Quartex “Cloud Ripper” hardware

November 10, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

For close to a year now I have been busy on a very exciting project, namely my own cloud system. While I have written about this project quite a bit these past months, mostly focusing on the software aspect, not much has been said about that hardware.

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Quartex “Cloud Ripper” running neatly on my home-office desk

So let’s have a look at Cloud Ripper, the official hardware setup for Quartex Media Desktop.

Tiny footprint, maximum power

Despite its complexity, the Quartex Media Desktop architecture is surprisingly lightweight. The services that makes up the baseline system (read: essential services) barely consume 40 megabytes of ram per instance (!). And while there is a lot of activity going on between these services -most of that activity is message-dispatching. Sending messages costs practically nothing in cpu and network terms. This will naturally change the moment you run your cloud as a public service, or setup the system in an office environment for a team. The more users, the more signals are shipped between the processes – but with the exception of reading and writing large files, messages are delivered practically instantaneous and hardly use CPU time.

CloudRipper

Quartex Media Desktop is based on a clustered micro-service architecture

One of the reasons I compile my code to JavaScript (Quartex Media Desktop is written from the ground up in Object Pascal, which is compiled to JavaScript) has to do with the speed and universality of node.js services. As you might know, Node.js is powered by the Google V8 runtime engine, which means the code is first converted to bytecodes, and further compiled into highly optimized machine-code [courtesy of llvm]. When coded right, such Javascript based services execute just as fast as those implemented in a native language. There simply are no perks to be gained from using a native language for this type of work. There are however plenty of perks from using Node.js as a service-host:

  • Node.js delivers the exact same behavior no matter what hardware or operating-system you are booting up from. In our case we use a minimal Linux setup with just enough infrastructure to run our services. But you can use any OS that supports Node.js. I actually have it installed on my Android based Smart-TV (!)
  • We can literally copy our services between different machines and operating systems without recompiling a line of code. So we don’t need to maintain several versions of the same software for different systems.
  • We can generate scripts “on the fly”, physically ship the code over the network, and execute it on any of the machines in our cluster. While possible to do with native code, it’s not very practical and would raise some major security concerns.
  • Node.js supports WebAssembly, you can use the Elements Compiler from RemObjects to write service modules that executes blazingly fast yet remain platform and chipset independent.

The Cloud-Ripper cube

The principal design goal when I started the project, was that it should be a distributed system. This means that instead of having one large-service that does everything (read: a typical “native” monolithic design), we instead operate with a microservice cluster design. Services that run on separate SBC’s (single board computers). The idea here is to spread the payload over multiple mico-computers that combined becomes more than the sum of their parts.

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Cloud Ripper – Based on the Pico 5H case and fitted with 5 x ODroid XU4 SBC’s

So instead of buying a single, dedicated x86 PC to host Quartex Media Desktop, you can instead buy cheap, off-the-shelves, easily available single-board computers and daisy chain them together. So instead of spending $800 (just to pin a number) on x86 hardware, you can pick up $400 worth of cheap ARM boards and get better network throughput and identical processing power (*). In fact, since Node.js is universal you can mix and match between x86, ARM, Mips and PPC as you see fit. Got an older PPC Mac-Mini collecting dust? Install Linux on it and get a few extra years out of these old gems.

(*) A single XU4 is hopelessly underpowered compared to an Intel i5 or i7 based PC. But in a cluster design there are more factors than just raw computational power. Each board has 8 CPU cores, bringing the total number of cores to 40. You also get 5 ARM Mali-T628 MP6 GPUs running at 533MHz. Only one of these will be used to render the HTML5 display, leaving 4 GPUs available for video processing, machine learning or compute tasks. Obviously these GPUs won’t hold a candle to even a mid-range graphics card, but the fact that we can use these chips for audio, video and computation tasks makes the system incredibly versatile.

Another design goal was to implement a UDP based Zero-Configuration mechanism. This means that the services will find and register with the core (read: master service) automatically, providing the machines are all connected to the same router or switch.

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Put together your own supercomputer for less than $500

The first “official” hardware setup is a cluster based on 5 cheap ARM boards; namely the ODroid XU4. The entire setup fits inside a Pico Cube, which is a special case designed to house this particular model of single board computers. Pico offers several different designs, ranging from 3 boards to a 20 board super-cluster. You are not limited ODroid XU4 boards if you prefer something else. I picked the XU4 boards because they represent the lowest possible specs you can run the Quartex Media Desktop on. While the services themselves require very little, the master board (the board that runs the QTXCore.js service) is also in charge of rendering the HTML5 display. And having tested a plethora of boards, the ODroid XU4 was the only model that could render the desktop properly (at that low a price range).

Note: If you are thinking about using a Raspberry PI 3B (or older) as the master SBC, you can pretty much forget it. The media desktop is a piece of very complex HTML5, and anything below an ODroid XU4 will only give you a terrible experience (!). You can use smaller boards as slaves, meaning that they can host one of the services, but the master should preferably be an ODroid XU4 or better. The ODroid N2 [with 4Gb Ram] is a much better candidate than a Raspberry PI v4. A Jetson Nano is an even better option due to its extremely powerful GPU.

Booting into the desktop

One of the things that confuse people when they read about the desktop project, is how it’s possible to boot into the desktop itself and use Quartex Media Desktop as a ChromeOS alternative?

How can a “cloud platform” be used as a desktop alternative? Don’t you need access to the internet at all times? If it’s a server based system, how then can we boot into it? Don’t we need a second PC with a browser to show the desktop?

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Accessing the desktop like a “web-page” from a normal Linux setup

To make a long story short: the “master” in our cluster architecture (read: the single-board computer defined as the boss) is setup to boot into a Chrome browser display under “kiosk mode”. When you start Chrome in kiosk mode, this removes all traces of the ordinary browser experience. There will be no toolbars, no URL field, no keyboard shortcuts, no right-click popup menus etc. It simply starts in full-screen and whatever HTML5 you load, has complete control over the display.

What I have done, is to to setup a minimal Linux boot sequence. It contains just enough Linux to run Chrome. So it has all the drivers etc. for the device, but instead of starting the ordinary Linux Desktop (X or Wayland) -we instead start Chrome in kiosk mode.

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Booting into the same desktop through Chrome in Kiosk Mode. In this mode, no Linux desktop is required. The Linux boot sequence is altered to jump straight into Chrome

Chrome is started to load from 127.0.0.1 (this is a special address that always means “this machine”), which is where our QTXCore.js service resides that has it’s own HTTP/S and Websocket servers. The client (HTML5 part) is loaded in under a second from the core — and the experience is more or less identical to starting your ChromeBook or NAS box. Most modern NAS (network active storage) devices are much more than a file-server today. NAS boxes like those from Asustor Inc have HDMI out, ships with a remote control, and are designed to act as a media center. So you connect the NAS directly to your TV, and can watch movies and listen to music without any manual conversion etc.

In short, you can setup Quartex Media Desktop to do the exact same thing as ChromeOS does, booting straight into the web based desktop environment. The same desktop environment that is available over the network. So you are not limited to visiting your Cloud-Ripper machine via a browser from another computer; nor are you limited to just  using a dedicated machine. You can setup the system as you see fit.

Why should I assemble a Cloud-Ripper?

Getting a Cloud-Ripper is not forced on anyone. You can put together whatever spare hardware you have (or just run it locally under Windows). Since the services are extremely lightweight, any x86 PC will do. If you invest in a ODroid N2 board ($80 range) then you can install all the services on that if you like. So if you have no interest in clustering or building your own supercomputer, then any PC, Laptop or IOT single-board computer(s) will do. Provided it yields more or equal power as the XU4 (!)

What you will experience with a dedicated cluster, regardless of putting the boards in a nice cube, is that you get excellent performance for very little money. It is quite amazing what $200 can buy you in 2019. And when you daisy chain 5 ODroid XU4 boards together on a switch, those 5 cheap boards will deliver the same serving power as an x86 setup costing twice as much.

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The NVidia Jetson Nano SBC, one of the fastest boards available at under $100

Pico is offering 3 different packages. The most expensive option is the pre-assembled cube. This is for some reason priced at $750 which is completely absurd. If you can operate a screwdriver, then you can assemble the cube yourself in less than an hour. So the starter-kit case which costs $259 is more than enough.

Next, you can buy the XU4 boards directly from Hardkernel for $40 a piece, which will set you back $200. If you order the Pico 5H case as a kit, that brings the sub-total up to $459. But that price-tag includes everything you need except sd-cards. So the kit contains power-supply, the electrical wiring, a fast gigabit ethernet switch [built-into the cube], active cooling, network cables and power cables. You don’t need more than 8Gb sd-cards, which costs practically nothing these days.

Note: The Quartex Media Desktop “file-service” should have a dedicated disk. I bought a 256Gb SSD disk with a USB 3.0 interface, but you can just use a vanilla USB stick to store user-account data + user files.

As a bonus, such a setup is easy to recycle should you want to do something else later. Perhaps you want to learn more about Kubernetes? What about a docker-swarm? A freepascal build-server perhaps? Why not install FreeNas, Plex, and a good backup solution? You can set this up as you can afford. If 5 x ODroid XU4 is too much, then get 3 of them instead + the Pico 3H case.

So should Quartex Media Desktop not be for you, or you want to do something else entirely — then having 5 ODroid XU4 boards around the house is not a bad thing.

Oh and if you want some serious firepower, then order the Pico 5H kit for the NVidia Jetson Nano boards. Graphically those boards are beyond any other SoC on the market (in it’s price range). But as a consequence the Jetson Nano starts at $99. So for a full kit you will end up with $500 for the boards alone. But man those are the proverbial Ferrari of IOT.

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