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I have been fascinated with mini computers for some time, and have wondered when they will become suitable for bioinformatics. The 4273π project, which is an online course that is distributed as a 32Gb SD card image for the Raspberry Pi, has been around for a few years and demonstrated the utility of mini computers for training. The course is a proof of principle that bioinformatics software can work on a mini computer; the distributed software includes some comparative genomics and phylogenetics programs. However there is not much one can do with 1Gb RAM. The data in 4273π are small FASTA files, and while the Raspberry Pi is powerful enough to allow for experimentation and exploration of such datasets, even the new Raspberry Pi 3, with ten times the performance of the original 2012 model, still only has 1Gb of RAM and is not powerful enough for handling the current primary data type of genomics: high-throughput sequencing data.

Enter the Rock64.

The Rock64 is a new single-board computer from Pine64 that competes with the Raspberry Pi 3:Comparison_table

The Rock64 is evidence of the rapid and impressive development in single-board computers over the past few years, and Pine64 crosses a major threshold by offering a model with 4Gb RAM. The machine is also cheap. A 4Gb RAM Rock64, which is a 64-bit, quad core 1.5GHz machine, costs $44.95 (the 1Gb model is just $24.95). An enclosure is $7.95, a power supply $6.99, and a 64Gb SSD drive is only $31.95 (the 16Gb drive is $15.95). When my student Jase Gehring found out the specs of the machine last summer, he immediately realized that it was powerful enough to run kallisto for RNA-Seq analyses, and we preordered a handful of the boards for the lab. These arrived in the fall and we have been testing the machines for a while. One of them is hooked up to a monitor, and together with a bluetooth mouse and keyboard is serving as a general desktop computer in the wet lab. They are extraordinary versatile mini computers that, in my opinion, portend a future of mobile, low-cost, and light-weight computing for clinical and field genomics applications.

Unfortunately ARM is not an architecture known to most computational biologists, and my initial enthusiasm for the Rock64 was dampened when I found out that most genomics software does not work on ARM architecture. However I managed to install R, and Páll Melsted compiled kallisto on the Rock64 for the new release of version 0.44 (the release introduces an ARM binary, along with pseudobam for visualization of pseudoalignments). With these programs in place on Gibraltar (our first Rock64 with 4Gb of RAM, a 64Gb SSD drive, and a quad-core 1.5GHz processor), there was ample processing power to quantify RNA-Seq datasets.

rock64_Gibraltar

For example, I was able to build the Saccharomyces cerevisae release 81 transcriptome index in one minute. A complete quantification of 6 samples from Ellahi, Thurtle and Rine, 2015 using two cores (with 30 bootstraps per sample) took 21 minutes. The quantification consisted of processing 47,744,312 paired-end reads. Amazingly, the Rock64 can quantify human RNA-Seq, which requires pseudoalignment of reads to a much larger transcriptome than yeast. A human 15,117,833 paired-end read sample (SRR493366) took less than 11 minutes to quantify using a single core. These results show that the Rock64 is not a toy; it can be used for the analysis of high-throughput sequencing data from substantial biological experiments.

Human_quantification

It’s mind boggling to consider just how amazing it is to be able to quantify RNA-Seq on such a machine. When we developed kallisto we knew that the two orders of magnitude speedup was a game-changer, but I never thought we would literally be able to run it on what is not much more than a phone. We’re not going to switch over all of our RNA-Seq analyses to the Rock64s quite yet, but cluster assemblies such as the Pico5S have piqued my interest.

Pico5S

I imagine that it won’t be long before mini computers are even more powerful, and provide ultra low-cost portable alternatives to current server and cloud computing solutions. Having said that, I still miss my Commodore 64. Fortunately the mini revolution isn’t leaving me behind: a mini version of the C64 is slated for release early this year.

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