The promise of “boring” ARM hardware has been with us for almost a decade. And a couple of years ago it really arrived: easy to use, standards compliant ARM hardware is now available on the market. However, not for everyone. When it comes to buying ARM hardware you still need to decide if it is “boring” or it is affordable. There was one notable exception, the SoftIron OverDrive 1000. It had its limitations, but it was standards compliant right from day one, affordable, and easily available not just for large companies.
Why standards compliance is important?
Before standardization arrived to the ARM world, each and every board had to be supported separately. You needed a dedicated installer for each board often with its own documentation, as each board booted in a different way and you needed different workarounds while installing the operating system. The situation improved over the years, but it is still far from ideal.
The good news? With standards, installation is as easy as on an x86_64 machine.
The bad news? There are many. First of all: standards compliant new machines are out of reach for most individual users or developers. Most of the boards / computers available to developers are not standards compliant. Or became standards compliant only years after release, when they are already mostly obsolete. Which means a lot of extra effort to get these supported by Linux distributions or BSD variants. Effort, that could be spent on polishing the distro instead of making ground work to get the given hardware up and running. The actual hardware is cheaper, but one pays a good part of the difference back with the extra time needed to get the software up and running.
The SoftIron OverDrive 1000
The OverDrive 1000 was announced by SoftIron during the annual openSUSE conference in 2016. It had some severe limitations on extensibility: no video, just two USB ports, no PCIe. However it is the first ARM machine fully standards compliant from day one, but still easily available AND affordable by individual users and developers. And unfortunately also the last one.
I had access to ARM boards that were better than the OverDrive 1000 in one way or in another. But often even using the latest firmware and OS image from the board vendor I could not get a board up and running. With the OverDrive 1000 I rarely had such problems. Even if it was not listed among the supported and/or tested boards, the OverDrive 1000 just worked perfectly in the vast majority of cases.
My focus is application support. If someone reports that syslog-ng has problems on a given version of SLES, FreeBSD, Fedora or Debian running on ARM I do not want to spend days to figure out how to install the given operating system and upgrade or downgrade the firmware along the way as needed by the given OS. The focus is the application, the OS install should be straightforward on the first try and ready in half an hour, including software download. The OverDrive 1000 provided me this convenience starting at day one. And even if the hardware is now completely obsolete, it still works reliably.
You might wonder where the idea for this blog came from, especially that I already promised a couple of other topics already. The trigger was a tweet about a freshly released ARM workstation and the related thread: https://twitter.com/marypcbuk/status/1438151262994845702
it's not for anyone who would think about the price; it's a development platform for car makers like Volkswagen
If you really want, you can find the related the announcement on Twitter. I do not want to advertise them here. A friend of mine suggested to put a note here, even if I have never done this before: if they send you the machine, you could make an exception and post a review on your blog :-)
This kind of attitude hinders the wider adoption of ARM in enterprise grade servers. I talked to many people who are aware of the advantages of ARM and even have the financial resources to buy those servers. But without affordable standards compliant and ready to use testing hardware they just do not make the jump. In the x86_64 world they use a small cluster of HP Microserver boxes as a test environment for larger projects. For ARM there is nothing similar available at the moment.
A modern replacement for the OverDrive 1000 is badly needed:
- ready to use hardware (not just board)
- standards compliant from day one
- affordable to individuals and smaller companies
- easy to buy even by individuals