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You heard of phrase 'Pie in the Sky', how about some Pi in the Cloud?
Researchers from the University of Glasgow have linked 56 Raspberry Pi computers sitting in racks made from Lego to create a mini cloud computing platform modelled on those run by Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
The platform is designed to give students an insight into the architecture of today's major cloud platforms – whose inner workings are often hidden from view.
"For an initial investment of less than £4,000, we've been able to build a Linux-based system which allows researchers and students complete access to a working cloud computing infrastructure at a tiny fraction of the cost of its commercial equivalent," said Dr Jeremy Singer, of the university's School of Computer Science.
The Raspberry Pi is a $35 credit-card sized Linux computer designed to be affordable to kids, in a bid to inspire them to learn to code. Since the Pi's launch last year more than 1.2m boards have been sold.
Sitting in just four small lego racks the Pi cloud may be one of the few cloud platforms that you can carry under your arm.
"One of the great things about the Pi cloud is that it's portable. We can literally pick a chunk of it up and take it directly into lectures to do live demos," said Dr David White, of the University's School of Computing Science, adding the platform is used to teach about software deployment and networking.
"To do something like this using x86 nodes would be much more expensive but we would also be restricted to putting it in a machine room and at that point you've lost the hands-on teaching aspect and the portability.
"The main purpose is to build something that is logically similar and not computationally similar. Obviously pound for pound and watt for watt you'd be much better off building an x86 cluster if you wanted to do computation."
The cloud platform primary purpose is as a teaching tool. Some of the students were tasked with helping to build the infrastructure as part of their final year project for master's degrees. Other students have been carrying out research projects, programming in Python to build RESTful web interfaces to control routers, as well as developing tools to investigate what's going on in the system.
The Raspberry Pi cloud gives students a better understanding of the workings of cloud platforms than the software models the university was previously using.
"The Pi cloud gives student the opportunity to build and change the infrastructure or change the networking in a way we can't do without having physical access to a datacentre," said White.
The platform's network is configured to mimic that of a cloud platform, with top of rack switches connected to the 14 Pi boards in each lego rack.
The university is also running OpenFlow software on the routers and switches to virtualise the network layer. Using OpenFlow has allowed Mac address-based routing, rather than IP-based, which makes it easier to migrate virtual containers between racks.