09 December 2015 / Last updated: 27 Jan 2017

Good, Better, Beast!

Execution time:
Beast 2.0 -- Taking Single Board Computer clusters to the next level
About a year ago, we wrote about the Beast, our 120 Raspberry Pi cluster. Since then, we’ve had a lot of experience with it. First surprise was that the Beast never spent too long in one place. It was never meant to leave London, but a quick search of Twitter shows photos of it at various events, and that’s just some of what the Beast did last year. In terms of web traffic, over 46,000 people read the original blogpost, and, surprisingly, about 100 new people discover the post every day, mostly through search.
The Beast began as a 10-day project, and totally blew up. As with everything that finds itself in a world it wasn’t made for, it showed its limits. We had to re-make the electrics a few times, switch out parts, and saw smoke coming out of it more than we’d like. Transporting it was a massive pain requiring special suitcases, big enough to fit a human:
Surprisingly, airports didn’t actually mind transporting it, and it made it across the Atlantic a few times. Here’s what part of it looked like in an X-ray machine:
All these experiences taught us a lot, mostly in terms of what we could do better. When faced with a challenge, one can back down or double down, and it’s worth doubling down on the beast. So we’re working with industrial designer James Boonzaier on building Beast 2.0, and we’re ambitious about it. Here’s our wishlist:
  • Open and community-based: The process of building the new beast will be documented here, in weekly blogposts. The design will be open source, and optimised to be replicable with tools that exist in makerspaces. (3d printers, laser cutters, etc). We’re not building another one-off.
  • Sustainable: The new beast should be durable, and when problems arise, it should be easy to extract and replace parts.
  • Diverse: It should accommodate different network types (wifi, ethernet, 3g), different device types (no longer just Raspberry Pi), and different types of power (battery? solar?)
  • Demo-friendly: Since the primary goal of Beast was demoing at conferences, we want the new one to be awesome at that. It must be moldable to different designs (up to 2m high), easy to set up, and be easy to pack in regular suitcases.
  • Extensible: Thought should be put into leaving room for future experimentation and unexpected use cases. Engineer for serendipity.
  • Look awesome: Obviously we want this thing to knock people's socks off!
All this is leading us towards creating not a physical object, but a framework for how to build beast-like objects. Our main theme is to design a tile that can support four normal-sized SBCs, or perhaps a large industrial board, include networking and power infrastructure. These tiles should be able to combine into larger formations, building something like the original beast, or something else entirely. Once we define the size of the grid, we can also build smaller and larger tiles that fit into the grid. Here’s are some early stage renderings of the idea and what is possible
Having the definition of a tile, we (or others) can build tiles optimized for a specific single-board computer, or perhaps something else entirely. The magic of the lego-like structure we have in mind is that anything could be built with it. A few ideas we’ve heard so far:
  • A battery tile that gives, instead of taking, power from the unit, making the beast mobile.
  • An led-backlit tile for ultra awesomeness.
  • An ethernet router tile for those times when you just need Ethernet.
And of course, custom tiles for all your favourite single board computers.
So if you’re interested in the design process for the new beast, keep abreast of the developments by following the Beast2 tag on our blog or subscribing to it with your rss readers. Week after week, we will be blogging about our process, sharing more raw materials, and giving you more ways to help out. Our intention is to have a full-blown item in our hands by the end of February, but you know what they say about hardware projects...
Join the adventure and let’s see where it leads!
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If you have any questions, you can find us all on our gitter channel.
by Alexandros MarinosFounder/CEO, balena

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