Distributed Network Monitoring with Raspberry Pi

Distributed Network Monitoring with Raspberry Pi

There are many network engineers that have been looking for a network monitoring tool that uses remote probes to implement distributed network monitoring. We have spoken to many of them, and the most adventurous ones started building their own homegrown monitoring tools based either on old laptops, unused workstations, or even virtual machines. When the Raspberry Pi (RPi) came out, many of them found the ideal platform for their distributed probes. You can read this excellent article on Network World by Scott Hogg.

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Having used the Raspberry Pi for more than two years in a commercial enterprise product, I would like to outline my experience developing on this platform to deliver a high-quality product.

The success of Raspberry Pi is one of those stories where the inventors were building what they thought would be a useful platform to launch young students into programming, but they ended up building a launch pad with a rocket on it. And while they were painting the rocket, it suddenly took off to the benefit of the maker community, coding education, and hardware startups.

Raspberry Pi Support

The direct result of the Raspberry Pi’s  popularity is the huge community that has been built around it. Amateur makers, Linux enthusiasts, and so many others have crowdsourced bug fixing, OS patching, and software and hardware support. This community is providing great support and many resources so every Raspberry Pi user.

Raspberry Pi Availability

During the first few months of its release, production couldn’t keep up with demand. That caused some uncertainty and frustration, especially when somebody was planning to rely on this hardware platform to build and run commercial software. To date there have been almost 4 million Raspberry Pi’s sold, which has made them a commercial success in addition to an educational platform.  Also, since the Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton revealed plans to release a high performanceRaspberry Pi’s in 2017, we can expect uninterrupted availability of Raspberry Pi’s for several more years.

Raspberry Pi Size, Power Consumption, and Price

Although the small size and low power consumption are important for obvious reasons, an equally important attribute is the low cost of the whole platform. This results from the small PCB, limited bill of materials, low shipping cost, and small power supply and enclosure. The Raspberry Pi is a great option to monitor remote network locations at scale, without incurring in major upfront costs.

Raspberry Pi Reliability

Relying on a new platform likeRaspberry Pi to build a commercial enterprise product seemed risky two years ago because there was no long-term experience or testing on the reliability of the hardware. Today I can say that we couldn’t have been more satisfied with this hardware platform. I am happier with the RPi’s quality and reliability than other commercial single-board computers that I have tested. After all, the replacement cost is low. By the way, our uptime record-holding Raspberry Pi has been running continuously for more than a year:

Raspberry Pi Uptime in NetBeez

Uptime of a NetBeez agent running on Raspberry Pi. Learn more about NetBeez at https://netbeez.net

Raspberry Pi Alternatives

Although the RPis wasn’t the first single board computer, its popularity proved that there is a large market to be conquered. The RPi foundation is a nonprofit, but today there are dozens of new companies that offer similar single-board computers with different specifications and price points. To name a few: Utilite, Banana Pi, Beagle bone, Odroid, Galileo, Humming board, and many, many others.

Shortcomings (aka Wish List)

A few features that we have come to expect from full-fledged workstations are:

  1. A real-time clock: the FAQ on RPi official website says that this would push the price beyond their target price. For a connected RPi, NTP does its job pretty well.
  2. CPU and Memory: although 700 MHz and 512 MB are enough for the vast majority of applications; until recently, it was painful to load Javascript-heavy web sites on the stock browser. Things have improved since the introduction of the Epiphany browser, but everybody could benefit from more cores, speed, and memory.
  3. Gigabit interface: Again, having a gigabit interface would increase the price of the platform. 10/100 is enough in most cases. When gigabit is needed there are other platforms out there that can be used.
  4. Power over Ethernet (PoE): this is one of the most farfetched, but one of the most popular requests as well (considering that there is a FAQ answering this). This is of particular interest when it comes to network applications, since we would love to get rid of the external power supply whenever possible.

Some of these features may become part of the next generation of RPi, which hopefully will come out before 2017.

It’s not a secret that at NetBeez we love RPis, and although it’s not news how versatile and successful this single-board platform has been proven to be, we feel that we need to say a big “Thank You!” to the Raspberry Pi Foundation because their invention has enabled companies like NetBeez to get off the ground and become successful.