Raptor CS: fully owner-controlled computing using OpenPOWER

Peter Czanik did an interview with Timothy Pearson of Raptor Engineering, the company behind POWER9 systems like the Talos II and Blackbird, which I reviewed last year. There’s some good stuff in there, most importantly the reasoning as to why there isn’t any POWER10 hardware from Raptor yet.

At this time we do not have plans to create a POWER10 system. The reasoning behind this is that somehow, during the COVID19 shutdowns and subsequent Global Foundries issues, IBM ended up placing two binary blobs into the POWER10 system. One is loaded onto the Microsemi OMI to DDR4 memory bridge chip, and the other is loaded into what appears to be a Synopsis IP block located on the POWER10 die itself. Combined, they mean that all data flowing into and out of the POWER10 cores over any kind of high speed interface is subject to inspection and/or modfication by a binary firmware component that is completely unauditable – basically a worst-case scenario that is strangely reminiscent of the Intel Management Engine / AMD Platorm Security Processor (both have a similar level of access to all data on the system, and both are required to use the processor). Our general position is that if IBM considered these components potentially unstable enough to require future firmware updates, the firmware must be open source so that entities and owners outside of IBM can also modify those components to fit their specific needs.

Were IBM to either open source the firmware or produce a device that did not require / allow mutable firmware components in those locations, we would likely reconsider this decision.

This information isn’t new, but you had to read Twitter posts or forum messages to get at it, so it’s nice to see it all laid out like this. IBM really missed the mark here, and it’s incredibly sad we won’t be seeing any POWER10 workstations from Raptor any time soon. I do admire Raptor’s uncompromising stance here, though, since it’s rare to find a company with principles they’re willing to stand by.

And these principles matter – as the story about the problems getting Linux to run on the Rock64 showed. As Pearson puts it:

An owner-controlled device is best defined as a tool that answers only to its physical owner, i.e. its owner (and only its owner) has full control over every aspect of its operation. If something is mutable on that device, the owner must be able to make those changes to alter its operation without vendor approval or indeed any vendor involvement at all. This is in stark contrast with the standard PC model, where e.g. Intel or AMD are allowed to make changes on the device but the owner is expressly forbidden to change the device’s operation through various means (legal restrictions, lack of source code, vendor-locked cryptographic signing keys, etc.). In our opinion, such devices never really left the control of the vendor, yet somehow the owner is still legally responsible for the data stored on them – to me, this seems like a rather strange arrangement on which to build an entire modern digital economy and infrastructure.

He’s not wrong.

One Response

  1. 2022-05-21 5:20 am