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Shiny happy hardware

For years I'm using Winterms as simple home "servers". It was a fun project to work on and some people were even nice enough to send me some examples of more powerful (relatively, we're talking about ~300MHz here at most) hardware. Two of them are still working as nameservers/printservers and one of them even hosted the Winterm hacking website for a while.

But they're getting old, slow, and pretty painful to upgrade. Time to move on I'm afraid. So before my last trip to the US, I ordered two shiny pieces of hardware: A Pandaboard and an Nvidia Tegra developer board. Due to circumstances, I didn't really expect both (or even either) of them to arrive - Nvidia seemed to send the board only to people who have projects they find interesting/important (stuff like the Motorola Xoom probably), and the Pandaboards never seem to be in stock.

Yet, here I am with both of them, wondering which one to actually use. :-)
Left: Pandaboard, right: Tegra2 250 Harmony board

I guess I'll just write down my findings here so far. I'll probably end up using both, one as a server and the other one to run stuff like xbmc on my TV.

Both boards seem quite similar, spec-wise. Two 1GHz ARM cores, 1G of RAM, USB, sound, networking (including WiFi and Bluetooth), HDMI output, and an SD card slot. The Pandaboard has an internal antenna, no clue about the range.

Although both boards' USB ports apparently aren't really meant for powering 2.5" USB HDDs, it seems to work quite well anyway. Which is good, because SD cards as root filesystems seems like a bad idea. Did you know that (according to bonnie++) a desktop hard disk from 2007 outperforms SD cards (at least in the Pandaboard and Tegra) not just on sequential reads, but also on seeks? So yeah, I may be using USB HDDs instead, which sadly means more power usage. :-( Especially in the Pandaboard SD performance is too bad to be usable.

One big advantage of the Pandaboard seems to be the community. A pretty busy (and generally helpful) IRC channel, lots of info online on Wikis. The Pandaboard iss "just another OMAP architecture" so lots of stuff that worked for BeagleBoard should work on the Panda with some customizations. Canonical/Ubuntu also support the thing officially.

Here comes the biggest contrast with the Tegra. Nvidia seems to be too busy with Android, the result is that there's little support for doing other stuff with the board. The only thing you get for now is L4T (Linux 4 Tegra), which is an Ubuntu Jaunty (yes, 9.04, that's two years ago by now..) image you can run on it. There are efforts on getting Lucid to run, don't know where those are ATM. But one complication there is some binary-only drivers/helpers (like nvrm_daemon, which I guess manages the memory shared between OS and video/etc), which means troubles getting X to work after an upgrade. Ouch.

The Panda also certainly wins in the bootloader department, as it just loads uboot stuff from a FAT partition on the SD card (tricky part here is that if you do anything wrong with the partitioning and formatting of this SD card, the boot process will just fail silently). For flashing the Tegra you need a proprietary fastboot flasher binary. Possibly, once booted, I can just write my kernels to NAND myself from inside the OS, but I haven't yet tried this.

So yes, with this all in mind, it's a delight to run a normal (and not outdated) Debian/Ubuntu install on a Pandaboard. Video is also supposed to work flawlessly almost out of the box on Ubuntu. However, I seem to be unlucky/doing it wrong since the framerate is not impressive, and playback seems buggy. (While the little video playback I've done on the Tegra was pretty good, super smooth, and with only 10% of CPU usage!)

For my original goal, running a simple home server, I feel that both boards are suitable - I'd just run Debian inside a chroot on the Tegra so the helper daemons (and maybe some video stuff) can run outside it. But before I get this video stuff to work, I have some work to do. And hopefully, if I wait for long enough, some other patient souls out there will also fix some of these problems...


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Gino on :

I'm anxiously awaiting the Soekris net6501 myself. I love ARM but these new boards will scale for me for a little while in the future :)

Wilmer on :

Oh yes, looks pretty shiny too. :-) I've always felt some kind of attraction to non-Intel stuff. A mix of hate for the "Intel Inside" mafia, and a way to correct my Intel-centered assumptions of computer architecture I suppose.

The Soekris will probably be much less of a hassle to get to work though!

(Although video with all the platform-specific drivers is the only real painpoint for me so far.)

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