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Teeny Linux PCs proliferate
Sep. 21, 2006

 A small company has begun building its line of tiny, gumstick-sized single-board computers (SBCs) into miniscule packaged PCs that displace around 68 cc of volume and come with Linux pre-installed. Suggested apps for the teeny "Netstix" Linux PCs include webservers, printer servers, IP-telephony servers, security appliances.

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Gumstix formed in Jan. of 2004, and shipped its first tiny SBC and case four months later. Since then, the six-person company has churned out 26 products, most either revisions to its tiny SBC design, or expansion cards for it.

Gumstix CTO Craig Hughes said that the company decided to focus on cased products in the near term, in response to customer demand. He said, "Our boards are often used by embedded Linux developers to build proof-of-concepts and product prototypes. However, we've been surprised at the number of people who simply want a more or less normal Linux PC that just happens to be tiny."

Don Anderson, EVP of marketing, adds, "One of the first Netstix customers builds routers for a large networking equipment vendor. He ordered 24 so he can simulate networks on his desktop, without a whole rack of equipment."

Hughes notes, "Another customer is doing network management and sniffing in a distributed environment. He doesn't want to lug a PC across campus. He can just dangle a Netstix off the switch, ssh to it, and run tcpdump or whatever."

Netstix 200xm-cf

The first Netstix model, the 200xm-cf, has a "Zero-U" form factor, the company likes to say, referring to the number of server rack spaces it occupies. The petite device measures 1-3/8 x 4-1/8 inches (35 x 103 mm).


The Gumstix Netstix 200xm-cf

The 200xm-cf is based on a previously available SBC from Gumstix's Connex line, along with a previously available "NetCF" expansion card that, as its name might suggest, adds Ethernet and a CompactFlash slot.

The 200xm-cf is powered by a 200MHz PXA255 XScale processor, and contains 64MB of RAM and 16MB of flash memory. Its I/O includes a 10/100 Ethernet port, along with a Type II CompactFlash slot suitable for storage devices (including microdrives) or CFIO peripherals such as WiFi cards.

On the software side, the 200xm-cf comes preinstalled with a 2.6.17 or newer Linux kernel, and "up-to-date" versions of BusyBox, uClibc, the boa web server, sshd, wget, and other utilities. The pre-installed OS iimage occupies 3MB of the device's 16MB of flash, leaving "tons of room" for user-installed applications, Hughes says, especially since filesystem compression typically results in "2-to-1" space savings.

To help users install software, Gumstix includes a "buildroot" utility that can be used to add various other packages, including system utilities such as bzip2, communications software such as openVPN, databases such as SQLite, libraries such as jpeg, and development tools such as gnu tools.

Additionally, a complete Linux image is available for the Netstix system from AstLinux, an open source project maintaining a Linux distribution built around Asterisk, the open source IP telephony server.

Kristian Kielhofner, of the AstLinux project, stated, "One practical, real-world application that we have been developing involves a Netstix computer as a road warrior, remote access VoIP solution. Using Asterisk and standard open source VPN utilities, we are able to create an extremely powerful yet remarkably small security appliance for mobile professionals."

Not-so-itty-bitty roadmap

According to Hughes, Gumstix has several other Netstix PCs in the wings, starting with a product, currently codenamed "ThumbStix," that resembles a USB thumb drive, but houses a Linux PC powered by the host's USB port. "I think we're just waiting for one more small part from manufacturing," Hughes said.

The ThumbStix, which appears to resemble the Realm BlackDog, will target security applications. For example, users who need secure remote access from insecure PCs could plug in the ThumbStix, ssh into it, and connect to remote VPNs from there, Hughes suggests.

Another forthcoming Netstix model will resemble the 200xm-cf, but substituting an SD/MMC slot for CompactFlash, for an even smaller footprint, at the expense of less flexibility. "There are no open source SDIO stacks for Linux," Hughes notes (for an explanation of why that is, see this story).

Finally, Gumstix plans to bring out Netstix models that integrate WiFi, using an 18mm-square radio daughtercard the company has developed. Hughes said, "A WiFi card is annoying enough sticking out of a laptop. Having it stick out of a device this small can be really annoying."

"Automating everything"

In order to execute its current strategy of bringing out lots of products, Gumstix is executing a secondary goal of "automating everything," according to Hughes. Automation is necessary, given the company's goal of staying small.

Hughes explains, "Our long-term goal is essentially not to grow the number of employees. When we want to do something, we don't hire, we automate."

"Today, our whole back office is automated," Hughes continues. "When we knock a design into schematic capture, it populates the ERP system. When we ask for 1,000 products, the manufacturing requests go out. When product comes in, it goes into the commerce system."

"From design to fulfillment, everything is automated. We can take a product concept, knock the design in schematic capture, do the software while waiting for manufacturing, then launch the product," he adds.

Another automation system currently in development is described as a product "vending machine" that dispenses labeled boxes for UPS shipment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is powered by multiple Gumstix SBCs.

Currently, Gumstix has about 5,000 customers, Hughes said, including many highly recognizable industry names -- several of whom order in quantities greater than 1,000 units, including one on a monthly basis.

Availability

The Netstix 200xm-cf is available now, with a 4-Volt wall adapter, direct from Gumstix's online store. It is currently priced at $186.50 in single quantities, or $165 in volumes greater than 1,000.



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