Hardware Archive

Opening up the Baseboard Management Controller

In 2011 Facebook announced the Open Compute Project to form a community around open-source designs and specifications for data center hardware. Facebook shared its hardware specs, which resulted in 38 percent less energy consumption and 24 percent cost savings compared with its existing data centers. What Facebook and other hyperscalers (Google, Microsoft, et al.) donate to the Open Compute Project are their solutions to the agonizing problems that come with running data centers at scale. Since then, the project has expanded to all aspects of the open data center: baseboard management controllers (BMCs), network interface controllers (NICs), rack designs, power busbars, servers, storage, firmware, and security. This column focuses on the BMC. This is an introduction to a complicated topic; some sections just touch the surface, but the intention is to provide a full picture of the world of the open-source BMC ecosystem, starting with a brief overview of the BMC’s role in a system, touching on security concerns around the BMC, and then diving into some of the projects that have developed in the open-source ecosystem. A good overview.

A look at Celerity’s second generation 496-core RISC-V Mesh NoC

For those who are not familiar with Celerity, this is a multi-university effort that has resulted in an open-source manycore RISC-V tiered accelerator chip. The project is part of the DARPA Circuit Realization At Faster Timescales (CRAFT) program which wants to drive the design cycle for custom integrated circuits to weeks and months from years. The Celerity team first presented the chip at Hot Chips 29. Last year, at VLSI 2019, Celerity was back to talk about the PLL and the NoC of its second-generation chip. The presentation was given by Austin Rovinski from the University of Michigan. I can read the words, but much of this is far too complicated for me to give any meaningful comment.

Farmers are buying 40-year-old tractors because they’re actually repairable

When a brand new John Deere tractors breaks down, you need a computer to fix it. When a John Deere tractor manufactured in 1979 breaks down, you can repair it yourself or buy another old John Deere tractor. Farming equipment—like televisions, cars, and even toothbrushes—now often comes saddled with a computer. That computer often comes with digital rights management software that can make simple repairs an expensive pain in the ass. As reported by the Minnesota StarTribune, Farmers have figured out a way around the problem—buying tractors manufactured 40 years ago, before the computers took over. I wonder if we’ll ever reach that state with computers – a point where they become so locked-down, unrepairable and impossible to fix that we will be forced to keep older hardware around just to retain control over our own devices.

RISC-V stumbling blocks

Recently, I’ve started to explore RISC-V. I experienced the journey as pretty refreshing, particularly because I’ve been working on x86 low-level software almost exclusively for about 10 years. In this post, I want to quickly go over some high-level stumbling blocks I noticed as I was starting out. I’m probably going to write about more technical differences in subsequent blog posts. While reading the rest of this post, please keep in mind: RISC-V is simple! If you managed to do any low-level coding on x86, you will find your way around RISC-V with little effort. It’s easy to forget how crazy some parts of x86 are. Just see my past posts. The more interest in RISC-V, the quicker we can expect a RISC-V laptop to run Linux on. I’m all for it.

Amazon, Apple, Google, Zigbee Alliance and board members form working group to develop open standard for smart home devices

Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance today announced a new working group that plans to develop and promote the adoption of a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet. Zigbee Alliance board member companies such as IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian are also onboard to join the working group and contribute to the project. This really was about damn time. I’d love to add more smart devices to our home, but the varying standards and questionable security has always made me think twice. A royalty-free, secure, and interoperable standard that everyone can use and adhere to sounds like music to my ears.

Centaur unveils its new server-class x86 core

It has been a while since we last heard from Centaur Technology. The company’s last major technology introduction was a decade ago with the Isaiah microarchitecture and the CN core when the company introduced the Via Nano. Since then, the small Austin team refocused its efforts and has been diligently working on its next project – a high-performance data center and edge x86 chip with powerful integrated AI acceleration. Today, Centaur is opening up on its latest core. The consumer market is a thing of the past for Via, and the new focus is the datacenter space.

Getting drivers for old hardware is harder than ever

You’ve never lived until you’ve had to download a driver from an archived forum post on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. You have no idea if it’s going to work, but it’s your only option. So you bite the bullet. I recently did this with a PCI-based SATA card I was attempting to flash to support a PowerPC-based Mac, and while it was a bit of a leap of faith, it actually ended up working. Score one for chance. But this, increasingly, feels like it may be a way of life for people trying to keep old hardware alive—despite the fact that all the drivers generally have to do is simply sit on the internet, available when they’re necessary. This problem is only going to get worse as time progresses. We’ll have to hope random people on the internet are kind enough to upload any drivers they’ve collected and held on to over the years, so users of classic hardware can keep them running.

Junk or treasure: AnandTech tests Amazon’s cheapest Black Friday desktop PC

Some Black Friday deals are wild. A store might offer only a couple of units of a particular TV, discounted by 66%. There might be a few pieces of a flagship smartphone at your local electronics store at half price. These are designed to entice customers through the door, and if you’re brave enough, ensure the cold for up to 12 hours to get that bargain of the year. But one of the key observations about looking at Amazon’s Computing and Components section every Black Friday, particularly this year, is that most of the discounts are for complete trash. After the headline external storage discounts, it’s just page after page of USB cables and smartphone holders. But one thing did catch my eye: an entire PC, for only £57/$61! How can an entire x86 desktop PC be sold for so little? We did the only thing worth doing: we purchased it. The listing on Amazon is for a refurbished Dell Optiplex 780 – an office form factor machine that is very typical of one you might see in an office that hasn’t been updated yet (this is probably where this unit came from). The listing for the machine promises a few things: a CPU at 2.6 GHz, 4 GB of DDR3, a 160 GB HDD, and 802.11abg Wi-Fi, as well as Windows 10. What we received was a 2.93 GHz processor (woohoo!), 2×2 GB of DDR3, a 250 Gb HDD (woohoo!), no Wi-Fi (boo), and a full copy of Windows 10. The fact that this comes will a full blown copy of Windows 10 Pro, which even at its cheapest is around $20, astounds me. Even if the whole unit is a refurb, that’s the one part that is most likely new: and given that the value of the contents are around $30, that only leaves $10 for the actual hardware. Better these old office refurbs get sold on Amazon than dumped on a landfill or torn apart by children inhaling toxic fumes in India. These kinds of machines are great for alternative operating systems like Haiku, too.

RISC-V Foundation moving to Switzerland over trade curb fears

A U.S.-based foundation overseeing promising semiconductor technology developed with Pentagon support will soon move to Switzerland after several of the group’s foreign members raised concerns about potential U.S. trade curbs. The nonprofit RISC-V Foundation wants to ensure that universities, governments and companies outside the United States can help develop its open-source technology, its Chief Executive Calista Redmond said in an interview with Reuters. Can’t blame them.

The lost key of QWERTY

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter (sometimes called the Remington No. 1) was the first successful typewriter ever brought to market (in 1873), and the forerunner of most other successful typewriters. The unidentified key was, as far as I can tell, on this model and only this model. It was gone on the Remington No. 2 introduced in 1878, never to appear again (in this form), and as far as I know never found on competitors either. So what the heck is it? I love stuff like this.

16-bit RISC-V processor made with carbon nanotubes

Our ability to continuously shrink the features of our silicon-based processors appears to be a thing of the past, which has materials scientists considering ways to move beyond silicon. The top candidate is the carbon nanotube, which naturally comes in semiconducting forms, has fantastic electrical properties, and is extremely small. Unfortunately, it has proven extremely hard to grow the nanotubes where they’re needed and just as difficult to manipulate them to place them in the right location. There has been some progress in working around these challenges, but the results have typically been shown in rather limited demonstrations. Now, researchers have used carbon nanotubes to make a general purpose, RISC-V-compliant processor that handles 32-bit instructions and does 16-bit memory addressing. Performance is nothing to write home about, but the processor successfully executed a variation of the traditional programming demo, “Hello world!” It’s an impressive bit of work, but not all of the researchers’ solutions are likely to lead to high-performance processors. The rate of progress on this particular technology is astounding.

Reliable after 50 years: the Apollo Guidance Computer’s switching power supplies

We recently restored an Apollo Guidance Computer, the revolutionary computer that helped navigate to the Moon and land on its surface. At a time when most computers filled rooms, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) took up just a cubic foot. This blog post discusses the small but complex switching power supplies that helped make the AGC compact enough to fit onboard the spacecraft. The Apollo project is one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in human history, and apparently that goes down to the details. Amazing.

The STC Executel 3910

Standard Telephone & Cable made quite a few phones for British Telecom in the 70s/80s that most people will recognise instantly even though they didn’t actually know who made them. Probably like me they thought that BT made all their own stuff which I later found out was completely wrong but hey. In the early 80s they branched out into computerised telephones with this lovely looking beast, the Executel 3910. Fellow collector Tony brought this one to my attention and on seeing the pictures I said ‘what the hells is THAT!’ and bought it. It’s a desk phone, pure and simple, but massively computerised with an AMD8085 processor and 32K RAM plus a 5″ monitor for displaying diary and phonebook entries AND, and it’s a big AND, PRESTEL access! A recent video by Techmoan – who bought a working model – brought this device to my attention, and I instantly fell in love with it. This is an incredible piece of engineering and forward-thinking.

Understanding modern UEFI-based platform boot

To many, the (UEFI-based) boot process is like voodoo; interesting in that it’s something that most of us use extensively but is – in a technical-understanding sense – generally avoided by all but those that work in this space. In this article, I hope to present a technical overview of how modern PCs boot using UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). I won’t be mentioning every detail – honestly my knowledge in this space isn’t fully comprehensive (and hence the impetus for this article-as-a-primer). A rather detailed overview of the UEFI boot process.

The last working Olivetti mainframe sits in a Tuscan high school

Then they heard about a working model of the ELEA 9003, Olivetti’s first commercial mainframe, introduced in 1959. They lost no time tracking it down. This 9003 had originally belonged to a bank in Siena, where it was used for payroll, managing accounts, calculating interest rates, and the like. In 1972, the bank donated the computer to a high school in the Tuscan hill town of Bibbiena. And there it’s been ever since. Today, former Olivetti employees periodically travel to the ISIS High School Enrico Fermi to tend to the machine. A unique piece of computing history that must be saved at all costs.

Reviving an HP 660LX in 2019

I had spent some time several years ago trying to get Linux running on this machine via the (defunct) JLime project, so I had some of the pieces available to actually get this little “pocket computer” going again – mainly compatible CompactFlash cards and an external card reader. But I was mostly joking. Then I starting thinking how funny it would be to actually sit in a talk and take notes at DEF CON on an ancient “laptop”… These things are a thing of beauty.

Technician keeps computer made in 1959 still humming along

Long obsolete and not just a museum piece, an early massive computer developed 60 years ago remains working, thanks to a technician dedicated to preserving it for future generations. Tadao Hamada believes that keeping the historic FACOM128B operational will help hand down Japan’s technological heritage to posterity. “I will maintain it forever,” said Hamada, 49. The importance of the work done by people like Tadao Hamada cannot be understated. A lot of technology from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s is getting ever more obscure, and as their original designers, maintainers, and users die of old age, we need some way to document their knowledge and pass it on so that we can preserve the technology for posterity. Hamada went one step further, and actually had to teach himself how the system and its operating system worked, since there was nobody around to teach him. That’s some serious dedication, and I applaud both him, and Fujitsu who set up the project to preserve technology.

A tale of pointlessness: retro 5″ black and white TV as a computer monitor

When my brother’s old 1980s 5″ black and white TV was recently discovered during a “I wonder what’s under here?” exercise and amazingly seemed to still be working my first thought was, of course, “Nice!! 3rd monitor for my PC”. I knew that wouldn’t be exactly simple as the TV only appeared to have a 3.5mm “EXT. ANT” socket. …I can’t do anything but applaud this.

How many kinds of USB-C to USB-C cables are there?

Classic USB from the 1.1, 2.0, to 3.0 generations using USB-A and USB-B connectors have a really nice property in that cables were directional and plugs and receptacles were physically distinct to specify a different capability. A USB 3.0 capable USB-B plug was physically larger than a 2.0 plug and would not fit into a USB 2.0-only receptacle. For the end user, this meant that as long as they have a cable that would physically connect to both the host and the device, the system would function properly, as there is only ever one kind of cable that goes from one A plug to a particular flavor of B plug. Does the same hold for USB-C? We all know the answer to this mess.

RISC-V Foundation ratification of the RISC-V base ISA and privileged architecture specifications

The RISC-V Foundation, a non-profit corporation controlled by its members to drive the adoption and implementation of the free and open RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA), today announced the ratification of the RISC-V base ISA and privileged architecture specifications. The RISC-V base architecture is the interface between application software and hardware. Software that’s coded to this specification will continue to work on RISC-V processors in perpetuity, even as the architecture evolves through the development of new extensions.