A New Purpose for Old Smartphones: Cluster Computing

By Tiffany Trader

January 27, 2015

There are now more mobile devices than people in the world, and the average person upgrades their phone every 18 months. This raises the question of what happens to all the old models. Some of the materials used in these ubiquitous devices do get recycled, but all too often, the phones, tablets and other outdated or broken pocket computers are destined for a landfill.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to repurpose mobile phones to extend their life cycle? That is the premise that led the folks at Circular Devices to develop the first cluster computing system for retired mobile phone parts: the PUZZLECLUSTER. The supercomputer-like cluster is made of old smartphone modules, modules that are also being developed by Circular Devices as the foundation for the PUZZLEPHONE. Still in the conceptual stage, the PUZZLEPHONE has three swappable, upgradeable parts: the Brain module (for the CPU, camera and volume buttons), the Heart module (for the battery), and the Spine (for the LCD screen and home button). The PUZZLECLUSTER is designed to repurpose two out of three of these components.

Looking much like a toaster with extra slots turned on its side, the PUZZLECLUSTER connects multiple PUZZLEPHONE Brain modules to form an integrated computer cluster.

“Our goal is to deliver a scalable product that can meet the needs of home users and small and medium enterprises, but also public institutions and data centers,” says the company. “Its applications can range from research and data analysis, to rendering farms and in-house cloud services, as well as any other case that requires parallel computing.”

The PUZZLECLUSTER also includes a power supply, internal connectivity for the Brain modules, and peripherals to support external connectivity. The design even takes advantage of PUZZLEPHONE battery modules, using them to provide UPS functionality.

“When developing the PUZZLEPHONE, we always think about the whole cycle, from sourcing components to manufacturing, the device use itself and what to do when the time to upgrade comes,” says Alejandro Santacreu, Circular Devices CEO. “The PUZZLEPHONE Brain is a fully functional low power computer ready to be integrated in the PUZZLECLUSTER. It makes no sense to discard a perfectly working computer just because you have upgraded your smartphone. The PUZZLECLUSTER will extend the usable life of the PUZZLEPHONE Brain modules way beyond any other smartphone processor.”

The idea of stringing together low-powered devices with wimpy cores is not new – we’ve seen several implementations of the PS3 cluster, and some novel implementations using Raspberry Pi and Parallela computers. However, these maker-type projects still require a modicum of computing and engineering savvy to put them all together, with the PUZZLECLUSTER, it all fits together, like the name implies. But there is still the question of what operating system and software will run on the cluster.

As for expected availability, the company says it is working to ship the phones by the end of 2015. If it makes that goal, the old CPUs could be ready for repurposing inside the cluster sometime in 2017.

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