If we were to think of a retrocomputer, the chances are we might have something from the classic 8-bit days or maybe a game console spring to mind. It’s almost a shock to see mundane desktop PCs of the DOS and Pentium era join them, but those machines now form an important way to play DOS and Windows 95 games which are unsuited to more modern operating systems. For those who wish to play the games on appropriate hardware without a grubby beige mini-tower and a huge CRT monitor, there’s even the option to buy one of these machines new: in the form of a much more svelte Pentium-based PC104 industrial PC.
News this morning that AMD has reached an agreement to acquire Xilinx for $35 Billion in stock. The move to gobble up the leading company in the FPGA industry should come as no surprise for many reasons. First, the silicon business is thick in the age of mergers and acquisitions, but more importantly because AMD’s main competitor, Intel, purchased the other FPGA giant Altera back in 2015.
Primarily a maker of computer processors, AMD expands into the reconfigurable computing market as Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) can be adapted to different tasks based on what bitstream (programming information written to the chips) has been sent to them. This allows the gates inside the chip to be reorganized to perform different functions at the hardware level even after being put into products already in the hands of customers.
Xilinx invented the FPGA back in the mid-1980s, and since then the falling costs of silicon fabrication and the acceleration of technological advancement have made them evermore highly desirable solutions. Depending on volume, they can be a more economical alternative to ASICs. They also help with future-proofing as technology not in existence at time of manufacture — such as compression algorithms and communications protocols — may be added to hardware in the field by reflashing the bitstream. Xilinx also makes the Zynq line of hybrid chips that contain both ARM and FPGA cores in the same device.
The deal awaits approval from both shareholders and regulators but is expected to be complete by the end of 2021.
For the majority of hacker and maker projects, the miniature computer of choice these last few years has been the Raspberry Pi. While the availability issues that seem to plague each new iteration of these extremely popular Single Board Computers (SBCs) can be annoying, they’ve otherwise proven to be an easy and economical way to perform relatively lightweight computational tasks. Depending on who you ask, the Pi 4 is even powerful enough for day-to-day desktop computing. Not bad for a device that consistently comes in under a $50 USD price point.
But we all know there are things that the Pi isn’t particularly well suited to. If your project needs a lot of computing power, or you’ve got some software that needs to run on an x86 processor, then you’re going to want to look elsewhere. One of the best options for such Raspberry Pi graduates has been the Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC).
NUCs have the advantage of being “real” computers, with upgradable components and desktop-class processors. Naturally this means they’re a bit larger than the Raspberry Pi, but not so much as to be impractical. If you’re working on a large rover for example, the size and weight difference between the two will be negligible. The same could be said for small form-factor cluster projects; ten NUCs won’t take a whole lot more space than the same number of Pis.
Unfortunately, where the Intel NUCs have absolutely nothing on the Raspberry Pi is price: these miniature computers start around $250, and depending on options, can sail past the $1,000 mark. Part of this sharp increase in price is naturally the vastly improved hardware, but we also can’t ignore that the lack of any strong competition in this segment hasn’t given Intel much incentive to cut costs, either. When you’re the only game in town, you can charge what you want.
But that’s about to change. In a recent press release, AMD announced an “open ecosystem” that would enable manufacturers to build small form-factor computers using an embedded version of the company’s Ryzen processor. According to Rajneesh Gaur, General Manager of AMD’s Embedded Solutions division, the company felt the time was right to make a bigger push outside of their traditional server and desktop markets:
The demand for high performance computing isn’t limited to servers or desktop PCs. Embedded customers want access to small form factor PCs that can support open software standards, demanding workloads at the edge, and even display 4K content, all with embedded processors that have a planned availability of 10 years.
If you ask people how they rate as a driver, most of them will say they are better than average. At first, that seems improbable until you realize one thing: people judge themselves by different criteria. So Sally thinks she’s a good driver because she goes fast. Tom’s never had a wreck. Alice never gets lost. You can see the same effect with CPUs. Some are faster or have more memory bandwidth or more instruction issues per cycle. But [Andrew] and [Scharon] at Tom’s Hardware wanted to do the real test of a CPU. How well can it cook pancakes? If you want to know, see the video below.
While your CPU might be great for playing video games, it has a surprisingly small cooking surface, so the guys needed a very small pan. The pan had grooves in it, so they slathered it with thermal grease. We doubt that’s food-grade grease, either. Continue reading “CPU Showdown For Pancakes”
By now, everyone and their dog has at least heard of Bitcoin. While no government will accept tax payments in Bitcoin just yet, it’s ridiculously close to being real money. We’ve even paid for pizza delivery in Bitcoin. But it’s not the only cryptocurrency in town.
Ethereum initially launched in 2015 is an open source, it has been making headway among the 900 or so Bitcoin clones and is the number two cryptocurrency in the world, with only Bitcoin beating it in value. This year alone, the Ether has risen in value by around 4000%, and at time of writing is worth $375 per coin. And while the Bitcoin world is dominated by professional, purpose-built mining rigs, there is still room in the Ethereum ecosystem for the little guy or gal.
Ethereum is for Hackers
There may be many factors behind Ethereum’s popularity, however one reason is that the algorithm is designed to be resistant to ASIC mining. Unlike Bitcoin, anyone with a half decent graphics card or decent gaming rig can mine Ether, giving them the chance to make some digital currency. This is largely because mining Ethereum coins requires lots of high-speed memory, which ASICs lack. The algorithm also has built-in ASIC detection and will refuse to mine properly on them.
Small-scale Bitcoin miners were stung when the mining technology jumped from GPU to ASICs. ASIC-based miners simply outperformed the home gamer, and individuals suddenly discovered that their rigs were not worth much since there was a stampede of people trying to sell off their high-end GPU’s all at once. Some would go on to buy or build an ASIC but the vast majority just stopped mining. They were out of the game they couldn’t compete with ASICs and be profitable since mining in its self uses huge amounts of electricity.
Economies of scale like those in Bitcoin mining tend to favor a small number of very large players, which is in tension with the distributed nature of cryptocurrencies which relies on consensus to validate transactions. It’s much easier to imagine that a small number of large players would collude to manipulate the currency, for instance. Ethereum on the other hand hopes to keep their miners GPU-based to avoid huge mining farms and give the average Joe a chance at scoring big and discovering a coin on their own computer.
Ethereum’s rise to popularity has basically undone Bitcoin’s move to ASICs, at least in the gamer and graphics card markets. Suddenly, used high-end graphics cards are worth something again. And there are effects in new equipment market. For instance, AMD cards seem to outperform other cards at the moment and they are taking advantage of this with their release of Mining specific GPU drivers for their new Vega architecture. Indeed, even though AMD bundled its hottest RX Vega 64 GPU with two games, a motherboard, and a CPU in an attempt to make the package more appealing to gamers than miners, AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 56 sold out in five minutes with Ethereum miners being blamed.
Besides creating ripples in the market for high-end gaming computers, cryptocurrencies are probably going to be relevant in the broader economy, and Ethereum is number two for now. In a world where even banks are starting to take out patents on blockchain technology in an attempt to get in on the action, cryptocurrencies aren’t as much of a fringe pursuit as they were a few years ago. Ethereum’s ASIC resistance is perhaps its killer feature, preventing centralization of control and keeping the little hacker in the mining game. Only time will tell if it’s going to be a Bitcoin contender, but it’s certainly worth keeping your eye on.
Although AMD has been losing market share to Intel over the past decade, they’ve recently started to pick up steam again in the great battle for desktop processor superiority. A large part of this surge comes in the high-end, multi-core processor arena, where it seems like AMD’s threadripper is clearly superior to Intel’s competition. Thanks to overclocking expert [der8auer] we can finally see what’s going on inside of this huge chunk of silicon.
The elephant in the room is the number of dies on this chip. It has a massive footprint to accommodate all four dies, each with eight cores. However, it seems as though two of the cores are deactivated due to a combination of manufacturing processes and thermal issues. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, or a reason not to use this processor if you need to utilize a huge number of cores, though; it seems as though AMD found it could use existing manufacturing techniques to save on the cost of production, while still making a competitive product.
Additionally, a larger die size than required opens the door for potentially activating the two currently disabled chips in the future. This could be the thing that brings AMD back into competition with Intel, although both companies still maintain the horrible practice of crippling their chips’ security from the start.
[Colin Alston] was able to snag a handful of Mini ITX motherboards for cheap and built a mini super computer he calls TinyJaguar. Named partly after the AMD Sempron 2650 APU, the TinyJaguar boasts four, yes that’s four MSI AM1I Mini-ITX motherboards, each with 4GB of DDR memory.
A Raspberry Pi with custom software manages the cluster, and along with some TTL and relays, controls the power to the four nodes. The mini super computer resides in a custom acrylic case held together by an array of 3D printed parts and fasteners.There’s even a rack-like faceplate near the bottom to host the RPi, an Ethernet switch, an array of status LEDs, and the two buttons.
With 16 total cores of computing power (including GPU), the TinyJaguar is quite capable of doing some pretty cool stuff such as running Jupyter notebook with IPyParallel. [Colin] ran into some issues getting the GPU to behave with PyOpenCL. It took a bit of pain and time, but in the end he was able to get the GPUs up, and wrote a small message passing program to show two of the cores were up and working together.
Be sure to check out [Colin’s] super computer project page, specifically the ten project logs that walk through everything that went into this build. He also posted his code if you want to take a look under the hood.