Building a smart device without writing code

A while ago (2019 according to the repo), I was learning about the Internet of Things (IoT) and went through the process to prototype a smart indicator light. I made it communicate with AWS IoT where I could both change the color of the light on the device (and it would report to the cloud) as well as change the color in the cloud (and have the indicator light change).

Separately, I’ve also been spending more time on home automation. I have Home Assistant setup in my house and had been reading on ESPHome but haven’t come up with a good test project–so I decided to repurpose my indicator light to work with ESPHome!

Original Hardware

I wanted to see whether I could use the original hardware without modifications–mostly because instead of recreating the board, I just dusted it off…

Original prototype on breadboard

As the name may imply, ESPHome must be used by hardware supporting the ESP32 or ESP8266 (or RP2040, but that’s for another time) chipset. I originally made this prototype on a Raspberry Pi but wanted to use a smaller form factor for portability and yet retain the ability to connect using Wi-Fi. I’ve been using the Adafruit Feather HUZZAH on a few projects, and had back then, so I stuck with it.

Removing the Software

This project has been through a few iterations of software. I first started with python on the Raspberry Pi [code]. This would use the GPIO to control each leg of the RGB LED and would communicate with an IoT shadow in the cloud for the status. This meant AWS IoT was my interfacing layer and I could build a web-based GUI, Alexa skill, or mobile app to control this light.

When I switched to the Feather, it meant I needed to change programming languages. While MicroPython was an option, it still required the interpreter at runtime and didn’t have the benefit of compiled code. I also wrote the program in C (using Arduino) but never bothered to become proficient with C’s syntax, and ended up using JavaScript (using Mongoose OS). The trouble with all of these approaches is that the intent is simple (power to pin when condition) but writing the code becomes more difficult.

ESPHome has a different approach–you declare which components to use and provide the configuration for those components, then ESPHome compiles the modules and configuration together and produces an artifact that can be loaded onto the device. Anyone familiar with kubernetes will recognize this pattern: declare your intent in a resource file and let kubernetes build it. With ESPHome, I declare the light and which pins to use for output, and it builds the rest of it for me.

This is the configuration section for the LED in ESPHome:

light:
  - platform: rgb
    id: torch_led
    name: "torch_light"
    red: led_red
    green: led_green
    blue: led_blue

output:
  - id: led_red
    platform: esp8266_pwm
    pin: GPIO14
    inverted: true
  - id: led_green
    platform: esp8266_pwm
    pin: GPIO12
    inverted: true
  - id: led_blue
    platform: esp8266_pwm
    pin: GPIO13
    inverted: true

While this appears simple enough, I still did have to spend time learning the different values, but was able to piece it together by looking at the examples on ESPHome’s website.

There’s an added benefit of “no code” solutions like ESPHome like the included features regarding Wi-Fi, Over The Air updates (OTA) and API integration. For every programming language, adding these features meant extra lines of code and setup, but ESPHome packages them as part of the configuration and build process. Much of the code in the earlier revisions was dedicated to Wi-Fi and API connectivity, with only a small section actually controlling the physical hardware. I added OTA when moving to ESPHome, and wrote less lines as a result of the switch!

Migrating from AWS IoT to Home Assistant

While I was able to build interfaces that worked with IoT and the cloud, I wanted something that was already interconnected and didn’t require me to build the integrations. I also prefer for control traffic to be kept as local as possible. While the cloud rarely goes offline, my internet connection is much more susceptible to outages which would render the light inoperable. With a local brain, I can save on both.

Like this project, I’ve built Home Assistant a few times over the years and have been slowly expanding it to incorporate the features I need. I have the Home Assistant Podcast on my feed and it seems like everyone kept mentioning ESPHome and how it integrates with Home Assistant. Plus, ESPHome is easily run as an addon for Home Assistant. However, the best part is the interfacing is done for me! When I create the light in ESPHome, the device and entity show up in Home Assistant and include the interfacing.

The color and brightness controls come automatically in Home Assistant since I selected a RGB light as the platform in ESPHome.

Because I’ve integrated Home Assistant with Alexa, I also automatically get an Alexa interface through the Alexa app as well as voice control!

Alexa app also automatically can control the light.

Okay, now what?

What’s the point of a RGB light that’s “smart-controlled”? The device isn’t practical–but it’s one of the first small board projects I built and have spent a lot of time with. I’d already completed this project, but was able to repurpose it and find out something new. So the point–is discovery.

That’s because great achievement has no road map. The X-Ray is pretty good, and so is penicillin, and neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean, when the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless. And now we have an entire world run by electronics. Haydn and Mozart never studied the classics. They couldn’t. They invented them.

Dr. Dalton Milgate, exerpt from the fictional series The West Wing S3E16

The project itself is a learning tool–now that I’ve made this work, I’ve also been able to add smart controls to a LEGO set with lights. Now as I’m automating my house, if I need a random motion sensor that communicates with MQTT then I can build it and integrate it quickly!

ESPHome also makes home automation more available to everyone. I speak more programming languages than languages–but not everyone does. Writing a config file is much easier than writing code and it cuts down on development time. Less time on software means that I also get more time on hardware!

Image from Yarn

Building PI-BERNETES: a home lab

I bought my first Raspberry Pi (B+) in 2014 when they first launched. I remember buying it because I was spending my time coding but wanted to do so on personal hardware that was accessible and replaceable, and the B+ was $35 USD at the time. I still have it, and it still works (though not in use today).

At the time of writing, I have 23 different single board computers (SBC) but was mostly intrigued by the Raspberry Pi 4 because of the arm64 architecture and 4 GB available RAM. So I set out to build what was completely unnecessary and yet fun–a Kubernetes cluster out of Raspberry Pies!

Design Phase

I turned to the one “true” source for inspiration: the internet. #100DaysOfHomeLab

I really like this case and how clean it looks!
A really neat project with some additional ideas on interfacing between the cluster and the environment.

I found a few ideas and started to figure out what my design considerations were.

  • Cable management and airflow is important. Since I’m an ex-Network Engineer (though those skills have yet to leave me), I wanted to make sure I could keep them running cool without a lot of noise, and that means spending a little extra on power over ethernet (PoE).
  • Modular and expandable. I’ve seen the TuringPi boards, but this doesn’t fit my need as I want to be able to remove or add boards without affecting the surrounding components.
  • Mix of compute and storage. I knew I had some workloads that would need more than I wanted to (reasonably) fit on a SD card, so I wanted the cluster to support both compute units and storage units. In this case, that’s just mounting the hard drives as bays and attaching them to a raspberry pi.
  • Self-sustaining. I plan to use this cluster for operating my home automation and running private services for projects and community contributions outside of work, so I don’t want to depend on any outward services that I can’t swap out.

Hardware

Software

Selecting a container scheduler. Given my experience with containers, I knew that I wanted to run containers across these devices. With the rise of arm64 architectures being massively commercialized through AWS Graviton, Apple silicon, Azure VM, and GCP Tau series compute, I wanted to build an arm64-based distro that was capable of running containers. Since I wanted to keep the cluster self-sustained, I ruled out the typical AWS services like ECS Anywhere and EKS Anywhere because they have to communicate with the cloud on some level (plus EKS Anywhere doesn’t have arm64 support yet!). Given how much work I do with kubernetes, I wanted to select a k8s distro and ultimately selected K3s (pronounced “kates”) because it’s backed by SUSE (Rancher), is lightweight (helps save resources for running containers) and has packaging included.

Packaging with addons. Since kubernetes doesn’t provide a lot of services on its own (by design), there are a few things to include into this cluster build that will help offer the same services and kubernetes resources like you would get from a cloud-based distribution. K3s includes, helm, serviceLB, and traefik–but it was hard to customize the last two so I disabled them and installed traefik on my own plus MetalLB for load balancing. Since some of the nodes have extra storage, I wanted a storage controller that could integrate with scheduling pods that need hot storage to schedule onto the nodes with the SSDs, and selected longhorn.

Customizing these addons wasn’t difficult, but like with many open source solutions, different version documentation can be a real problem. For example, MetalLB recently switched from a ConfigMap to CRDs for defining resources, so it took extra digging to get it running but I did with these resources:

Traefik required customizations, mainly to the helm chart to automatically use the MetalLB load balancer and VIP and to enable ingressClass resources. I also added cert-manager to support encrypted endpoints using LetsEncrypt.

Instead of trying to list every customization, I also spent some time making this process repeatable. I originally bought all this hardware in 2020 and built a cluster but ran into problems early and made too many changes to record. This time, when I started, I made sure I documented the process. My manifests and notes all will end up in a Github repo (with the secrets removed) for anyone else to learn from my experiences.

What’s the point?

So far, other professionals would tell you that I have a working kubernetes cluster that does absolutely NOTHING. Why connect all of these nodes together? What can you do with it?

Since I’ve been an operator for most of my career, I tend to get everything ready for use before building a single thing. But I do have ideas of what to run on this cluster and how it’s used.

  • Home automation. I currently have Home Assistant running on its own Raspberry Pi (as one of the blades in the picture), but I’d like to move this to containers and work with that community on repeatable processes.
  • Git server. Sometimes, there are code projects you don’t want out on the public internet. I plan to run Gitea on this cluster and back it on the SSDs.
  • Home cloud. If you develop on AWS and haven’t seen LocalStack, I highly recommend checking it out. The idea started behind lambda-local and dynamodb-local but quickly expanded and added arm64 support.
  • Minecraft server. Because I have kids, and one of them is learning to program.
  • Media server. I have a bunch of DVDs and Blurays that never get used because I’m too lazy to put the DVD in the tray, so I’m gonna digitize them and host on Plex or something similar.
  • Code server. It’s been a dream of mine to work from a tablet, and coding always tends to be one of those misses. At least with code-server, I can make it easy to use an IDE (as long as there’s reliable internet).
  • Donate unused compute. There’s services like Folding@home and BOINC that allow scientific & academic communities to run their code on remote machines, and I can donate my “unused” CPU cycles to one of these programs. I’ll of course prioritize my own workloads, but if I’m not using those cycles then they might as well go to a good cause.
  • Random sparks or ideas. Because I had set most of this up before KubeCon North America 2022, I had a running cluster ready for running coding challenges and testing out new projects and ideas and was able to complete most of the challenges on the showroom floor, during sessions, or while at the hotel.

Ultimately, having this cluster gives me the freedom to run side projects and test various ideas from my house. It’s not production-ready, but rather experimentation-ready!