Fishing for Users

Open Hardware – Turbot

© Lead Image © Bruce Rolff, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Bruce Rolff, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 202/2017
Author(s):

The MinnowBoard.org Foundation offers an open source single-board computer that is fast enough for professional use, but accessible for all user levels.

One of the main obstacles to open hardware is that the tools to make the tools are rarely available. Although many small motherboards exist, the specifications are not completely free-licensed in some cases. When motherboards are sourced, vendors often substitute them for a cheaper version, because they are more attuned to price than software freedom. However, the situation is slowly improving: witness the MinnowBoard.org Foundation's [1] recently released single-board Turbot computer [2], which includes a full set of specifications and free software from the firmware up (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Turbot, the MinnowBoard.org Foundation's latest release, is open source from top to bottom.

Located in Beaverton, Oregon, the MinnowBoard.org Foundation is a nonprofit organization specializing in embedded computing on Intel architecture. The Foundation supports the Open Source Hardware Association [3] and makes its designs available for studying, modifying, distributing, and selling hardware based on that design. With an intended audience of both hobbyists and professionals, the Foundation also develops detailed tutorials that make its products broadly accessible.

In the past, the MinnowBoard.org Foundation released specifications and tutorials under Creative Commons By Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 (CC BY-SA 3.0) license [4], which states that derivative products must acknowledge the original and be released under the same license. That remains MinnowBoard.org's preferred license, but in a statement released by the Foundation, they add that "some developers were hindered by the need to 'share alike' their added innovations. We recognized that there are developers that end up with a product idea that they want to productize, and we wanted to allow that avenue as well. As such, we have adjusted our default licensing to CC BY 4.0," which requires only the acknowledgment of original works [5].

Available in two- and four-core versions, the Turbot is the Foundation's third board, succeeding the MinnowBoard v1 [6] and building on MinnowBoard MAX [7]. In fact, it uses the same form factor, user connections, connector locations, and mounting holes as the MinnowBoard MAX and runs an updated version of the same software. Its main difference is the use of the IntelÆ Atom E3826(TM) processor, which offers lower energy consumption and increases in code and graphics speed, as well as other general improvements in speed [2].

Supported operating systems include Debian, Windows 10 IoT, Android, Ubuntu, and Yocto Project, a distribution for building custom installations on embedded systems [8]. Free firmware supported includes free BIOSs, such as coreboot, SageBIOS, and TianoCore. The boards are manufactured by ADI Engineering, a division of Silicom Connectivity Solutions [9], and the complete technical specifications are published on GitHub [10].

In addition to the basic board, the Turbot can also add extension boards, or lures, as the Foundation calls them in an extension of the fish metaphor [11]. The half dozen lures currently available include boards designed for debugging, prototyping, and breadboard prototyping – that is, for temporarily arranging components during development. Other lures that are in development but not yet in production include boards for flying drones and extending Ethernet and USB capabilities. All these lures – many of which have marine names – should go a long way toward making prototyping quicker and more efficient.

The Foundation is planning on adding case studies to its website, but in the meantime, declines to be more specific than saying that its boards "are in use at Fortune 100 companies, universities, embedded in infrastructure devices, in routers, [and] test bed[s] for firmware development." The website adds that "the IntelÆ Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) in a box development kit includes a MinnowBoard Turbot. You'll see the MinnowBoard Turbot being used in demos in almost every embedded and IoT focused event in the US and Europe because it is a versatile, low-cost, PC-like capable embedded board."

Tutorials Make the Difference

Boards are released every day, and although the Turbot seems outstanding in its specifications, by itself, the Turbot is newsworthy chiefly for its use of free licenses.

However, what is truly unusual is the care with which the Turbot is documented. With most boards, users are lucky to get a folded piece of paper giving the specifications and perhaps a link to slightly more detailed information online. The assumption is that anyone buying the boards knows enough to parse the specs and put them to use by themselves. By contrast, the MinnowBoard.org Foundation takes its educational purposes as seriously as its designs.

To start, the online details about the Turbot are illustrated by a diagram with mouseovers (Figure 2). Click a component, and a window opens with a brief explanation of what it does, along with several links that offer more detailed information.

Figure 2: The Turbot's interactive diagram makes few assumptions about users' knowledge.

The tutorials start by listing the hardware needed to power up the board, accompanied by a diagram of the board with everything connected (Figure 3) and an explanation of what to expect from the UEFI shell when booting for the first time, plus how to interact with it. The tutorials continue by showing how to install Ubuntu 16.04 (a long-term support release) on the board, as well as how to update the firmware. The tutorials end with the board equivalent of a "Hello, world!" script – a description of how to write a Bash script to make the board's lights blink.

Figure 3: The Turbot's tutorials get users up and running in a matter of minutes.

Experienced users might complain that the tutorials are too basic. However, all levels of users should at least scan the tutorials to ensure that their expectations are in sync with the board's design. By the time users are finished, they should have a thorough understanding of what the board does and how to interact with it.

Evidently, the MinnowBoard.org Foundation understands that it is better to over-document than to assume what users know. By making this effort, the Foundation has made the Turbot and its predecessors accessible in a way that few pieces of hardware can claim.

Landing a Turbot

Turbot boards are just starting to appear in commercial outlets. As I write, they are available in limited quantities at prices just under $200. One user on Amazon.com complained that the USB port was underpowered, but in general, the reception is positive.

Despite the competition among single boards, the Turbot has several advantages. Since it is intended for commercial use, and not just hobbyists, it is relatively high-powered. Unlike the Raspberry Pi, whose GPU remains proprietary, the Turbot is completely open source, although it can be used with two Windows versions. However, most of all, the MinnowBoard.org Foundation has made the effort to make the board accessible – and therefore usable – for all levels of users.

The Foundation expects to release another board by the end of 2017, but its features remain undisclosed. But if the approach to this design rivals that of the Turbot, the Foundation might have helped bootstrap open hardware simply by paying attention to its users.

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist and a freelance writer and editor specializing in free and open source software. In addition to his writing projects, he also teaches live and e-learning courses. In his spare time, Bruce writes about Northwest Coast art. You can read more of his work at http://brucebyfield.wordpress.com

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