Ulysses S. Grant, grant me the strength to steamroll bracteates and annoy @Patrick at the same time! (the ultra-cheapskate server challenge)


Well-Known Member
Jun 10, 2018
New York, NY
I was doing some writing over the weekend (well, it's an upcoming article related to the ongoing TinyMiniMicro project thread), and while musing about the utility of running server tasks on those tiny little cheap machines, my wife pointed to my pile of unused Raspberry Pi Zeros, Pi 2s and ZeroPis and asked whether I plan to do anything with them. The problem with them, is of course, the constant danger of running out of resources on them, and the headache of finding a way to outfit them with an operating system, put them inside a suitable enclosure, network them, and power them up, and have it be economical. For a Pi2 that's 30 USD for the SoC, about 7.50 USD for a 16GB SD card, and about 8 USD to make it fit in the official case. That's already 45 USD + tax, and that's not including a decent power supply (if you use yours for SDR with a DVB dongle or its being used to drive a GPS hat, well, a standard 500mA USB-A port will cause SoC brownouts/disconnects). Of course, it's still only a quadcore A7 (32 Bit) with 1GB of RAM which might preclude you from doing other things. Your probable saving grace might be its lower power consumption, but who knows if it's really that efficient, especially if you are spending hours pounding a single job that was just trickling through those wee little ARMv7 cores...? Also, are ARM the only game in town?

Of course, this does lead me to the question of price/efficiency or cost-effectiveness. Can we do better? Are there machines that can make for interesting low power, very low cost servers that would work "just fine" in price sensitive home lab scenarios? Considering how many nagging "power consumption figures please" figures I get talking about the Atoms and the Ryzen embedded (what, is Google irreparably broken again?), can we go cheaper? I am talking about going beyond penny pinching here. I am talking about taking a steamroller...


And using them against Bracteates (Medieval metal sheet coins used as a worn form of currency)


In other words, let's say if some gave you a grant - no, not a monetary charitable contribution awarded for the purpose of performing public works. A US Fifty Dollar bill with the picture of President Ulysses S. Grant printed on it, also known as a Grant.

Cash monies.jpg

(The much more common Jackson, or the twenty dollar bill is known in New York as the yuppie food stamp).

I propose a challenge - what kind of server can you obtain for a "Grant", and what can you do with such a contraption?
Note that this is not meant to be easy - fifty dollar is at the cutoff point for most eBay hardware vendors when it comes to making a profit out of junk, so this is kinda like one of those old school Clarkson/Hammond/May BBC Top Gear old cars challenges which almost always go hilariously wrong.

Here's the rules:

a) No usage of anything obvious (no Sheevaplugs or its Marvell equivalents, no MIPS32 based OpenWRT contraptions, no wireless routers from your discard pile, no Raspberry Pis (or its myriad of Chinese knockoffs), no old Snapdragon Android phones or iOS device. The idea here is to seek and inform about new and interesting sources of low wattage, great bang-for-the-buck hardware.

b) You must demonstrate it being sold today (Amazon, eBay, Yahoo Japan auctions) at below fifty dollars. Show us a URL or a link to a specific Amazon or eBay transaction - you cannot claim a machine as a "freebie giveaway" since the idea is to teach others to obtain build and run such a server. So take-home machines from work or school is disqualified.

c) The total value of the machine must be below 50 USD (including taxes & shipping!) and the entire setup must be "turn-key" (in other words, if you bought a barebones chassis for 50 USD and then threw another 50 USD on RAM and HDD for the task, that does not count. 50 USD must include RAM, storage and power supply, and can be turned on and used at a moments notice). Well, if you can show an ancient Thinkpad X220 with 1GB RAM and a crappy drive powering up and serving PHP7 on Debian for fifty bucks, that counts. More points if you go below 50 USD.

Note: dongles/port adapters and ethernet cables are not included in that 50 dollar total. We have those things lying in our house.

d) This is of course about novel usage - usage that makes it great. For example, a Witness node for a Proxmox cluster. HTPC/Plex machine upon a reboot. Apache/AJP server in front of Apache Tomcat on another box. The machine must demonstrate useful work being done. More points if you have more useful traits.

e) Performance and power consumption does matter. How much bang for the dinosaur juice sippage? Power consumption figures must be provided (with repeatability in mind) along with performance numbers. You obviously want more performance, and less energy consumption.

I would like to drag @Patrick and moderators like @Marsh into this, as I think they'll probably find it initially funny (and when the challenge entries arrive, really REALLY annoying. Hopefully not a list full of 2007 netbooks running 32 Bit Debian, huh). I have no idea if there's going to be some kind of reward...Maybe bragging rights and new ideas?

Well, folks, if you are interested, just jump right in - show the receipt, photos of the machine, and the performance/power consumption numbers! Can't wait to see that one guy with the 25 dollar Cavium Octeon dev kit blow our minds doing MariaDB or something...

Oh, and I'll also be participating in this one as well. I got something on its way...


No, not that...
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