Tech: Sheevaplug

2022, Aug 28    

This week its another tech project, inspired by the fun I had with the bifferboard. Another project that sadly only has a few photos but a nice reminder all the same.

After pushing the bifferboard to its absolute limits I needed a new low-power system that I could try to get the most out of, while making it challenging by moving away from x86 again. There were a few options on the market (not as many as today mind), and it was the concept of a plug-in cloud device that took my interest.

Enter the Sheevaplug; a low-power computer the size of an older 12v power brick that plugs into a standard wall socket with everything self-contained. It was a tidy package, though ARM-based which meant getting some things to work could be challenging. That said, this device spawned others such as the GuruPlug and the DreamPlug and had OS support from Debian/Ubuntu.

In my typical fashion I worked on the device in its OOTB form and got the usual software stack working, however I also wanted to know just how far this ARM CPU (Marvell Kirkwood) could be pushed. With that in mind it was time to remove the device from its casing and put it into something larger...

Sheevaplug 01
Safe? Absolutely not!

My first choice of case can be seen in the above photo and frankly was incredibly unsafe (mixing AC and DC in the way shown is outright stupid and dangerous!). While it did work, it was somewhat impractical and I did become somewhat conscious of breaking it (or myself) as time went by.

My second choice of case was an old Dell case from the Pentium 4 era, which provided a ridiculous amount of space (while also allowing me to electrically isolate the power supply). I ran it in this case for some time, nicknaming it the "Sheevadell". It actually served as my low-powered desktop for over a year (good going considering its size/specification).

As you may have guessed from the above desktop comment (and the picture of the different components) it was able to successfully drive a DisplayLink USB adapter to provide graphics, more so that I expected it to. The USB HDD also worked well, as did the USB sound card (added after the pictures were taken). In truth I wish I had a plug-in power meter when I was building all of this to get exact readings on the power usage.

Sheevaplug 02
My Sheevaplug desktop (complete with fallout wallpaper)

While I did eventually upgrade to a system with more power, working with this device was both fun and frustrating at the same time... Encountering bugs with software that wasn't properly written to run on ARM CPU's was never fun, but slimming down kernels and patching things to get every last bit of performance out of it was :-)