Hero hacks: 14 Raspberry Pi projects primed for IT

VoIP PBXes, NTP servers, Web-controlled power strips -- hack together one of these handy, cheap solutions for the server closet and beyond

Hero hacks: 14 Raspberry Pi projects primed for IT
Credit: Nastco
Hero hacks: 14 Raspberry Pi projects primed for IT

You have to hand it to Eben Upton and crew for the Raspberry Pi. This single-board design, aimed at making computers inexpensive enough to bring computer science to the poorest of schools, has kicked off a revolution not just in education, but in tapping computing power to interact with the environment around us. And along the way, this $35 computer has proved to have significant value in traditional IT and business contexts.

The following DIY projects just scratch the surface of how you can hack the Raspberry Pi, and its Arduino cousin, into an effective workplace tool. A few I've yet to build myself, but they are modifications of previous projects I have built. Consider it a catalog of battle-tested possibilities.

Instructables
Instructables

Before I get to the goods, I should give a shout-out to Instructables. This DIY-centric website provides a great platform where enthusiasts and makers can share their projects. It offers a treasure trove of Raspberry Pi-based how-tos for you to experiment with, often with fine-grained step-by-step guides to help ensure your success. Bookmark the site or download the Instructables app for your Android, iOS, or Windows device.

Arduino GPS-synchronized clock
Arduino GPS-synchronized clock

I always need accurate UTC time in my work, so what better project to start with than a GPS-synchronized clock? This Arduino-based project was what I used to get familiar with the Arduino platform. Coming in at just over $100, this great enterprise starter kit can easily be adapted with external GPS antennas, and at 5 volts to run the whole thing, it could easily be powered by batteries and/or Photovoltaics.

Raspberry Pi Stratum 1 NTP server
Raspberry Pi Stratum 1 NTP server

A huge thank you to David Taylor, whose Raspberry Pi effort has put a super-inexpensive Stratum 1 Network Time Protocol server within reach of just about every IT shop. This project is crucial for anyone performing directory-based authentication, given that servers don’t have very good clocks. Because of this, if your authentication load and latency spike, you run the risk of false negatives thanks to authentication timeouts. Synchronizing both sides using an NTP server makes authentication timeouts a thing of the past.

(Note: This baby NTP server won’t be able to handle the load from a 1,000-seat enterprise; after all, its network interface is USB-based.)

Raspberry Pi wall-mounted calendar
Raspberry Pi wall-mounted calendar

This simple project is a great way to get familiar with the Raspberry Pi -- and it’s extremely useful. Find a spare HDMI-capable monitor, mount it to your meeting room wall, and you’ve got yourself a dynamically updating Google calendar display for everyone to see. The script is dead simple, and as long as your enterprise calendaring system supports a Web interface stacked with some variables, you’re in business. Since the Raspberry Pi is HDMI, just add an inexpensive HDMI to VGA adapter so that you can recycle old VGA monitors instead of tossing them in the landfill.

Asterisk VoIP for Raspberry Pi
Asterisk VoIP for Raspberry Pi

While it's not something you’d run a big enterprise phone network on, this Asterisk Raspberry Pi VoIP PBX would be great for a small branch office or SOHO VoIP application. Cheap enough that you could afford to keep a duplicate on the shelf, this project has quite a collection of popular SIP Trunk providers already scripted. It might also be a great emergency PBX connected to a GSM-to-SIP gateway like this 8 SIM (i.e., 8 phone numbers) gateway I found on Amazon.

Raspberry Pi temperature and humidity monitor
Raspberry Pi temperature and humidity monitor

We all record temperatures and humidity in our data centers, but recording probes can be a bit pricey for individual offices or meeting rooms. Again, the Raspberry Pi comes to the rescue with this temperature and humidity monitor, which can be put together for under $50. The monitor logs to a MySQL database and accommodates multiple sensors on its graphing Web interface. Since this Instructable is step by step, it’s also not a bad way to learn how to read Raspberry Pi sensors and store the resulting data in a database.

Web-controlled power strip
Web-controlled power strip

I love intelligent PDUs (power distribution units) like the ones from my friends at Server Tech, but putting an expensive PDU in for a company kitchen or front-office Christmas display is hard to justify. However, if you’re so inclined, this inexpensive Web-controllable power strip should work just great. I’m trying to find time to add in an extra circuit to use a CT Clamp so that I can also measure current draw on the whole thing.

Raspberry Pi surveillance camera
Credit: Project by: Christoph Buenger, Scavix Software Ltd. & Co. KG
Raspberry Pi surveillance camera

There are lots of places that could use a surveillance camera, but it’s not often a high enough priority for you to purchase a commercial unit. But with a Raspberry Pi, camera, and a fake surveillance camera as your housing, you can make your own surveillance camera for far cheaper.

This project takes advantage of the fact that fake surveillance cameras are mostly empty space, giving you more than enough room for a Raspberry Pi; heck, if distances are short, you could even us a passive POE injector (10/100 Ethernet only!) so that you can power the whole thing with a single cable. And you can even add motion-detection and recording capabilities by using something like a Synology NAS.

Really cheap laser engraver
Really cheap laser engraver

Laser engraving just looks cool, and you can always come up with a place where you could really use one. Take light switches. A laser engraver would do wonders for sorting out what switch does what. But with commercial units starting around $5,000, it’s pretty hard to justify. I’d like to have durable tags for the data center, and it would be awesome to have laser-engraved QR tags for projects. Well, apparently so many people thought likewise that this really cheap laser engraver project was so popular that it is now a commercial product, but you can still follow the step-by-step Instructable and build it yourself, using the low-powered laser from a spare DVD player.

CNC hot-wire foam-cutting machine
CNC hot-wire foam-cutting machine

If you’ve seen those huge corporate logos at tradeshows, walk up to it and tap it with your finger. Almost certainly they’ve been made out of Styrofoam and painted. Even huge holiday sculptures probably started as foam and then got coated with spray gunite (concrete). So if you want the same  without spending a fortune, you can build your own hot-wire CNC foam-cutting machine. All it takes is some regular old hardware store pieces, and you’ve got yourself a computer-controlled machine for carving up foam to your heart’s desire.

Logging data in Python to MySQL on the Arduino
Logging data in Python to MySQL on the Arduino

Lots of people have avoided the Arduino in favor of the Raspberry Pi because they think it’s hard to write to a real database. However, the Arduino has analog-to-digital inputs, which means it is capable of measuring just about anything. This step-by-step Instructable is an amazing starting point for logging to MySQL from your Arduino using Python. With small modifications, you can even have your Arduino log to a networked MySQL database server.

pH and oxidation logger
pH and oxidation logger

This project is more for your building manager, unless your business is water quality. This pH and oxidation logging device allows you (or your building manager) to keep better track of your cooling water. If the pH gets out of whack or the ORP (oxidation reduction potential) increases, your air-conditioning cooling towers could rot away from rust. This inexpensive logger can pay for itself many times over by avoiding insanely expensive early chill-tower replacements.

RaspbAIRy -- Raspberry Pi AirPlay speaker
RaspbAIRy -- Raspberry Pi AirPlay speaker

Store-bought AirPlay devices abound, but perhaps you want something a bit different, made by your own hands. Based on Jame’s Laird’s shairport Linux software, the plan for this Raspberry Pi AirPlay speaker steps you through integrating all the pieces -- amplifiers, speakers, and so on -- so you have a foundation for a Jules Verne-like steampunk radio for your home office.

Raspberry Pi indoor weather station
Raspberry Pi indoor weather station

This project has morphed over several versions, but it’s now a semi-commercial product offered through the Tindie website. The gist is that instead of a potentially unreliable ball of wires, this professionally done system is a snap-on board for the Raspberry Pi that measures indoor environmental quality and pushes the results to the cloud. Because it’s open source, you could just as easily push the data to your corporate database. The device measures temperature, humidity, light, air pressure, noise pollution, and more.

Ramen stand: A portable project space
Ramen stand: A portable project space

Now that you have a wealth of possibilities to explore, you might want to give thought to where to do the actual work.

A friend of mine at Oahu Makerspace just submitted plans for a Ramen stand to Instructables. Intended for maker spaces, it’s also a superb way to multipurpose limited office space. The Ramen stand, which is a portable project space, packs up nice and small but opens up like origami art into a huge project space for working with electronics, 3D printing, sewing machines, whatever you can imagine. Then you can push it into a corner out of the way. Ross Mukai of Oahu Makerspace designed this so that you don’t need anything other than hand tools.