?

A: It’s a cheap, credit-card sized computer that can run a full desktop operating system. It was created to promote Computer Science education in schools, along the lines of the old BBC Micro, but it’s been co-opted by hobbyists as a starting point for a variety of crazy electronics projects. It’s important because it massively lowers the barrier to entry for computing and means anyone can start tinkering without needing vast amounts of electronics knowledge. Building something even as simple as my traffic lights would have been way beyond me without a Raspberry Pi because I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.

Q: You had a BBC Micro? Are you that old?
A: No, and, er, yes. My first computer was a Commodore 64 – I remember spending hours typing in pages and pages of program code from a weekly magazine to produce a game which never quite worked properly. I had more fun trying to fix it than I did actually playing the game, and that’s probably what inspired the geek in me.

Q: Why do you think hobbyist technology tinkering has become so popular now?

A: I think it’s because recent devices like the Pi do all the complicated groundwork for you, and you get to concentrate on the fun stuff that makes your project unique. You start to see your idea coming to life much more quickly.

Q:  How do you see the application of these devices in the near future?

A: They’re enabling all sorts of hardware mashups already – voice-controlled robot arms, BigTrak rovers, Facebook-connected face recognition security cameras to name a few.

Q:  What is your next Raspberry Pi project?

A: I’m not sure yet but the whole company is getting involved which is fantastic. I’ve heard stories about many different Raspberry-Pi guerrilla projects –  a briefcase alarm, a toilet door vacancy sign, and a meeting room booking system where people have to clock into a meeting room or they will lose it. It is all very exciting and a good example of how these kinds of DIY tools inspire everyone to get creative and potentially come up with the next big thing.

Q:  Thanks DevOpsMike. And finally, where can we go to find out more about the Raspberry Pi?

If you want to learn more about the Raspberry Pi, here are some great links:

And if you want to do your own Pi Project, here are some resources that I found helpful:

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