Hardware Archive

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.

My unholy battle with a Rock64

I’ve got this rock64, which is an aarch64 board comparable to a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ with 4 gigs of ram. For years I’ve wanted to put a distribution on here that doesn’t have a premade image available, mainly because out of all the options on that page I don’t actually like any of them. Well, except NetBSD, but NetBSD doesn’t have GPU drivers for it. Problem is, everything I do want to use provides rootfs tarballs and tells you to figure it out. To do that I’ve got to get a Linux kernel, track down the device trees so it knows what hardware it has, and then wrangle u-boot into actually booting the whole thing. I figured that would be the hard part; little did I know the depths that Single Board Computer Hell would reach. Unlike x86, ARM is far, far from a standardised platform. The end result of this is that unless you can find tailor-made images specific for your particular ARM board, you’re gonna have to do a lot of manual labour to install an operating system that should work.

Restoring a Tadpole SPARCbook 3

Tadpole Technology was a small British computer company formed in 1983 and originally based out of Cambridge, who amongst other things manufactured VMEbus boards for industrial applications, along with military spec, small server and laptop computers. During the 1990s and perhaps most famously, Tadpole produced a range of high-end laptops that were based on the SPARC, PowerPC and Alpha RISC architectures, running Solaris, AIX and OpenVMS respectively. A previous series of articles followed the restoration of a SPARCstation IPX, noting how Sun UNIX workstations were a much-coveted object of geek desire in the early 1990s. However, Tadpole laptops which boasted a RISC processor were a great deal rarer than such workstations, with an almost legendary status and you were lucky if you even got to see one in the flesh. In this series of posts, we’ll take a look at restoring a third-generation Tadpole SPARCbook, which was introduced in 1994 at a starting cost of $10,950 — which with inflation would make the price tag equivalent to almost $20,000 or £15,000 in today’s money! SPARC hardware in general has a special place in my heart, but the Tadpole SPARC laptops are in a whole league of their own – mythical beasts I know exist, but which are incredibly rare, and even more stupidly expensive when they come up for sale than even regular SPARC hardware. I’d not give up my firstborn for one, but we can talk about a kidney. Or two.

The very weird Hewlett Packard FreeDOS option

In this installment: some strange things I discovered when purchasing a FreeDOS laptop from Hewlett Packard. I suspect that the audience for this will be somewhat limited but I had fun exploring this. Perhaps you, dear reader, will find a chuckle in here too. Some background: I recently purchased a HP ZBook 17.8 G8 as I run Fedora Linux I decided to have a little fun with the OS selection and picked the FreeDOS option (Other options include Ubuntu, and various flavors of Windows 11). I can guarantee you this will be a lot weirder than you think.

Homemade TPM 2.0 Module

With the recent launch of Windows 11 Microsoft also made having a hardware TPM module mandatory. Although this technology is not new (it was introduced in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016), now, that most people can’t upgrade to Windows 11, it will (slowly) become mainstream. (My personal opinion on it is that is probably a step in the right direction, but Microsoft could have handled mandating it better..) Several months ago, when I heard about this new requirement, I checked how much this upgrade for me would cost. At the time prices for a TPM2.0 module for my motherboard (Gigabyte AORUS GAMING 3) started at around €150, which is not much less then, but definitely comparable with, the price of the motherboard itself. Not prepared to pay that much for a “free” Windows 11 upgrade, I started to look into if and how I could create the same thing on my own. A cool and actually useful project – and the required code and schematics are available on GitHub.

Celebrating 40 years of ZX Spectrum

Well color me old! The ZX Spectrum (affectionately known as “Speccy” or just “Spectrum” by its fans), one of the best-selling microcomputers of all time, was released 40 years ago today. Can you believe it still has a large and active community creating new content, archiving old content, and hacking on all sorts of hardware? I have never owned or used one, but the Spectrum is one of those machines everyone is familiar with – like the C64, the Apple II, TRS 80, and so on.

QEMU 7.1 released

QEMU 7.0 is out today as the newest version of this important piece of the open-source Linux virtualization stack. Since QEMU 6.2 at the end of last year, developers at Red Hat and other organizations have been busy working on QEMU 7.0 as this open-source emulator widely used as part of the free software Linux virtualization stack. QEMU 7.0 brings support for Intel AMX, a lot of ongoing RISC-V work, and more. QEMU is one of the great success stories of open source – and one operating system and classic computing enthusiasts benefit from every day.

Calculating Pi digits on the first Intel microprocessor (Intel 4004)

One day I thought about the performance gap between the first Intel processor and modern machines. Of course, we can try to do some estimations empirically – we know clock rate and how the pipeline is organized and what features intel 4004 CPU has (but it would not be standard FLOPS, because there was no embedded support for float numbers yet). But there are few details: architecture bit width (only 4 bits in comparison with modern 64 bits!), very limited instruction set (it’s missing even basic logical operators like AND or XOR) and peripheral limitations (ROM/RAM accesses). So I decided to research the subject in practice. After some thinking, I chose π number calculation as a benchmark. After all, even ENIAC did that (in 1949) and achieved a new record for the amount of calculated digits. Silly, perhaps, but still quite illustrative.

Why not Pentium III?

Word is out there that an individual is trying to develop Pentium III emulation as part of a fork of 86Box, regardless of how slow it is, in the name of “hardware preservation”. But why didn’t we do it in the first place? Why did we, developers of a PC emulator clearly aimed at the preservation of hardware and software, limit ourselves to the Pentium II and an underperforming competitor (the VIA Cyrix III), and why did we do these two knowing they’re already pretty slow to emulate? It’s story time. When I started reading this article I had no idea there was going to be some classic open source/forking drama at the end, but even with that, it’s a good article and definitely worth a read.

DDC OLED

I have a proclivity to stupid and/or pointless projects. This is one of them. Conceived from a conversation that ended with “Hey, it would technically be possible to…” – sure, let’s do it. DDC, display data channel, is a protocol for reading information about what resolutions and so on a monitor supports. It was later extended to DDC/CI, that lets you set brightness and other parameters, but fundamentally, the original idea was to stick a cheap i2c eeprom on each device with some basic info on it. (Technically, the original idea was even simpler than that, but let’s not get into that.) It began in the VGA days, but has become so entrenched that even modern hardware with HDMI or DisplayPort supports it. That’s right, in an HDMI cable, nestled amongst the high-speed differential pairs, there’s an exceedingly slow i2c bus. Tiny OLED dot-matrix displays often have an i2c controller, so I had the idea to try and plug one directly into an HDMI port. Hilarious! Let’s do it. This is the kind of stuff that just puts a huge smile on my face – something we can use during these trying times.

Lanai, the mystery CPU architecture in LLVM

Some of my recent long-term projects revolve around a little known CPU architecture called ‘Lanai’. Unsurprisingly, very few people have heard of it, and even their Googling skills don’t come in handy. This page is a short summary of what I know, and should serve as a reference for future questions. Deeply fascinating. I love obscure CPU architectures, and they don’t come more obscure than this.

A brief tour of the PDP-11

The history of computing could arguably be divided into three eras: that of mainframes, minicomputers, and microcomputers. Minicomputers provided an important bridge between the first mainframes and the ubiquitous micros of today. This is the story of the PDP-11, the most influential and successful minicomputer ever. A deep dive into the inner workings of the PDP-11, specifically on how to use the machine to do actual computing tasks. I lack the skills to do anything with a machine like this, but they look and feel so incredibly nice.

Tech’s cult of thinness needs to come to an end

Gadgets are getting too thin, again. These past few weeks saw some of the latest victims of the seemingly unending drive towards making our devices as thin as possible, no matter the consequences. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 and S22 Plus — what will undoubtedly be some of the most popular Android phones of the year — are thinner than last year’s models and held back by disappointing battery life. The new Dell XPS 15 is “exceptionally thin and light” but barely lasts four hours on a charge and runs nearly as hot as the sun. And the OnePlus 10 Pro is a flagship smartphone that can somehow be snapped in half with your bare hands. It seems that despite over a decade of chasing the thinnest, lightest phones and computers around to the detriment of battery life, cooling, and durability, companies still haven’t learned their lessons. I prefer a few more millimeters if it means better heat dissipation, less fan noise, and better battery life. I’m not entirely sure if consumers in general prefer thinness over these other aspects, but I doubt they do.

DevOps for the Sinclair Spectrum

We’re fast approaching the 40th birthday of the Sinclair Spectrum in 2022, and to keep myself occupied during COVID lockdowns I decided it would be a lot of fun to go back and re-visit the computer that started it all for me. I set about coding and building the infrastructure for a Spectrum-based community project (website at tnfs.markround.com) incorporating my current-day tools and knowledge, hence the title of this series of posts. The enterprise grew into a curious mix of old and new: Container-based pipelines with Ruby server-side components, all interacting with Spectrum BASIC and z80 assembly code, running on real 1980s hardware with a TCP/IP connection. If you’ve ever wondered how to unit-test Sinclair BASIC programs in GitOps pipelines running on Kubernetes clusters, this is the set of articles for you. I love it when people push these old machines to their limits with modern knowledge.

Review: Slimbook Executive

Late last year, we reviewed Slimbook’s KDE Slimbook, a special version of the Spanish’ Linux OEM’s 15″ laptop made in collaboration with the KDE project. I found it to be an excellent laptop, which left little to be desired for anyone in the market for a laptop of that size. It came with tons of power, unobtrusive fans, a great design, and a fair price tag. That being said – personally, I prefer smaller laptops. The KDE Slimbook’s 15 inches is just a bit too wide for me to be comfortable, and I’d much rather have something in the area of 13-14 inches. Luckily, Slimbook has an offering in this segment too: the Slimbook Executive. I’ve been using and testing one for the last few months, and I can confidently say the KDE Slimbook was not a fluke. Slimbook is running a special deal just for OSNews readers! When ordering your Slimbook Executive, use the promo code executive-laptop-osnews for a €150 discount!Note: OSNews does not receive any percentage of the sales using this promo code (or sales not using this promo code for that matter). The Slimbook Executive is 14″ ultrabook weighing in at a mere 1kg. Like the KDE Slimbook, it is also made from magnesium, which I find much more pleasant to handle than aluminium. I find magnesium more pleasant to touch and hold – it’s not as cold and harsh as aluminium, and it’s lighter too, which makes sense for an ultraportable laptop like this one. Instead of AMD, the Executive is powered by Intel’s Core i7-1165G7, with 4 cores and 8 threads, paired with Intel’s Iris Xe integrated graphics. It has two RAM slots for a maximum total of 64GB of RAM; my review unit was configured with 16GB of RAM, which is more than enough for a modern Linux distribution on such a portable machine. Despite being relatively small, the laptop has ample room for storage – it comes with two M.2 slots, one at PCIe 4x and one at PCIe 2x, for an out-of-factory configurable total of 4TB of storage. Unlike some of the competition from more established, larger OEMs, there’s no shortage of ports here. It has two USB-A 3.2 Gen1 ports, 1 USB-C 3.2 Gen2 port (with video-out through DisplayPort 1.4), one Thunderbolt 4 port (also with video-out through DisplayPort 1.4a, as well as charging support at 90+W) an SD card reader, a full-size HDMI port, and the usual Kensington lock, barrel plug, and headphone jack. The keyboard is more of a standard affair than the fancy, unique keyboard design found on the KDE Slimbook. This time around, it’s a regular chicklet-style keyboard in its magnesium frame, entirely familiar to anyone who has used an ultrabook in the past five to ten years. It’s excellently boring and familiar, just as you want a keyboard to be. It’s of course also backlit, and luckily does not have the readability issues some of the keys on the KDE Slimbook had. The touchpad feels great, has support for multitouch gestures, but it is of the common diving board design, meaning clicking gets progressively harder the higher you go on the trackpad. I really wish Apple’s fancy force touch trackpads made their way to othe rmanufacturers, too, since it feels nicer to have the same click feeling no matter where you click. The trackpad is huge, but not as over-the-top as Apple’s recent touchpads. The design of the laptop itself is very generic – unlike the KDE Slimbook, there are no flourishes here that set it apart from the rest of the competition (aside from the Slimbook logo, of course). I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – this segment of the market is very mature, and this general design popularised by the MacBook Air is popular for a reason. Crazy and unique design makes sense on a gaming laptop, but on a small ultrabook, I prefer to keep it simple. The display is the real star of the show. It’s a 14″ screen with a resolution of 2880×1800 (Slimbook calls it 3K), and a refresh rate of 90Hz. Between 4K at 60Hz and 1080p at 144Hz, I think this is an excellent middle ground that avoids the pixelated look of 1080p at 14″, while still giving a decently smooth refresh rate. I definitely prefer this display over the 4K 60Hz panel on my Dell XPS 13, which is saying a lot, since that panel is one of the very best you could get at the time. There is one issue with the display I need to talk about. As it turns out, as soon as you try to install a kernel newer than roughly 5.11 or so, you’re going to see major screen flickering and corruption. After talking to Slimbook about this, it turns out this is because of an issue with panel self-refresh, a powersaving feature in Intel’s driver. This is known to cause issues in some cases, and the solution is to disable the feature using GRUB2 (add i915.enable_psr=0 to the kernel parameters). It’s important to note that you only have to apply this fix if you install a Linux distribution by yourself; the preinstalled Slimbook OS – a slightly modified version of Ubuntu – did not experience this problem, and I’m sure if you select any of the other preinstalled Linux distributions during the order process, Slimbook will also make sure the issue is handled before shipping. Slimbook has also told me they are currently beta testing a BIOS update that will fix this problem at the BIOS level, so once that update is released and installed, this issue will disappear. The battery life is exactly as you’d expect – I’m getting about 8 hours with office-type work, video watching, and some browsing. Using Slimbook’s own applications for managing the battery and processor states, you get some decent control over your performance and battery life, but a Debian-based distribution is required to make installation as easy as possible, since otherwise you’ll

Nvidia quietly prepares to abandon $40 billion Arm bid

Nvidia Corp. is quietly preparing to abandon its purchase of Arm Ltd. from SoftBank Group Corp. after making little to no progress in winning approval for the $40 billion chip deal, according to people familiar with the matter.  Nvidia has told partners that it doesn’t expect the transaction to close, according to one person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. SoftBank, meanwhile, is stepping up preparations for an Arm initial public offering as an alternative to the Nvidia takeover, another person said. Look, Nvidia is obviously far from perfect, but the alternatives seem far, far worse. Would you want Arm to end up at Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, or one of the big Chinese players? I’m simply afraid an independent Arm will end up in far worse arms a few years down the line than Nvidia.

Reverse engineering the 1988 NeXT keyboard protocol

Steve Jobs’s NeXT computer company made a keyboard in 1988. With no prior electronics experience, I tried to get it to work over USB. To do so, I had to go way deeper than I ever expected – all the way back over 100 years to broadcast radio standards from the 1920s. I learned tons and tons, and had a lot of fun. The things people do for the perfect keyboard.

That magical word: workstation

In retrospect, it might be a bit tough to put a circle around what constituted a workstation. Is a PERQ a workstation? Probably. Xerox Alto and Star? Definitely. Symbolics Lisp machines? Not sure. Probably? The real success stories came out of Apollo, Sun, HP,IBM,NeXT,DEC and Silicon Graphics. For a time it was a hot market, especially in what was known then as technical computing: research, manufacturing, CAD, graphics, simulations. If you had a job where you were issued a Sun or an Apollo (back in the day) or an SGI, you were elevated. You were no longer some pleb coding in basic on a C64 or a tie wearing IBM clone user. You had entered a rarified sphere with limitless power at your fingertips. An Amiga was a grubby kids toy by comparison and the IBM PC was slow to move to graphical applications. The workstation manufacturers had fancy graphics, 32 bit processors and scarily huge margins. The designs of the boxes could be wild: The SGI Indy didn’t look like anything Bob from accounting had on his desk and you couldn’t buy anything like that at K-Mart. UNIX workstations from the ’90s and early 2000s are definitely my favourite genre of computers. My personal white whale is definitely the SGI Tezro, the last hurrah of SGI before they went all in on Intel, closely followed by Sun’s Ultra 45, its last SPARC workstation. These machines are only getting more expensive by the month now, and people are charging insane amounts of money for these, effectively, useless, dead-end machines. That’s why ordered all the parts for building my own dual-Xeon workstation.

PCIe 6.0 specification published

PCI Express technology has served as the de facto interconnect of choice for nearly two decades. The PCIe 6.0 specification doubles the bandwidth and power efficiency of the PCIe 5.0 specification (32 GT/s), while providing low latency and reduced bandwidth overhead. We’re barely seeing the rollout of PCIe 5.0 begin, and we’re already moving ahead. Also, who knew the standards organisation for PCIe is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon, of all places. Although, to be fair, any city that understands and caters to the beautiful, thrilling, and honest sport of curling is a great city. And I’m not joking here – curling is exquisite, and quite probably the noblest of sports.