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  #1  
Old 07-21-2007
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Experiment: Boat computer w/ Flash drive

Posting because there might be someone here who is interested in this.

I wanted a small processor for the boat that could stand up to a lot of vibration and abuse to use in automation and some other tasks. What I am using is a very small motherboard with about 1gb of memory in it, but one of my concerns was that since it will be on 24/7 a hard drive might go bad from being knocked around so much. There are solid state drives out there now that are like 30gb, some even bigger, and the prices on those are bound to drop very fast. But I didn't really need even 30gb, this is just a little computer that will be doing some very simple data logging, etc, nothing fancy. So what I really wanted was to use an SD memory card for a hard drive instead of investing 600$us in a big SSD drive. The cards have other advantages too over SSD drives such as being able to quickly copy the entire thing to make a backup.

Yesterday I hooked up a 4gb SD memory card to the USB port on the board and then I installed linux on it. As expected it boots up just fine. The real question with these flash cards is how long they'll run because they have a very limited number of write cycles on each bit before they go bad, not at all like a hard drive that you can write to as many times as you want. So you used to be able to ruin one pretty fast just by letting your computer swap to it over and over, you could ruin one in a few seconds if you weren't careful. But things have changed, and apparently manufacturers like Sandisk have made the newer flash cards so that they automatically use different parts of the memory so that one part doesn't get "worn out" so fast, kind of spreading out the writes so that the whole thing gets used evenly.

So my experiment is simply to let this linux system run on it's 4gb flash drive and see what happens. So far it has only been up about 12 hours, but it seems to be running just fine and it doesn't have any disk errors yet. Using this SD flash card the computer does boot slower than it did using a normal hard drive, and it takes a little longer to bring applications up, but overall I'm very impressed with how it is working. I'm actually surprised how easy it was to install linux on one of these cards and get the computer up and running.

I will post a follow-up to this message on rare occasions to let anyone who is interested know how the experiment is going. I figure if it doesn't work at some point I will start getting write errors in /var/log/messages or even printed out to the console, or applications will start to fail, etc. But so far so good.

Update 03 February 2009

The boat computer worked great booting from a USB Flash drive but I wanted to add a followup to say that it really is useless to do this now. The original message was posted in July of 2007 and since then the price of Solid State Drives (SSD's) with Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) of greater than 1 million hours are being sold in the 32-128 gig range for between 80$us and a few hundred $us. These SSD drives are a much better solution than Flash memory that doesn't do wear leveling. Besides just being better devices they also use faster IDE or ATA interfaces instead of USB and are very low power, so there's basically no reason to use Flash anymore that I can see.

Last edited by wind_magic; 02-03-2009 at 01:43 PM. Reason: update
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Old 07-21-2007
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Is this a conventional motherboard or are you using an industrial SBC? I recently ran across a SBC that had a DC-DC power supply chip onboard so it only needed a nominal 12 volts to run. I was thinking of using that with a 12 volt LCD panel for my onboard computer.
All the best,
Robert Gainer
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Old 07-21-2007
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This is relevant to my interests. Please keep us posted. The fact is that a cruising boat's computing needs for navigation and communications are usually far more modest than that of gaming, graphics and entertainment for which modern computers are built. They are also built to handle the bloated operating systems of today, the features of which are unnecessary to cruisers. So I would enjoy hearing of an alternative hardware setup in the real world. One concern would be the potential corrosion of stock USB connectors and/or metal contacts of flash memory cards in salt air.
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Old 07-21-2007
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tartan34C View Post
Is this a conventional motherboard or are you using an industrial SBC? I recently ran across a SBC that had a DC-DC power supply chip onboard so it only needed a nominal 12 volts to run. I was thinking of using that with a 12 volt LCD panel for my onboard computer.
All the best,
Robert Gainer
Robert, I am using a new motherboard from Via, the PX10000G. Overnight mobile computing seems to have gone from ATX boards, to mini-ITX (6.7" x 6.7"), to nano-ITX (4.7" x 4.7"), and now with the creation of a new ultra-low power Via board to pico-ITX (10cm x 7.2cm). This PX10000G that I have comes with cables for key/mouse, video, etc, and has connectors on it for USB and a lot of other stuff. Pretty much everything comes off of it with headers, but the ethernet and VGA have actual connectors on the board.

The manufacturer claims it uses under 13 watts of power, about as much as a kid's night light, but I have not measured the power usage yet. In any case it's very good on power. I use DC-DC conversion that was intended to be used in automotive computing but of course it'll work just fine on the boat too. Here are similar units to what I have. I don't have all my power stuff hooked up and working yet, but in the next week or so I will start running it all from a battery.

Of course you could run windows on this too, though I doubt it would fit into 4gb of memory like I am using for linux. With an SSD drive you could run windows though for sure. Anyone who is trying to do something like this, I would suggest Via as the manufacturer for the motherboard because they are kind of the leader in this field for the moment.

Here is a picture of the PX10000G, it's the board on the right half of this picture, in the person's left hand. The board on the left half of the picture, in the person's right hand, is actually an I/O board that brings out the audio connectors and USB connectors if you want to use it, but you don't have to, those things are still available via pins on the PX10000G board. You can see in the picture that ethernet and VGA have standard connectors. The VGA connector is just behind the person's left thumb.



And here someone jammed a PX10000G into an old Gameboy case.



(Here is the source article for that image)

By the way, in that article they seem to be claiming that they are running windows off of the 4gb CF card pictured, I didn't know windows would even fit in 4gb (?).

Last edited by wind_magic; 07-21-2007 at 05:46 PM.
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My Windows 2000 folder just clocked in at 1.92 GB and it's probably stuffed with drivers I've collected for the hundreds of progs I have on this workstation.

With 4 GB, I could run W2K, my comms, and a nav program with a ton of ENC charts. I just couldn't keep a thousand MP3s and a dozen movies like on my laptop. That would require more CF cards!

Nice stuff there. Have you considered "marinizing" it?
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Valiente View Post
One concern would be the potential corrosion of stock USB connectors and/or metal contacts of flash memory cards in salt air.

Have you considered "marinizing" it?
Valiente, that is one reason I was doing all of this. You could just as easily use a laptop to do boat computing, but I wanted to be able to mount the pieces in different places and gunk them up with marine goop to protect them. I also wanted standard easy to replace pieces so that if the motherboard goes bad you just buy a new one, etc, instead of all the hassle you have to go through to fix a laptop. I am going to put the PX10000G into a sealed enclosure and gunk up the holes I would make for the VGA cable, USB cable, key/mouse cable, etc. Then I am going to put the "hard drive" (flash card) at the end of a USB cable somewhere that I can reach it easily. The plan is to be able to just pop the SD card out and be able to copy it, etc, without a lot of fuss, and the motherboard will be essentially built into the boat. A funny side effect is that you can just take the whole USB card to any computer that is capable of booting from a USB port and boot your boat's computer up anywhere you want, which although maybe not very useful is certainly cool as hell.

I will have a separate windows box for adobe and all that stuff, both it and this linux box are hooked to a KVM switch.

If this works okay I will probably get another motherboard and install windows on it, hook it to the KVM switch, and use it for navigation too. At 13 watts each, having more than one isn't that big of a deal, and my KVM switch will hold up to 4.
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One nice thing is that flash memory has gotten much less expensive and much larger. 8 GB CF flash drives are fairly readily available, for about $83.

Wind Magic–

Keep us posted. Also, does the pico-ITX board have USB input? If so, can it power an optical drive??
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Quote:
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One nice thing is that flash memory has gotten much less expensive and much larger. 8 GB CF flash drives are fairly readily available, for about $83.

Wind Magic–

Keep us posted. Also, does the pico-ITX board have USB input? If so, can it power an optical drive??
Hey SD, yes, the PX10000G has 4 USB ports on it, but they are just pin headers, so you have to make a cable or something to use them, or hook up the little I/O board that comes with it. And sure you could hook an external CD drive or whatever, it's just USB ports like your desktop or laptop has.

Keep in mind too that I only went with the PX10000G board because I needed it to be as small as possible and because I don't need a bunch of ports for what I am doing with mine. If you don't mind a Nano sized board (4.7" x 4.7") which is still incredibly small, then get a different board that has more ports built into it. Via makes a lot of different kinds, and so do other manufacturers. There isn't anything special about the PX10000G except it's smaller, they are all very low power. Some of the Nano sized boards are fanless too so they are completely quiet.

Here is an example of a Nano sized board, this one costs like 300$us.



See link here for details, but like I said, there's nothing special about even this board, there are lots of different ones, and they all basically do the same thing. Just browse around and look at them, Via has a bunch and you can find different ones from different manufacturers, though I don't know if they will be as low power as the Via boards.

I haven't used this Nano sized board but I'm sure it works like all the other ones, it's just like a baby sized desktop. Plug memory into it (usually on the bottom of the Via boards, it lays sideways so it is flat), plug a hard drive into it, a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, then hook up a USB cd drive, give it power, and install an operating system. Easy.
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Here are some boards that already have cases, hard drives, memory and everything already put together ...

mp3car.com

And some more ...

mini-box.com

I'm sure you can get complete systems from other places to. The kids are putting these things into their cars now so that they can use them to play movies and music and stuff like that. Some of them even build little motorized screens and stuff into the dashboards of their cars and do all kinds of other crazy stuff with them, you know how kids are. LOL.

Fortunately we benefit because we have the same requirements for low power, 12vdc operation, quiet, etc.
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Wind_magic,

If you want to save some write cycle on the cards you may try to do a RAM disk with your memory then copy your OS on that virtual disk. Running from that RAM disk would reduce the number of writes on the card.

I lack experience with Linux but I believe that you would have to develop a procedure if your want to save your DATA..... Can you mount a card as a drive on a Linux system from a RAM disk?

-Leopold
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