Uncorrectable freedom and security issues on x86 platforms

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Mon Apr 4 16:00:21 UTC 2016

On Monday 4. April 2016 17.06.23 Timothy Pearson wrote:
> ************************************************************************
> General Overview of Alternate Architectures
> ************************************************************************
> === ARM ===
> While the ARM architecture may be more wildly known for locked-down


> computing products, there are several ARM devices on the market that
> allow full FOSS replacement of the boot firmware.  Generally these are
> laptops, tablets, and embedded systems, with one example laptop being
> the ASUS C201 Chromebook:
> https://libreboot.org/docs/install/c201.html
> Using ARM in a mobile form factor also provides advantages of low cost
> and long battery life, albeit at the expense of overall system performance.

What about all the single-board computers available plus initiatives to make 
open hardware [*] laptops and netbooks? Maybe those initiatives need our 
support in preference to various products from the usual corporate players who 
have readily introduced those control/surveillance technologies into their 
other products.

Some quick links:



[*] Remind me again what the "correct" term is for fully-documented and 
freely-modifiable/distributable hardware is, as it clearly isn't that 

> === POWER ===
> IBM has recently released their high-performance POWER8 architecture for
> third party licensing, and has also released a small treasure trove of
> firmware and documentation for these devices.  POWER is the only
> architecture currently competitive with Intel in terms of raw
> performance, and boots using a fully FOSS firmware with no DRM
> antifeatures embedded.  The primary disadvantage of power is cost, as it
> is currently targeted at the server and datacenter markets.  We are
> attempting to bring POWER to the high-end workstation market in a
> FOSS-friendly form via the Talos™ Secure Workstation, but need
> additional interest to make this a reality:
> https://raptorengineeringinc.com/TALOS/prerelease.php

I've noticed a lot of IBM promotional activity around POWER8 of late: there 
was a Fellowship blog post that suddenly appeared promoting the POWER 
architecture, I've seen targeted adverts featuring POWER, and now there's this 
message. Indeed, the blog post used very similar language to "POWER is the 
only architecture currently competitive with Intel in terms of raw 
performance", which may or may not be true, but I can't help feeling that a 
bunch of people have been asked to let us all know.

Unlike various other architectures, POWER risks sitting in the same position 
as it did at the start of its life: at the top end and largely unavailable to 
most of us. It possibly needs another big vendor to give it a boost - just as 
Apple managed to do - but that doesn't necessarily change the availability 
situation for open hardware.

> === MIPS ===
> Less well known than ARM, and with less vendor choice, MIPS is often
> overlooked.  However, China has revived this architecture for general
> purpose computing with the Loongson core, and several machines are
> available using this processor.  As a niche processor it has far worse
> performance than even a low-end ARM processor, but marginally better
> energy efficiency.  Not recommended in light of ARM and POWER8:
> http://www.lemote.com/html/product/atx/2015/1227/8.html

There's also Ingenic, Atheros (now part of Qualcomm) and an assortment of 
other MIPS vendors. Performance might not be great amongst some of their 
products - multi-gigahertz, multi-core monsters are probably not the focus 
here for router manufacturers - but these CPUs are still interesting. My 
impression is that MIPS (Imagination) are targeting IoT applications alongside 
trying to get their proprietary graphics technologies into various products 

More quick links:



Whether MIPS-based products are recommended or not, in contrast to other 
architectures, perhaps depends on whether you can actually buy the products 
concerned. If POWER is now available from a range of sources like ARM and MIPS 
devices are, then maybe it is more interesting. Otherwise, it mostly isn't, 
apart from in some kind of paper exercise about what is "best".

> === RISCV ===
> While this architecture is extremely limited in performance, price, and
> performance per watt compared to x86, ARM, or POWER, it is also one of
> the only fully open source CPU architectures available outside of an
> FPGA. and may eventually be competitive with MIPS in terms of raw
> performance.  Currently there are no RISCV SoCs in production, however
> projects such as lowRISC aim to change that:
> http://www.lowrisc.org/

This is definitely one to watch, given the backing from various companies that 
probably don't care about Intel's agenda. I'd like to hear some more of the 
detail behind that performance assessment. Having played around a bit with 
MIPS recently, there are some fairly obvious areas where something like RISC-V 
could easily achieve greater performance than MIPS. Indeed, I think that this 
is why some people treated OpenRISC - based on the first version of the MIPS 
architecture - with some disdain.

(And thinking about OpenRISC reminds me about LM32 and various other 
architectures that have probably only remained within the FPGA space - at 
least with regard to general availability - because of lack of funding.)


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