7-Screen 'Giant Dashboard' Wanted for Office: How?
June 13, 2013 12:12 PM   Subscribe

My office really wants to have tons of large displays up showing realtime statistics and metrics. Thanks to America, flat-screen TVs are cheap. And I've already written all of the visualizations. What computer should run these things?

So: given 7 displays, which are around $350 each, how do you hook each up to a decent computer? A Mac Mini for each would be $600, which is a a bit much - especially for a machine that will be 'just' running latest Google Chrome all day long forever. As for performance: basically d3+websockets or json+ some fancy visualization. So, somewhere between nothing and actually requiring processing power.

It would be great if we could buy a few older Mac Minis for much cheaper, but the Refurbished market seems to have dried up entirely, so that'd mean eBay, right?

We've tried 'pen-drive linux' computers, but they tend to be underpowered and require too much hacking to be sustainable. Set-top linux boxes also seem promising but have similar issues with being underpowered to run in-browser graphics fast enough.

Is it feasible to run multiple monitors from one Mac Mini? Does Apple TV work in this case? We've tried a linked-up iPad, but the screen ratio doesn't work. Big screens are desired, so wall-mounted iPads are out of the question.

There are 'official' answers to most of these questions, but it would be extremely useful to get some real-world ideas of what works and what's too much of a hassle to run as a constant presence in an office.

posted by tmcw to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The term you want to research is "digital signage" - it's an entire industry of tiny media players and specific software, specifically designed to manage content on multiple screens from a central location. (I work for a media firm that covers the industry, so I can't really link to anything without self-linking, but you can memail me if you'd like some specific recommendations.)
posted by jbickers at 12:19 PM on June 13, 2013

The current trend seems to be using the small linux-based SoC machines like Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black.

These are sub-$50 computers that have HDMI ports built-in. All have Linux pre-built and ready to run.

Here's one example of someone that's used the Raspberry Pi to build an in-office dashboard system.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:28 PM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Would something like Panic's Status board fix the screen ratio issue on the iPad?
posted by zabuni at 12:35 PM on June 13, 2013

I think some people here are seriously underestimating the processing power needed to display realtime graphics full time across seven monitors.

I am thinking along the lines of a Mac Pro with four of these Nvidia GT 120 graphics cards, and a plethora of RAM. You might also want to look at solutions geared toward traders.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:35 PM on June 13, 2013

Also, if you used one seriously jacked up Mac Pro instead of seven Mac Minis, you’d probably spend around the same amount of money, but you’d only have to work on one computer. That will be much less of a hassle just from a “where do I plug this shit in” standpoint.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:40 PM on June 13, 2013

tmcw, what kind of graphics are you looking to show and how fast do you need to render them?

I can understand if you're showing things like sales/warehouse/caller data, a small SoC machine will probably do. If you're trying to spin 3D charts at 30fps, then oceanjesse's solution will probably be the way to go.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:43 PM on June 13, 2013

The downside of using one powerful machine is that your whole system has a single point of failure.

Newegg has a category for what you want: Digital Signage/Barebones, basically, tiny atom-powered whitebox systems you toss a minimal amount of usb storage on and whatever else you want to run. $150-300 a pop.
posted by Oktober at 12:54 PM on June 13, 2013

Response by poster: @zabuni - it would be awesome if there was just that feature for a browser - these visualizations will be scratchbuilt for web and are far away from charts.

@JoeZydeco - one example would be http://www.mapbox.com/show-me-the-way/ (when the underlying API goes up again), besides that we'll be using things like http://square.github.io/cubism/ with internal data. So, probably one will be 3D, the rest just SVG + Canvas and the typical web-application flow.

A Mac Pro seems cool, but could we really split-and-then-split-more to 7 monitors, and longish wire runs won't be a problem? Guessing something like $2000/6 makes this a decent option if true.
posted by tmcw at 12:56 PM on June 13, 2013

You need a bunch of these guys running this, and a main PC or Mac powerful enough to run 7 remote sessions to those Android HDMI sticks at once.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:57 PM on June 13, 2013

Just looking through the notes, one of the ways you can put various items on Status Board is through straight HTML.

Not trying to sell it, and you'd still be limited to their fixed sizes though.
posted by zabuni at 1:02 PM on June 13, 2013

I think a mac pro for this is overkill and blowing money where it doesn't need to go. I also think the older mac mini idea isn't great because they have awful intel GPUs that struggle even with HD youtube, much less anything like this. They're also irritating to service if a hard drive dies or you get a bad ram stick or something.

I recently had to come up with a triple monitor setup that only needed to display relatively simple stuff, and kept only coming across high end cards(and two cards weren't an option). Then i found this. There's a cheaper single slot one, but one of the outputs is VGA. This one also includes an HDMI>dvi adapter in the box giving you 3 DVI ports instantly.

Buy 3 simply to avoid fucking around with two different models of GPU on the same system(and also if you want to expand later) and throw them onto a board like this(and they're throwing in 8gb of ram for free right now, holy shit!) and a basic but decent cpu like this. I think you get the idea, you'll need a 600 watt+ power supply and other normal stuff. Get a cheap small, say 64gb ssd. Whatevers on sale.

The entire build will probably cost a bit over $500, and undercut basically any other option. Which loops us back to

The downside of using one powerful machine is that your whole system has a single point of failure.

At which point this option really shines. If downtime is a serious concern, order several spares for most of the parts. Or hell, build two identical machines and clone the drives.

This setup, imo, would handle this type of thing no problem. I'd be shocked if an i3 wasn't enough, and at most would bump it up to the cheapest quad core i5.(you would be shocked at the things i've run smoothly on my core2duo macs and pcs, a fast dual core is enough for almost anything).

Also, where is this computer going to be hiding while it's running this? i'd be looking at ATX-sized(so, the taller/wider ones) of these style of cases possibly. maybe even flipped on their side to be a sort of slim tower and bracketed on to the wall somewhere.
posted by emptythought at 1:31 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

It would be great if we could buy a few older Mac Minis for much cheaper, but the Refurbished market seems to have dried up entirely, so that'd mean eBay, right?

Amazon indirectly sells used computers, including Mac minis. The newer models are perfectly fine for your purpose.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:43 PM on June 13, 2013

One nice server PC and 7 of these NComputing thin client terminals will be fine. Or one hefty computer with multiple graphics cards and Betwin software.
posted by Sophont at 2:35 PM on June 13, 2013

I personally wouldn't waste the money on a Mac. You aren't using Mac's OS at all and Macs are much more difficult/expensive to upgrade hardware-wise. I'd go a PC route that way you can always add RAM or replace CPU, etc. if you find you need more. But then again, I will always favor PC over Macs anyway so I'm biased.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:53 PM on June 13, 2013

If I were building this, I'd have one fancy server that generates full screen images for the displays. And then the cheapest possible thing with HDMI out to put those pixels on the screen, maybe Raspberry PIs. Unless the viewers of the monitors are going to have some sort of intensive animation or interaction with the displays, there's no point in paying for expensive computers with graphics cards to dynamically render a bunch of data.
posted by Nelson at 8:29 PM on June 13, 2013

Response by poster: Sigh, so we've gone with the multi-monitor PC/Linux setup and have thrown about a day's worth of time into finding a computer with a PCI slot that can handle the video card we got. Meh. If anyone knows how to buy a PC computer, please tell me; this is like 1998, but even worse.
posted by tmcw at 2:55 PM on June 17, 2013

What card are you trying to use? Are you trying to use some old-ass actually PCI(and not PCI-express) video card like a matrox?
posted by emptythought at 3:12 PM on June 17, 2013

Response by poster: Well, we got this card and this computer and, surprise, unannounced 'half height' PCI slots, plus the PCI standard fragmented into like 3 incompatible standards since I last used it. Grr. Finding a different computer that goes with this card is a headache because of, as stated, unannounced, undocumented shorter/lower/different PCI slots, or even lack thereof.

Open to any card+computer suggestion that does the job that's under $1k total or so.
posted by tmcw at 3:24 PM on June 17, 2013

I think my 3 card+roll your own suggestion above is good, but if you want a prebuilt box then the keyword you missed(which didn't seem to be in that ad though, to be fair, thats a fuckup on their part) is "SFF/small form factor" which is what that system is.

Don't return that card though, get this and pop that card right in. You get a good CPU, 6gb of ram, and a 1tb hdd. Killer deal.

If you need to run the 7th display, you can pop one of these guys in there too.

I'd personally also throw one of these guys in there too, but only because i don't trust "300 watt" crap OEM power supplies to run two GPUs with some load on them, when the system was basically built to run with onboard graphics.
posted by emptythought at 4:10 PM on June 17, 2013

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