I sometimes direct the UPR High Performance Computing facility, or as my colleagues like to call it, the medium performance computing facility. We've run largish linux clusters and big sgi machines since the early naughts.

So it's a little surprising I'm also interested in low-power computing. Until you hear some of our war stories, like the months we couldn't run our 172-node linux cluster because our machine room would heat up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Or the time the SGI technician came to check one of our machines, and asked us if we flew our SGI on an airplane, because the only system that had the same hardware issues ours had was in a hurricane hunter airplane. (I think the alternate rounds of heating and cooling popped a part loose on ours).

After Hurricane Maria, we spent several months without power, and we used a variety of alternative energy sources. A small inverter hooked up to a running car engine, an inverter with a 100W solar panel and battery, a portable generator. These energy sources have continued to be useful, the power in Puerto Rico hasn't been the most stable.

As I've used these sources, I've also looked at computing. A 13" or 15" laptop can draw 85-100 watts, about the same as an electric fan. That would eat up the entire output of the solar panel at noon.


The first setup I tried was a kindleberrypi. Using a rooted kindle touch to ssh into a raspberry pi with an external keyboard (mine is bluetooth). The kindle has a slow refresh rate, but it runs for days on a charge, and only needs around 5 watts to charge over USB. The pi will sort of run on 2 amps, but prefers 2.5 amps, so figure 12.5 W. I can actually run mine for a couple of hours on a USB battery pack, or all day long on the solar panel. I have a 12V accessory plug with alligator clips, so I don't need to run the inverter. I can plug the pi into a car charger over USB.

The pi is a surprisingly nice computing platform. I can run emacs, python, racket, lisp, even go. I sync files to my desktop and phone with syncthing. Heck, I'm writing this blog post on a pi. There's even a VNC client for the kindle, so I could, in theory run graphical programs, although slowly. If I need to do compute intensive stuff, I can ssh into the university, if the network and power cooperate (after Maria even landlines and cable modems failed when the batteries ran out).

Android OTG

Working on the kindle is OK, but it's a little slow. Android phones and tablets have a bit more oomph, and with termux, a linux environment is available. There's python, a C compiler, emacs, vi. I downloaded the dropbear ssh package, and can connect to remote computers with ssh. Termux supports USB On-The-Go (OTG), so I bought a little micro USB OTG cable and can plug a keyboard into a phone or tablet. This will actually make a nice front-end for a raspberry pi, and power is OK. The only issue is with my cable I can't charge the phone or tablet while I'm using it. A forced break every once in a while isn't much of a price to pay for low power computing, and might actually be considered a feature.

Official Raspberry pi touchscreen

I likes the pi enough I decided to get another one. I got a rpi 4, with a case and the official 7" touchscreen. The rpi4 comes with 2, 4, or even 8 GB RAM, which is more than my personal laptop. It also wants more power, moving to USB-C connectors, and the recommended power supply is 3.5A.

I bought a 3.1A car USB-C charger, it has USB-A and USB-C connectors, so I can run power to the screen and the pi separately. I figure 15W can keep me running, and have power left over to charge the battery. I hope I can continue to communicate and compute after the next storm. Laura missed us, but there's already another wave coming off the coast of Africa, and another in the MDR.