Raspberry Pi: 11 reasons why it's the perfect small server

Raspberry Pi: 11 reasons why it's the perfect small server

Summary: The Raspberry Pi has found its way in to the hobbyist market for computing, but it is also very capable for other business and personal use as well. An extremely low power draw, small form factor, no noise, solid state storage, and other features make it an attractive solution for a small and lightweight server.


Recently I've been experimenting with a Raspberry Pi (revision B) running different GNU/Linux distributions. 

Since the Pi is a basically a mini-computer, I decided to take it for a spin and see what I could throw at it, and  I have been pleasantly surprised. In fact, it's been so successful that I've decided to try setting it up as a mini server with various services.  In doing so, I've come up with a list of advantages that I feel are very compelling.

  1. Power consumption - The Pi draws about five to seven watts of electricity. This is about one tenth of what a comparable full-size box can use. Since servers are running constantly night and day, the electrical savings can really add up. I have calculated that the basic Pi kit (Pi board, case, and power supply) will pay for itself with about one year's worth of electricity savings if it's left to run 24x7x365.  I ended up with the CanaKit Basic Kit (ASIN # B00DG9D6IK) which is very affordable and good quality.
  2. No moving parts - The Pi uses an SD card for storage, which is fast and has no moving parts.  There are also no fans and other things to worry about.  A Class 10 SD card is usually the best performing compared to lower class cards, but this will mainly only affect boot time where there is the most I/O.  There is a compatibility chart for SD cards here, results may vary but overall I've had very good luck with Transcend cards which provide a good value.
  3. Small form factor - The Pi (with a case) can be held in your hand.  A comparable full-size box cannot.  This means the Pi can be integrated inside of devices, too.
  4. No noise - The Pi is completely silent.
  5. Status lights - There are several status lights on the Pi's motherboard.  With a clear case you can see NIC activity, disk I/O, power status, etc.
  6. Expansion capabilities - There are numerous devices available for the Pi, all at very affordable prices.  Everything from an I/O board (GPIO) to a camera.  The Pi has two USB ports, however by hooking up a powered USB hub, more devices can be added.
  7. Built-in HDMI capable graphics - The display port on the Pi is HDMI and can handle resolutions up to 1920×1200, which is nice for making the Pi in to a video player box for example.  There are some converters that can convert to VGA for backwards compatibility.  A list of HDMI to VGA converters can be found here.  I ended up using the Sanoxy HDMI to VGA cable (ASIN # B0088K7QUQ) which has worked well so far.
  8. Affordable - compared to other similar alternatives, the Pi (revision B) offers the best specs for the price, at least that I've found.  It is one of the few devices in its class that offers 512 MB of RAM. The Pi has come down in price since it first arrived, and is finally affordable as a hobby, business use, or whatever need there is.
  9. Huge community support - The Pi has phenomenal community support. Support can be obtained quite easily for the hardware and/or GNU/Linux software that runs on the Pi mainly in user forums, depending on the GNU/Linux distribution used.  A good list of distributions can be found here.
  10. Overclocking capability - The Pi can be overclocked if there are performance problems with the application used, but it is at the user's risk to do this.
  11. Multiple uses - Having the storage on an SD card makes it easy to swap with other SD cards running other GNU/Linux distributions to quickly and easily change the functionality of the Pi. If you want to set up the Pi to run as a server to test it out, then later try something else, just swap the SD card and you're done. Using the "dd" command on a GNU/Linux computer, a backup of the SD card can be created and later restored if needed.

Drawbacks of the Pi

With all of the positive things about the Pi, there are a couple of items that I feel are very minor drawbacks:

  1. ARM architecture - While ARM is a highly efficient and low powered architecture, it is not x86 and therefore any binaries that are compiled to run on x86 cannot run on the Pi. The good news is that entire GNU/Linux distributions have been compiled for the ARM architecture and new ones are appearing all of the time. There are very few applications that absolutely need x86. The only one that I found so far to be a problem is Wine, which runs Windows programs. Unfortunately, Wine does not work on the Pi.
  2. RAM not upgradable - The main components of the Pi are soldered to the motherboard, including the RAM which is 512 MB.  This is not a problem though as GNU/Linux can easily run on this. I've found the Pi uses about 100 MB of RAM while running as a small server (this is without running X11).

Software for the Pi

Read this

'We thought we'd sell 1,000': The inside story of the Raspberry Pi

'We thought we'd sell 1,000': The inside story of the Raspberry Pi

The $35 Linux Raspberry Pi computer has sparked a coding revolution. Here's the inside story of the Pi, from its inspiration and development to plans for its future.

The Pi runs GNU/Linux and variants of similar operating systems. Running Windows is not such a success story, there are too many technical problems with Windows in getting it running on the Pi, so Windows has been deemed impractical on the Pi.

I am a huge user and supporter of Red Hat GNU/Linux derivatives. So, I found that RedSleeve is the Red Hat Enterprise/CentOS variant that runs on the Pi. 

This opens the door to an entire world of uses for the Pi as a small server. The RedSleeve distribution has most of the binaries that are available on regular x86-based CentOS and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. With RedSleeve, the Pi can then become a DNS server, file server, web server, firewall, cluster, or whatever you choose that can run without hitting the maximum RAM. A single or multi-purpose server of these types or others will probably not be an issue with memory, with light use. Memory intensive applications generally become an issue with the X11 desktop and running end user applications.

Today virtualisation is very popular so some may say that the cost of spinning up a virtual machine is less than running a Raspberry Pi.  But, calculate the power consumption for your hypervisor, and weigh out the differences to see which method in fact costs less overall.  Sometimes, a physical box or physical segmentation is needed, or avoiding high costs of running a full hypervisor is a factor, and this is where the Pi can step in.

Further reading

Topic: Linux

Chris Clay

About Chris Clay

After administering Linux and Windows for over 17 years in multiple environments, my focus of this blog is to document my adventures in both operating systems to compare the two against each other. Past and present experiences have shown me that Linux can replace Windows and succeed in a vast variety of environments. Linux has proven itself many times over in the datacentre and is more than capable for the desktop.

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  • "The Pi has come down in price since it first arrived"

    Maybe for Revision A (256mb of ram was $35.00 now $25.00), but the highest cost has always been $35.00, unless you bought from NewEgg or some other large Retail outlet.

    I bought my Raspberry Pi from Element14 over a year ago for 35.00. Just ordered the night vision camera ($25.00 5MP fixed lens capable of 1080P 30fps video) for a project I'm working on.

    I've already tried it as a HTPC running XMBC to stream videos from my server. No issues at all and HDMI carries audio as well.

    I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes to tinker with computers.

    ~Best wishes
  • One more problem

    No native SATA support. If Raspberry Pi had SATA with Linux and samaba, the Pi could had made a nifty net drive.
    • No reason that SOMEONE could build a SATA interface.

      But the problem will be "What do I use for a "FILE SYSTEM"? Maybe same as GNU/LINUX? Are there any standards that could be used that will live long enough to work?
      • There are plenty...

        Ext4 is a decent Linux filesystem, and has been a standard for a good few years now. Alternatively, Linux also supports NTFS.
      • Do you know what you are talking about ?

        The extended file system, the standard for Linux, dates back to 1992 (about the same as Windows' NTFS) and I am using it right now. There have been incremental improvements (ext2, ext3 and now ext4), as there have been with NTFS, but they have been back-compatible.

        [Answer to my title question:- No]
        Dr Zhivago
    • mmm samaba

      I had samaba once. It tasted like chicken.
  • No SATA or USB 3.0 or GB Ethernet

    So no fast large hard drive, and no high speed SAN.
    • Sure

      If you can set up a RAID 10 system using SD cards....
    • It is only an ARM11 single core native 700MHz

      It is clearly not designed to be a performance system. But it does work within what it was designed to do. You CAN tow with a Honda Civic but it won't do the work of F-350 or even F-150.
  • Fun toys

    I have had both the Pi and the beaglebone black and I like the BBB slightly better.
    Other options include the Freescale FRDM and the STM Discovery boards.
    Lots of inexpensive options to choose from.
  • ARM Architecture

    I'm not familiar with the latest Intel architecture but the ARM architecture can be summed up in two words: elegant and efficient. OK, it won't run x86 programs but can anyone identify ANY computer costing less than $40 that will? If you want to write code that is both compact and fast, you can't beat assembler, and ARM assembler is the nicest easiest assembly language I've ever used. The Raspberry Pi was never intended to run Windows or other x86 software so I don't consider that a disadvantage.
    I have wondered why the name "Raspberry Pi" was chosen. Could it be because, as an ultra low cost computer, it's blowing a raspberry at Apple?
    It would be good to have GBit ethernet, SATA 6 and USB 3 but those would put the price up. Maybe they'll soon be marketing such add-ons or releasing a model C with them built in. That would make it an even more attractive package.
  • Pi Server

    Earlier this summer, the team at InterWorx created a web server using a pair of Raspberry Pi’s. The site ran on a pair of Pi’s clustered with the InterWorx control panel and used dynamic DNS to keep it connected. It was definitely an interesting little project.
    Ben Ustick
  • I was planning

    To purchase a Pi awhile ago for my media/file server, but after research I bought a Super small form factor Dell with dual core 1.86 processor at ebay for £50 free shipping and no regrets so far. Now running on windows 7.
  • Using busted tablets instead of Pi

    I have a rev B Pi and it hasn't got enough grunt to decode some 1080p streams.
    Then I came across an Asus TF300 tablet with a busted digitizer for $50 and thought, hell, this is like a quad core Pi with a 12 core gpu, 1mb ram, 32gb emmc, hdmi, usb, sd card slot, built in front and back cams, bluetooth, wifi, gps and built in UPS with the battery!
    I've given up on the Pi and got into sub $50 tablets and phones with smashed screens instead.
  • Get a Dual/Quadcore Chip

    The Pi is capable of doing some simple tasks like serving a static web page. For anything more a single core 700 Mhz chip is just too slow.

    Overclocking on the Pi is no solution, it damages your SD card with the Operating system.

    Get one of these dual/quadcore ARM cortex A9 based boards or boxes to get things done.
    Peter Bauer
  • What the Pi is perfect for

    is for learning about computing and for hobby DIY projects. Which is exactly what it was designed to be. The Pi can do other things on a limited basis, but I would hardly call it the perfect machine for those other jobs.
    Michael Kelly
  • ARM tripped up my first Pi project

    My daughter gave me a Raspberry Pi model B for a gift. My first effort was to make a Google Cloud Print server. Got the server running but my particular printer needed an x86 driver so I scrubbed that project. Next project is to build a simple NAS for backup purposes only. The USB 2.0 ports don't lend themselves to any heavy data IO. I like my Pi!. It's inexpensive, fun, and has tremendous community support.
  • Experimental server?

    I kinda hate when my servers go belly up after an unexpected power down event. Happened to me a few times on XBMC on my Pi.
  • PI no match to server

    Lets see
    Server custom made from parts
    motherboard £90 ebay
    2x L5520 8 x 2.2Ghz (no turbo included or overclock) = 17.6Ghz total (£ 40 total used ebay)
    2x8GB =16GB RAM ddr3 1333 ecc reg low volt (£ 60 total ebay) destop rams half cheaper
    1TB HDD enterprise ( not home user) (£ 70 from germany) or home user HDD save up £ 30
    2x heatsink = (£20total) ebay
    2-3 Fans. (£ 10 total ) arctic f8 or f9
    PSU - 300-400W (£ 20)
    total £ 310 with better ram and hdd

    full load around 150 Watts

    lets see about PI how many we need boards?
    each board with 700Ghz (not overclocked) and 512MB RAMs
    25x PI boards 25x 700Ghz = 17.5Ghz and 25 x 512MB = 12.8GB of RAMs (3GB less)
    (total 25 x £30) = £ 750
    25x 32GB SD cards = 800GB (less 200GB) (total 25x £10 = £ 250 ebay from china)
    Need special PSU = price unknown
    total £ 1000 (not including PSU price)

    25x 3.5W = 87.5 W

    SERVER :
    around (£ 700+PSU price) cost 3 times less!!!!!!( for same price you could add 2 servers more)
    Same CPU Speed.
    More Rams 3GB (plus memory faster)
    More HDD space 200GB (plus disk faster)
    Takes less space than 25 PI boards
    hardware could be upgraded.

    (PI vs Servers for over £1000 ) 3 servers vs 25 PI same amount of cash
    servers 35Ghz faster (24 cores or 48 threads)
    servers 35GB of RAMs more
    servers 2.2TB of HDD space more
    PI use 362.5 Watts less than 3 servers running on 100% load (save est £45 per month)
    PI use 181.1 Watts less than 3 servers running on 50% load (save est £22 per month)
    PI use 90.5 Watts less than 3 servers running on 25% load ( save est £11 per month)
    ( PC today use more than 400Watts )

    25 PI units (better performance) but weak against 3 servers for same amount of cash
    Maybe has some advances but only maybe.
    25 PI use only 87.5Watts

    Winner: 3 servers and 1 servers against 25 PI.
    (3 times faster CPU , 2 times more RAMs, 2 times more HDD space, can be upgraded)

    I know some prices are + 5% higher ( I made cutoms servers by myself I know prices)

    Sorry for my english :P everything else is correct +/- 2%
    • Leasing Computer Rack Space

      Maker1, you forgot to include the cost of the computer room for the servers vs. the dollhouse for the Pi :) Also the Air Conditioning vs. the Fan. As well as the noise fators.