The benefits of EOMA-68 Modularisation to Education

There seems to be considerable interest growing in EOMA-68 from educational establishments and entrepreneurs who supply educational solutions to schools. With tablets being prevalent, Android being common-place, and low-cost hardware boards being commercially available, the former dominance of Microsoft in schools is being eroded, and is being replaced with exciting variation and expanded possibilities.

There is however the general feeling that the cost differential between a 7in or 9in Android tablet and a 10in Intel Laptop or even an Intel Desktop system surely indicates that there must be a way to put the same processors powering low-cost tablets into a bigger more functional laptop or a desktop system or a thin client, and that surely the price of such laptops or desktop systems and thin clients should be correspondingly reduced?

... so why is it not possible to purchase such systems on the open market? ARM-based laptops have been promised to be just around the corner for at least five years, and the only models readily available are the Asus Transformer (over $750 on PC-World), and the Toshiba AC100 (again, well over $700 new and over $225 second-hand on Amazon). Both only provide Android, and both are DRM-locked, making it both a chore and a significant technical challenge to replace their Operating Systems with something better suited to educational purposes.

Additionally, it can be clearly seen that there are tiny computers with more processing power than laptops and desktop systems of five to eight years ago at under a tenth of the cost, so surely these can be leveraged in some way, and their uses expanded, to the benefit of the students, and the increased effectiveness of the educational establishment?

Unfortunately, the limitations of single-board computers and the ultra-specialisation of ARM System-on-a-Chip processors is beginning to be appreciated and understood. single-board specialised computers are not upgradeable. There is no way to replace the RAM; there is no way to increase the storage capacity of a soldered-down NAND Flash chip; there is no cost-effective way to upgrade the CPU. The cost of upgrading each of these components is considerably higher than the cost of simply throwing away the older unit and replacing it, because the components have to be heated with an infra-red heat gun, taken off with tweezers, and the new component placed on - very very carefully. It's a painstaking procedure that's not guaranteed of success, and is only carried out by specialists, only when they absolutely have to, and they charge a lot of money for their time. Also, many of these components - even if you can find a drop-in upgradeable replacement (which is extremely unlikely) - are only available in quantities of 10,000 or greater. The bottom line is: you bought it, that's it, you're stuck with it.

This is not a particularly good situation! The benefits of lower-cost hardware are clear, yet the advances in technology are moving so fast that hardware bought six months ago can often seem completely outdated, and worse, it cannot even be upgraded!

Even more than this, there is a problem which has been blindly accepted simply because there was no alternative, without which it was impossible to see that there was even a problem in the first place. The problem is this: in an educational establishment where budget concerns are commonplace, how can a school justify the purchase of one tablet, one desktop or laptop system per student? Unless the student is carrying out some cluster computing project they surely cannot use the resources allocated to them simultaneously, so why is a school forced into a situation of purchasing hardware that will remain idle for a significant fraction of its lifetime? Bear in mind also that many schools require students to carry out homework exercises, forcing their parents to purchase identical or compatible hardware, which will often also remain idle. That's if the parents can afford to purchase that hardware (and software) in the first place.

What if there was a solution to these problems? What would it be worth to schools to be able to reduce their long-term IT hardware expenditure, subsidise the cost of their purchases and save parents money at the same time, and reduce energy consumption and reduce environmental land-fill waste as well as extend the useful lifetime of older equipment and reduce out-of-warranty repair bills? It would almost seem like a dream to be able to have all these things: surely EOMA-68 is not the answer, is it?

The CPU Card stays with the student

Here's something novel when everyone is pushing for cloud, cloud, cloud. Perhaps we do not wish our students data to be stored in the cloud, accessible to hackers and warrantless Government oversight. Perhaps we do not wish to have to spend a fortune on upgraded Internet access nor make the operations of the school critically dependent on 24x7 external network connectivity. Perhaps instead we might wish to have the students carry their work around with them. Perhaps we might wish for them to be able to take their work home with them. Even better would be if there were additional cost savings in doing so.

Imagine that computers are divided down into a "base board" and that the main processing unit is on a small, robust and easily removable CPU Card the size of a credit card. In EOMA-68 terminology we call the "base board" an "I/O Board", because it genuinely has nothing but inputs and outputs (I/O). It has USB ports, Ethernet, SATA connectors and so on. When that I/O Board is part of a system (such as an EOMA-68-compliant Desktop PC) we call that whole system minus its CPU Card a "Chassis".

The component cost of a simple I/O Board can be as low as around $15 for a small PCB with 3 USB ports, one Ethernet port, Stereo Audio and a VGA port. There is no CPU on that. (Note: as a result it's hardly worth stealing). The CPU, which is the same kind of CPU that's used in smartphones, is on the CPU Card, along with the RAM and some NAND Flash. Some CPU Cards also come with Micro-SD, Micro-HDMI and Micro-USB, so can operate as stand-alone computers, powered by USB-OTG, running applications from the Micro-SD Card and displaying them in full HD on a large HD Monitor.

The significant factor here is that the CPU Card is removable. The student arrives at the class, puts their personal CPU Card into the unit on their desk, and begins work. At the end of the day, they take the exact same CPU Card - the one that they have been doing work on all day (along with all their notes and their other files) home with them, plug it into their base unit at home, and carry on where they left off.

The cost savings here in this simple scenario are enormous. Not only is the student securely carrying around and responsible for their own personal work, but also there are cost savings to the school and to the parents. Instead of two computers, only one of which may be used by the student at any one time (because they're either at home or they're at the school), there is now only one low-cost CPU Card and two ultra-low-cost Chassis.

Given the quite reasonable assumption that this one CPU Card plus two Desktop "Chassis" are replacing two large x86 Desktop systems, the cost savings could well be $200 or greater per student, not to mention the power savings and useable physical workspace area reductions because EOMA-68 Desktop systems are typically much smaller and use far less power than x86 hardware.

TODO: section on upgradeable laptops and tablets and other hardware

The next obvious question to ask, which has been hinted at above, is, why can the CPU Card not be shared across other, larger systems than small Desktop PCs or Thin Clients? The answer is: EOMA-68 has been designed to do exactly that. The typical limit for screen resolution of an EOMA-68 CPU card is 1920x1080 (although some ultra-ultra-low-cost and older SoCs from 2007 can only go as high as 1024x768, typically these will not make it into EOMA-68 CPU Cards).

So there is no reason why an EOMA-68 Laptop should not exist, and there is already a 7in tablet being made which has a 1024x600 LCD for the KDE Plasma Active team. The point is: the cost of such hardware, because there is no CPU in the actual Chassis (because it's a separate plug-in interchangeable unit), is significantly lower than other products. If a school already has EOMA-68 CPU Cards being used in desktop systems, providing the students with laptops or tablets can be done at a considerable cost saving, not least due to the CPU Cards only being needed in the devices that the students are actually using, but also due to the fact that the laptop or tablet chassis may be shared between several students. This is an unprecedented and unheard-of potential cost saving for educational establishments! It is common to hear of students sharing Desktop PCs, but it is unheard of that they should be able to share laptops without worry of viruses or unauthorised password sharing, and without having an I.T. Manager to set up computer accounts.

Additionally, there is the potential for arduino-style experimental boards to exist, which will take EOMA-68 CPU Cards. Students can develop software either at home or in the classroom, then plug their personal CPU Card into shared arduino-style experimentation systems to test out their work. No network is required, here: when the EOMA-68 CPU Card is plugged into the experimentation board it will interface directly with the embedded processor. This arrangement is already being implemented in the KDE Plasma Active Tablet because an STM32F is being used as an Embedded Controller (the STM32F is similar to the arduino's processor, except it is about 5 times more powerful).

So it can be seen that the use of and possibilities for EOMA-68 CPU Cards is unlimited, with significant opportunity for cost savings through sharing of both CPU Cards and the Chassis' into which they can be plugged. Additionally there are further cost savings and simplification in I.T. Management, because rather than having complex Server deployments managing user accounts across a vast range of networked PCs, the student becomes responsible for their personal CPU Card, requires only a single login on the CPU Card, and yet the CPU Card can plug into any device in any classroom or the student's systems at home.

TODO: section on long-term upgradeability cost savings

  • mention savings due to desktop chassis, laptop chassis, tablet chassis etc. never having to be upgraded or replaced; only the CPU Card needs to be upgraded and that is a significant cost saving over the cost of constantly upgrading entire desktop systems, entire laptops or entire tablet hardware.
  • also mention out-of-warranty repair costs, and the fact that if a laptop screen breaks, so what? just put the CPU Card into a spare laptop chassis and carry on working. no need to send the entire computer away for repair (where it will likely be replaced and/or the hard drive erased)

Loss, theft and replacement value

There is another significant advantage, in cases where the students are using public transport or walking home: loss or theft. A laptop is an obvious target, as is a tablet. A credit-card-sized computer can be carried in a back pocket, or more sensibly a wallet, or, if the students are feeling a little more paranoid, a hidden pouch. Even if the CPU Card is stolen, or even simply lost, its replacement value is considerably less than that of an entire laptop or tablet.