Most information presented during the annual X.Org Developers’ Conference doesn’t tend to be very surprising or ushering in breaking news, but during today’s XDC2020 it was subtly dropped that Arm Holdings appears to now be backing the open-source Panfrost Gallium3D driver. Panfrost has been developed over the past several years as what began as a reverse-engineered effort by Alyssa Rosenzweig to support Arm Mali Bifrost and Midgard hardware. This driver had a slow start but Rosenzweig has been employed by Collabora for a while now and they’ve been making steady progress on supporting newer Mali hardware and advancing the supported OpenGL / GLES capabilities of the driver. This is a major departure from previous policy for ARM, since the company always shied away from open source efforts around its Mali GPUs.
Update: it’s official now – NVIDIA is buying ARM. Original story: Nvidia Corp is close to a deal to buy British chip designer Arm Holdings from SoftBank Group Corp for more than $40 billion in a deal which would create a giant in the chip industry, according to two people familiar with the matter. A cash and stock deal for Arm could be announced as early as next week, the sources said. That will create one hell of a giant chip company, but at the same time – what alternatives are there? ARM on its own probably won’t make it, SoftBank has no clue what to do with ARM, and any of the other major players – Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft – would be even worse, since they all have platforms to lock you into, and ARM would be a great asset in that struggle. At least NVIDIA just wants to sell as many chips to as many people as possible, and isn’t that interested in locking you into a platform. That being said – who knows? Often, the downsides to deals like this don’t come out until years later. We’ll just have to wait and see.
As desktop processors were first crossing the Gigahertz level, it seemed for a while that there was nowhere to go but up. But clock speed progress eventually ground to a halt, not because of anything to do with the speed itself but rather because of the power requirements and the heat all that power generated. Even with the now-common fans and massive heatsinks, along with some sporadic water cooling, heat remains a limiting factor that often throttles current processors. Part of the problem with liquid cooling solutions is that they’re limited by having to get the heat out of the chip and into the water in the first place. That has led some researchers to consider running the liquid through the chip itself. Now, some researchers from Switzerland have designed the chip and cooling system as a single unit, with on-chip liquid channels placed next to the hottest parts of the chip. The results are an impressive boost in heat-limited performance. This seems like a very logical next step for watercooling and processor cooling in general, but this is far from easy. This article highlights that we are getting closer, though.
Arm is known for its Cortex range of processors in mobile devices, however the mainstream Cortex-A series of CPUs which are used as the primary processing units of devices aren’t the only CPUs which the company offers. Alongside the microcontroller-grade Cortex-M CPU portfolio, Arm also offers the Cortex-R range of “real-time” processors which are used in high-performance real-time applications. The last time we talked about a Cortex-R product was the R8 release back in 2016. Back then, the company proposed the R8 to be extensively used in 5G connectivity solutions inside of modem subsystems. Another large market for the R-series is storage solutions, with the Cortex-R processors being used in HDD and SSD controllers as the main processing elements. Today, Arm is expanding its R-series portfolio by introducing the new Cortex-R82, representing the company’s first 64-bit Armv8-R architecture processor IP, meaning it’s the first 64-bit real-time processor from the company. AnandTech and its usual deep dive into the intricacies of this new lineup from ARM. Obviously these kinds of chips are not something most people actively work with – we tend to merely use them, often even without realising it.
Linux capable RISC-V boards do exist but cost several hundred dollars or more with the likes of HiFive Unleashed and PolarFire SoC Icicle development kit. If only there was a RISC-V board similar to the Raspberry Pi board and with a similar price point… The good news is that the RISC-V International Open Source (RIOS) Laboratory is collaborating with Imagination technologies to bring PicoRio RISC-V SBC to market at a price point similar to Raspberry Pi. I’m 100% ready for fully top-to-bottom open source hardware, whether it’s Power9/Power10 at the high end, or RISV-V at the low end. ARM is a step backwards in this regard compared to x86, and while I doubt RISC-V or Power will magically displace either of those two, the surge in interest in ARM for more general purpose computing at least opens the door just a tiny little bit.
The Nanoprocessor is a mostly-forgotten processor developed by Hewlett-Packard in 1974 as a microcontroller for their products. Strangely, this processor couldn’t even add or subtract, probably why it was called a nanoprocessor and not a microprocessor. Despite this limitation, the Nanoprocessor powered numerous Hewlett-Packard devices ranging from interface boards and voltmeters to spectrum analyzers and data capture terminals. The Nanoprocessor’s key feature was its low cost and high speed: Compared against the contemporary Motorola 6800, the Nanoprocessor cost $15 instead of $360 and was an order of magnitude faster for control tasks. Recently, the six masks used to manufacture the Nanoprocessor were released by Larry Bower, the chip’s designer, revealing details about its design. The composite mask image below shows the internal circuitry of the integrated circuit. The blue layer shows the metal on top of the chip, while the green shows the silicon underneath. The black squares around the outside are the 40 pads for connection to the IC’s external pins. I used these masks to reverse-engineer the circuitry of the processor and understand its simple but clever RISC-like design. This is a very detailed and in-depth article, so definitely not for the faint of heart. Definitely a little over my head, but I know for a fact there’s quite a few among you that love and understand this sort of stuff deeply.
Folding smartphones are slowly making their way into the mainstream. Could foldable e-readers be next? The E Ink Corporation, the company behind the digital paper tech found in the majority of e-readers, is trying to make it happen. The firm’s R&D lab has been developing foldable e-ink screens for a while, and its latest prototype clearly demonstrates the idea’s potential. This feels like such a natural fit for an e-reader. A foldable e-reader mimics a real book a lot more accurately than a regular portrait display does, and can potentially reduce the amount of times you have to perform a digital page flip. Still nowhere near a real book, of course, but a tiny step closer nonetheless.
In June we saw an update to the NVMe standard. The update defines a software interface to assist in actually reading and writing to the drives in a way to which SSDs and NAND flash actually works. Instead of emulating the traditional block device model that SSDs inherited from hard drives and earlier storage technologies, the new NVMe Zoned Namespaces optional feature allows SSDs to implement a different storage abstraction over flash memory. This is quite similar to the extensions SAS and SATA have added to accommodate Shingled Magnetic Recording (SMR) hard drives, with a few extras for SSDs. ‘Zoned’ SSDs with this new feature can offer better performance than regular SSDs, with less overprovisioning and less DRAM. The downside is that applications and operating systems have to be updated to support zoned storage, but that work is well underway. Some light reading heading into the weekend.
SoftBank has been rumored to be exploring a sale of ARM — the British chip designer that powers nearly every major mobile processor from companies like Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung, and Huawei — and now, it might have found a buyer. Nvidia is reportedly in “advanced talks” to buy ARM in a deal worth over $32 billion, according to Bloomberg. Nvidia is said to be the only company that’s involved in concrete discussions with SoftBank for the purchase at this time, and a deal could arrive “in the next few weeks,” although nothing is finalized yet. If the deal does go through, it would be one of the largest deals ever in the computer chip business and would likely draw intense regulatory scrutiny. It’s not the worst option.
I’ve got a very special piece of hardware coming my way for review: a Blackbird Secure Desktop from Raptor Computing Systems. The Blackbird is a desktop PC with an IBM POWER9 processor that is open source from top to its very bottom – no firmware blobs, no management engines, no proprietary BIOS. As the product page details: The Blackbird™ mainboard is an affordable, owner-controllable, desktop and entry server level mainboard. Built around the IBM POWER9 processor, and leveraging Linux and OpenPOWER™ technology, Blackbird™ allows you to secure your data without sacrificing performance. Designed with a fully owner-controlled CPU domain, you can audit and modify any portion of the open source firmware on the Blackbird™ mainboard, all the way down to the CPU microcode. This is an unprecedented level of access for any modern desktop-class machine, and one that is increasingly needed to assure safety and compliance with new regulations, such as the EU’s GDPR. I don’t yet know what exact specifications my review unit will have, but I’m assuming it’ll be the base model that has the 4-core POWER9 processor with SMT4 (4-way multithreading). I do know it’ll come with an AMD Radeon Pro WX4100 LP, which will be the only piece of hardware requiring card-side proprietary firmware (but it’s optional, since the mainboard itself has basic open source graphics capability too). I don’t usually do this, but there’s a first thing for everything, so here we go: do any of you have any questions about this exotic hardware you want me to try and answer? Specific things to look into? I’ll also be able to ask some questions to Raptor’s CTO, so there’s a lot of opportunity to get some serious answers. I’ll try to take as many suggestions into account as I can. The current estimated delivery date is 6 August, so expect the actual review in late August or early September. Also I’m sorry for the title pun.
Last week it came to light that SoftBank may be trying to sell chipset design firm ARM, and according to a new report from Bloomberg, Nvidia could be interested. Citing the usual “people with knowledge,” Nvidia has apparently approached ARM to court a deal with the Cambridge company. Out of the various options we have, Nvidia might actually not be the worst option. Abusive companies like Apple and Google are clearly the worst possible option, and Intel and AMD already have enough sway over the market as it is. NVIDIA, while not exactly a cute puppy kitten of a company, isn’t so big and domineering that acquiring ARM would be a complete disaster for competition.
SoftBank is reportedly assessing spin-off options for its semiconductor firm, Arm Holdings. The Wall Street Journal reports from its sources that those options include having an initial public offering or a sale. The Japanese tech conglomerate picked up Arm back in 2016 for $32 billion and currently shares some ownership with investors in the SoftBank Vision Fund. The moves are being considered as SoftBank fends off challenges from activist investment house Elliott Management over major losses for its Vision Fund, including WeWork’s attempted IPO. SoftBank is supposedly targeting $41 billion in immediate fundraising through share buybacks and divestitures. Depending on Arm’s current prospectus, a sale could be more likely to happen than an IPO. I’m linking to the AndroidPolice item since the original article is stuck behind a paywall. Whoever intends to acquire ARM better have a very good story to tell antitrust regulators, because I doubt Intel, Apple, Google, or any of the other major technology companies will be allowed to acquire it. I wonder who else could be a potential buyer – maybe another investment fund?
If you’re a Linux user on the hunt for a new laptop, there’s quite a bit of preparation and research you must do on top of the regular research buying such an expensive piece of equipment already entails. Reading forum posts from other Linux users with the laptop you’re interested in, hunting for detailed specifications to make sure that specific chip version or that exact piece of exotic hardware is fully supported, checking to see if your favourite distribution has adequate support for it, and so on. There is, however, another way. While vastly outnumbered, there are laptops sold with Linux preinstalled. Even some of the big manufacturers, such as Dell, sell laptops with Linux preinstalled, but often only on older models that have been out for a while, or while not fully supporting all hardware (the fingerprint reader and infrared camera on my XPS 13 were not supported by Linux, for instance). For the likes of Dell, Linux in the consumer space is an afterthought, a minor diversion, and it shows. If you want the best possible out-of-the-box Linux experience, you’ll have to go to one of the smaller, more boutique Linux-only OEMs. One of the more prominent Linux OEMs is System76, who have been selling various laptops and desktops with Linux preinstalled for more than decade now. Recently, they launched their new ultraportable, the Lemur Pro, and they kindly loaned one to us for review. Full disclosure: System76 sent us the laptop as a loan, and it will be returned to them after publication of this review. They did not read this review before publication, and placed zero restrictions on anything I could write about. Specifications The Lemur Pro configuration System76 sent to us comes in at $1492, and packs a 4C/8T 10th Gen Intel Core i7-10510U, with frequencies of 1.8 up to 4.9 GHz and 8MB Cache. It came with 16GB of RAM, of which 8 is soldered onto the motherboard, and 8 is seated in the single RAM expansion slot. Storage-wise, it is equipped with a 500GB SSD in one of its two user-accessible M.2 slots – a Samsung 970 Evo Plus. The 14.1″ display has a resolution of 1920×1080 with a matte finish, with a maximum refresh rate of 60Hz. The display is powered by the integrated GPU, and there’s no option for a discrete GPU. The battery is a 73 Wh unit, and is entirely user-replacable. Bucking a trend in the industry, the Lemur Pro is reasonably equipped when it comes to ports: one USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 2 port, two USB 3.0 Type-A ports, a MicroSD Card Reader, a full-size HDMI port, a barrel connector for the included charger (USB-C charging is also supported), a combined headphone/microphone jack, and the usual Kensington lock. The USB-C port can also be used as a display port with DisplayPort 1.2. Hardware The design of the Lemur Pro is unassuming, mostly black, and free of the kind of design frivolities other laptops tend to suffer from. There’s no RGB here, no flames painted on the lid to make it go faster, no screaming logos or gamer accents – just a black laptop with a System76 logo on the lid. That’s it. It is incredibly light, weighing a mere 0.99 kg – for comparison, a MacBook Air weighs 1.29 kg, so the Lemur Pro is considerably lighter. This does come at a price, however, and the Lemur Pro just doesn’t feel as strong and sturdy as similar laptops with a bit more heft to it. There’s an amount of flex in the display lid, bottom cover, and keyboard cover that you just won’t see in a MacBook Air or an XPS 13. It’s a trade-off you have to make – if you really value the extreme kind of portability the Lemur Pro provides, it means giving in somewhere else. I’m disappointed System76 does not provide a high refresh rate display on the Lemur Pro, in the very least as an option. Once you’ve gotten used to 144Hz (or even higher) on your computer displays, using a 60Hz display feels like a major step back. I understand the battery life concerns, but I’m definitely more than willing to give up a little bit of battery life if it meant a buttery-smooth 144Hz UI. Aside from the lack of a high refresh rate option, the display is excellent – it’s bright and the colours look normal, but note that I’m not a colour expert, so I can’t make any claims about colour accuracy. For my general use, however, I didn’t run into any issues. Speaking of battery life – this is one of the major strong points of the Lemur Pro. System76 advertises a maximum battery life of 14 hours, and while these kind of figures are usually complete nonsense, I think they’re not far off the mark here. Since we do not (yet) have a long history of laptop reviews, we do not have any consistent methodology for measuring battery life, so anything I say here is very subjective and difficult for you as a reader to parse. That being said, with casual use – meaning, browsing, writing, Twitter and e-mailing while watching YouTube videos – I could definitely hit the 10 hour mark at the balanced power setting. Switching to the power saver setting yielded me even more hours of battery life, but it did cause a notable hit in performance, especially for video. Simple 1080p YouTube video – either played in Firefox or locally – would stutter and lag, but everything else seemed to perform just fine. My guess is that the power saver setting targets the integrated Intel GPU quite aggressively, but honestly, for several hours of additional battery life, I think it’s worth it. The battery life is especially remarkable since getting proper battery life out of laptops designed for Windows running Linux is often a major hassle, and no matter what you do, Linux battery life on laptops not designed for Linux always lags
With the advent of higher performance Arm based cloud computing, a lot of focus is being put on what the various competitors can do in this space. We’ve covered Ampere Computing’s previous eMag products, which actually came from the acquisition of Applied Micro, but the next generation hardware is called Altra, and after a few months of teasing some high performance compute, the company is finally announcing its product list, as well as an upcoming product due for sampling this year. Ampere’s Altra is a realized version of Arm’s Neoverse N1 enterprise core, much like Amazon’s Graviton2, but this time in an 80-core arrangement. Where Graviton2 is designed to suit Amazon’s needs for Arm-based instances, Ampere’s goal is essentially to supply a better-than-Graviton2 solution to the rest of the big cloud service providers (CSPs). Of the companies that have committed to an N1 based design, so far on paper Ampere is publically the biggest and fastest on the books. Can we have these in workstations please? I know they’re not designed for my kinds of uses, but damn if these aren’t awesome.
As a society, we need an open source device for reading. Books are among the most important documents of our culture, yet the most popular and widespread devices we have for reading — the Kobo, the Nook, the Kindle and even the iPad — are closed devices, operating as small moving parts in a set of giant closed platforms whose owners’ interests are not always aligned with readers’. The Open Book aims to be a simple device that anyone with a soldering iron can build for themselves. The Open Book should be comprehensible: the reader should be able to look at it and understand, at least in broad strokes, how it works. It should be extensible, so that a reader with different needs can write code and add accessories that make the book work for them. It should be global, supporting readers of books in all the languages of the world. Most of all, it should be open, so that anyone can take this design as a starting point and use it to build a better book. Whenever someone asks what “putting your money where your mouth is” means, just link them to the Open Book.
Storage vendors, including but reportedly not limited to Western Digital, have quietly begun shipping SMR (Shingled Magnetic Recording) disks in place of earlier CMR (Conventional Magnetic Recording) disks. SMR is a technology that allows vendors to eke out higher storage densities, netting more TB capacity on the same number of platters—or fewer platters, for the same amount of TB. Until recently, the technology has only been seen in very large disks, which were typically clearly marked as “archival”. In addition to higher capacities, SMR is associated with much lower random I/O performance than CMR disks offer. This is going to be another one of those stupid things us technology buyers have to look out for when buying storage, isn’t it? Like
Qemu 5.0.0 has been released, with a massive laundry list of changes, fixes, and improvements for a lot of Qemu’s emulated platforms. The new version will make it your operating system’s repositories soon enough if you use Linux, but if you use a platform where you have to muddle along with and juggle your applications and updates manually like a peasant, like Windows or macOS, you’ll have to wait until someone packages it for you so you can update your binary manually. Of course, you can always build it yourself, too.
One of the key elements I’ve always found frustrating with basic software development is that it can often be quite difficult to actually get the hardware in hand you want to optimize for, and get a physical interaction that isn’t delayed by networking or logging in or anything else. Having a development platform on the desk guarantees that direct access, and for the non-x86 vendors, I’ve been asking for these for some time. Thankfully we’re now starting to see some appear, and Avantek, one of the Arm server retailers, have built an Ampere eMag workstation out of a server board, with some interesting trickery to get it to fit. They sent us one to have a look at. This is only the unboxing and short first impressions, but I am unreasonably excited about what are effectively bog-standard PCs, but with an ARM processor. I can’t wait for these machines to come down in price, because this is the first time in a long, long time that we’ve seen what could become a serious challenge to x86 in its traditional space: desktops and laptops. Once AnandTech publishes its actual review, I’ll be on top of that, too.
But in recent months, MIPS related news has not been so good. First, Wave Computing decided to end MIPS Open Initiative in November 2019, then Paul Burton and Ralf Baechle removed themselves from the Linux kernel MIPS maintainer list in February 2020, as their work with MIPS ended leaving Thomas Bogendoerfer as the only maintainer. But this month, things turned for the worse, with CIP United filing a lawsuit against MIPS LLC on April 6, before announcing the company had obtained exclusive MIPS license rights for mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau on April 11, 2019 (Click on News in top menu of this link). In my mind, I had written off MIPS as a thing of the past anyway – but it’s still sad to see if tangled up in legal disputes and lack of attention.
Hercules is an open source software implementation of the mainframe System/370 and ESA/390 architectures, in addition to the new 64-bit z/Architecture. Hercules runs under Linux, Windows (98, NT, 2000, and XP), Solaris, FreeBSD, and Mac OS X (10.3 and later). The installation instructions will aid you in setting Hercules up.