Bitten by a Viper

In this case, the viper in question is an old industrial control computer, based on an Intel PXA255 processor, in PC104 form factor, running a minimal linux. It was originally manufactured by Arcom Ltd, who have in the intervening years been taken over by Eurotech S.p.A. and comes with a nice complement of default communications options.

Mine is a standard “full-fat” Viper board, with no additional expansion cards, but mounted in an industrial enclosure with an integral UPS battery-backup. Sadly it’s been lying around gathering dust in my study for about the last 5 years, and as part of a recent attempt to tidy up some of my clutter I decided I either needed to make use of it, or get rid of it.

A little searching unearthed the power supply, and then, according to the little red LED on the back panel, we had life.

The first problem was how to talk to it. This is a true industrial device – no screen or keyboard. The options are either to telnet or ssh in over the network connection, or use an ASCII terminal over a serial connection. And therein lay the first problem; it didn’t connect to my network as I was expecting, leaving only the serial option open to me. But as I’m almost exclusively laptop-based these days, finding a machine with a serial port, and then a serial cable to link it to the Viper, took quite some effort.

But having done so, and set up minicom with the correct serial port parameters (helpfully documented in the Viper manuals) I was able to login to the Viper, at which point a little debugging of the network stack revealed the issue – at some point I’d defined the Viper with a static IP address, on a different subnet to my current home network.

A few quick edits to return it to DHCP operation, and a little configuration work on my home servers dnsmasq configuration returned the Viper to my home network, at a readily accessible IP address, allowing me to ssh in again.

At this point, having proved that the system is working again, I now need to decide what to do with it; and in this case, I’m going to use it as part of my plan to implement a set of DIY ambient orbs, as I mentioned back in this post. The Viper happens to consume only 9w while network connected, and has a built-in I2C interface, which can connect to BlinkM LED’s which I can mount in my B&Q Cubo housings. This will allow me to control the colour of the orbs from a program running on the Viper.

Better than that though, I can then install an MQTT client on the Viper, allowing my Viper program to subscribe to a topic on my home servers MQTT micro-broker. This will allow me to have the Viper change the colours of the orbs in response to messages published to the broker on my home server. At that point I can trivially integrate any sort of external input to the orbs just by administering my home server, & without needing to make further updates to the Viper.

So all I need to do now is to get the AEL development kit (cross-compiler etc) set up so I can write some code for the Viper, and then buy some BlinkM LEDs. Which sounds simple, but unfortunately the AEL development kit hasn’t been updated for some 4 years now, and isn’t keen on installing on my latest and greatest Ubuntu 10.10 development machine. I’ve put some calls out to colleagues who have also had experience with these Arcom Vipers, but so far no joy. Next step will be to see if Eurotech can provide a little help – after all, I suspect the original Arcom engineers will mostly still be working there. I guess the worst case will be to set up a *really* old Linux system in a virtual machine, and install the AEL development kit on that instead.

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8 thoughts on “Bitten by a Viper

  1. Hi Richard:

    I recently acquired one of these Viper boards from eBay, and I am much in the same boat as you, except minus the oars. I can’t even get the AEL dev kit anywhere, and I am getting no response from former-Arcom. Hopefully you found a solution.

    • I have the original development environment, but I had to go back to Fedora Core 4, installed in a VM, to get it installed cleanly. In parallel I’ve spent a little time trying to understand what support for the hardware is actually enabled in the kernel that my Viper is running. From what I can tell, I don’t think I have any SPI support – which is frustrating. It looks like I need to build and install a new kernel to get the application support I need. I think I have enough kit to do that – but I’ve just not had the time to work out how, so I’ve set the project aside until I have a bit more time to spend on it.
      What state are you in, and what are you trying to achieve? Perhaps the GCC toolchain for xScale is enough to get you going for applications?

      • Hi Richard, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you before.

        As for what I have…NOTHING. I have the board. And by that I mean the VIPER itself. I don’t even have the daughter card with all the comm ports :). I’m pretty sure this thing is bare metal and doesn’t have redBoot on it.

        Right now I am trying to find an LCD that will be pin compatible with it, so that I can at least apply power to the thing and see if anything happens.

        Even the GCC toolchain would be lovely, if I could figure out bring-up.

        Hope you have fared better.

        -carlos

        • Hi Carlos, I’ve not had much spare time to spend on the Viper, so my progress is also very slow. I’ve spent some time trying to work out how to compile & install a more recent kernel. So far without success.

          About your board; there are two varieties of Viper; the original “full fat” board, and a cost-reduced version called the Viper-Lite. Both boards provide multiple RS-232 ports without needing any additional daughter boards.

          Do you have any documentation for the Viper? I have a lot of manuals in PDF format, including descriptions of the pin-outs of the various connectors, including those related to the RS-232 and LVDS. Can probably share them without too many problems if that would be helpful?

    • Hi Gordon, my Viper is currently sat on the corner of my desk, looking rather forlorn. This could be just the impetus that I need to press it back into service again. I’ll add this to the “interesting things for my spare time” list. Thanks for letting me know about your efforts!

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