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Mike Riley

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The eeePC Bridge

April 01, 2008

The eeePC is hot, hot, hot. This miniature laptop beauty running the Xandros Linux distribution has supplied techies and non-techies alike with an unprecedented power/price ratio that is having a radical effect on the ulta-mobile and portable computing markets.

Several non-technical family members of mine have purchased this device and have been raving about its portability, ease of use and peppy start up and suspend/resume times. Complaints have been minor but persistent, mainly that the 800x400 screen resolution is not universally web friendly and the tiny keyboard takes some effort getting used to and is adverse to big hands.

Recently an opportunity arose to use the eeePC in a different scenario than the one Asus, the manufacturer, intentionally advertised it to be used.

A proprietary embedded controller that was connected to a dedicated, stand-alone PC running a simple serial port application needed to be networked. The manufacturer of the controller offered an upgrade to their existing product that would have satisfied the requirement (coupled with the cost of another network cable drop), but the additional investment was considerable. It occurred to me that the eeePC could also meet, nay, even exceed these requirements at a considerably less expensive cost.

Thanks to the fact that the eeePC runs Linux using solid state storage, no moving parts meant I could run this 24x7x365 as long as it was plugged into a power source. Additionally, it has its own built-in UPS in the form of a battery that when fully charged, provides roughly 2.5 hours of continuous operation after outlet power loss. With the built-in display, I could also easily check its health locally and troubleshoot problems without additional hardware or messy serial cable to laptop/KVM keyboard/monitor displays.

Since the eeePC also has built-in WiFi 802.11 b/g WPA key support, the wireless mobility meant no additional dedicated ethernet cable wiring - no need for an expensive cable drop! The only additional investment beyond the eeePC was a $20 USB to serial converter that the eeePC instantly recognized when plugged into its USB port.

Being Linux-based, I then installed and initialized a secure shell daemon and the Minicom program onto the eeePC. I configured Minicom to use /dev/ttyUSB0 as its serial port and successfully connected to and conversed with the proprietary controller. Next, I set the WiFi adapter to a static IP address, changed the eeePC's default hostname to something more descriptive, added the newly named client entry into my DNS server, SSH'd into the renamed eeePC, fired up minicom and accomplished the objective. It has been running non-stop without incident since the day I completed this project a few weeks ago. And what was once an isolated black box is now an always on networked, monitored, security-enabled and VPN accessible system.

My mind has been bubbling with other bridge and systems integration opportunities including the implementation of custom controller applications running Ruby on Rails or Django web applications with lightweight SQLite structured collection databases on the eeePC.

So in addition to changing the rules in the portable computing consumer space, the eeePC has also made inexpensive always-on, network-enabled fully programmable and highly versatile edge devices a comparatively inexpensive reality.

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