Uncorrectable freedom and security issues on x86 platforms

Timothy Pearson tpearson at raptorengineeringinc.com
Mon Apr 4 17:00:17 UTC 2016

Hash: SHA1

On 04/04/2016 11:00 AM, Paul Boddie wrote:
> 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
> "widely"

Yes, that was a typo.

> 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:
> http://rhombus-tech.net/community_ideas/laptop_15in/
> https://olimex.wordpress.com/2015/11/24/a64-olinuxino-oshw-linux-laptop-idea-
> becomes-more-real/
> [*] Remind me again what the "correct" term is for fully-documented and 
> freely-modifiable/distributable hardware is, as it clearly isn't that 
> memorable.

ARM is very nice for low end / remote work and embedded systems, there's
no question about that.  However, at least in my experience, it is
woefully inadequate for non-trivial content creation tasks (editing
video, engineering design work, etc.).

> 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.

That statement was based on actual in-house benchmarks:

We're not paid by IBM to promote their processors by any means.  The
simple fact is Intel is the dominant processor manufacturer, and they
lead hands down in price, performance, and power consumption.  They also
refuse to give machine owners full access to their hardware, putting
people in a rather sticky situation.

If you know of another architecture that can compete with Haswell in
terms of raw performance please let us know about it!

> 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.

Yes, it's a risk.  However, everything seems to be risky right now.  x86
cannot be trusted, POWER itself has somewhat poor power efficiency, and
no other architecture we are aware of comes even close to the
performance of Intel and AMD's processors from a decade ago.  You're
going to have a hard time convincing me that the future is holding on to
obsolete hardware from 10 years ago, purchasing overpriced systems that
perform worse than said hardware, or licensing the right to run limited
FOSS software from a proprietary vendor.  From our perspective, based
solely on internal evaluation and comparison of various machines
available right now, POWER offers the best chance to provide reasonably
modern libre systems over the next 5 - 10 years.

> 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 
> (unfortunately).
> More quick links:
> http://rhombus-tech.net/ingenic/jz4775/
> https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/imgtec/creator-ci40-the-ultimate-iot-in-
> a-box-dev-kit
> 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".

Yeah, MIPS seems mostly targeted at embedded systems, and honestly this
is an area where RISCV could shine while it tries to ramp up to
ARM-level performance.  Regarding POWER, bear in mind the architecture
was only opened up for licensing / third party manufacture a couple of
years ago, and China is already manufacturing custom CPUs using POWER8.
 If people are willing to take a risk on POWER it has the chance to
compete directly with Intel.  If not, the sad reality is it will be
many, many years (possibly never) before FOSS systems can reasonably be
used to design new computing products.  RISCV is just too far down the
line to be a viable option yet; nothing has been taped out and we're
still only talking single core CPUs in the pipeline for eventual production.

>> === 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.)

It's difficult to evaluate performance on a product that isn't even
taped out yet, however all indications are a single core variant is
going to be the first production model.  Immediately that puts it far
behind the 8 Loongson MIPS cores on the Loonson 3B.

- -- 
Timothy Pearson
Raptor Engineering
+1 (415) 727-8645 (direct line)
+1 (512) 690-0200 (switchboard)
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