(Nearly) All Your Computers Run MINIX

Are you reading this on a machine running a GNU/Linux distribution? A Windows machine? Or perhaps an Apple OS? It doesn’t really matter, because your computer is probably running MINIX anyway.

There once was a time when microprocessors were relatively straightforward devices, capable of being understood more or less in their entirety by a single engineer without especially God-like skills. They had buses upon which hung peripherals, and for code to run on them, one of those peripherals had better supply it.

A modern high-end processor is a complex multicore marvel of technological achievement, so labyrinthine in fact that unlike those simple devices of old it may need to contain a dedicated extra core whose only job is to manage the rest of the onboard functions. Intel processors have had one for years, it’s called the Management Engine, or ME, and it has its own firmware baked into the chip. It is this firmware, that according to a discovery by [Ronald Minnich], contains a copy of the MINIX operating system.

If you are not the oldest of readers, it’s possible that you may not have heard of MINIX. Or if you have, it might be in connection with the gestation of [Linus Torvalds]’ first Linux kernel. It’s a UNIX-like operating system created in the 1980s as a teaching aid, and for a time it held a significant attraction as the closest you could get to real UNIX on some of the affordable 16-bit desktop and home computers. Amiga owners paid for copies of it on floppy disks, it was even something of an object of desire. It’s still in active development, but it’s fair to say its attraction lies in its simplicity rather than its sophistication.

It’s thus a worry to find it on the Intel ME, because in that position it lies at the most privileged level of access to your computer’s hardware. Your desktop operating system, by contrast, sees the hardware through several layers of abstraction in the name of security, so a simple OS with full networking and full hardware access represents a significant opportunity to anyone with an eye to compromising it. Placing tinfoil hats firmly on your heads as the unmistakable thwop of black helicopters eases into the soundscape you might claim that this is exactly what they want anyway. We would hope that if they wanted to compromise our PCs with a backdoor they’d do it in such a way as to make it a little less easy for The Other Lot. We suspect it’s far more likely that this is a case of the firmware being considered to be an out-of-sight piece of the hardware that nobody would concern themselves with, rather than a potential attack vector that everyone should. It would be nice to think that we’ll see some abrupt updates, but we suspect that won’t happen.

Intel I7 processor underside: smial [FAL].

How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It may surprise you that the microchip that we all know and love today was far from an obvious idea. Some of the paths that were being explored back then to cram more components into a smaller area seem odd now. But who hasn’t experienced hindsight of that sort, even on our own bench tops.

Let’s start the story of the microchip like any good engineering challenge should be started, by diving into the problem that existed at the time with the skyrocketing complexity of computing machines.

Continue reading “How The Integrated Circuit Came To Be”

A Wii U That Is Both Computer And Console.

Legendary sudomod forum user [banjokazooie] has once again demonstrated their prowess in Wii U console modification — this time by transforming it into a powerhouse portable computer!

We loved [banjokazooie]’s RetroPie Wii U mod, and happy to see them back again with this build.  What’s in this thing this time around? Buckle up ’cause it’s a ride: an Intel M5 processor core M on their Compute Stick, 4GBs RAM, a 64GB solid-state drive, a 2K LCD touchscreen, Bluetooth, WiFi, a 128GB SD card slot, two 3.7V 4000 mAh batteries, a Pololu 5V,6A step-down voltage regulator, a Teensy 2.0++ dev board, a battery protection PCB, a USB DAC sound card, stereo amp, a USB hub for everything to plug into, and a TP5100 battery charging board. Check it out!

Continue reading “A Wii U That Is Both Computer And Console.”

Find Instructions Hidden In Your CPU


There was a time when owning a computer meant you probably knew most or all of the instructions it could execute. Your modern PC, though, has a lot of instructions, many of them meant for specialized operating system, encryption, or digital signal processing features.

There are known undocumented instructions in a lot of x86-class CPUs, too. What’s more, these days your x86 CPU might really be a virtual machine running on a different processor, or your CPU could have a defect or a bug. Maybe you want to run sandsifter–a program that searches for erroneous or undocumented instructions. Who knows what is lurking in your CPU?

Continue reading “Find Instructions Hidden In Your CPU”

The End of Arduino 101: Intel Leaves Maker Market

This looks like the end of the road for Intel’s brief foray into the “maker market”. Reader [Chris] sent us in a tip that eventually leads to the discontinuation notice (PCN115582-00, PDF) for the Arduino 101 board. According to Intel forum post, Intel is looking for an alternative manufacturer. We’re not holding our breath.

We previously reported that Intel was discontinuing its Joule, Galileo, and Edison lines, leaving only the Arduino 101 with its Curie chip still standing. At the time, we speculated that the first wave of discontinuations were due to the chips being too fast, too power-hungry, and too expensive for hobbyists. Now that Intel is pulling the plug on the more manageable Arduino 101, the fat lady has sung: they’re giving up on hardware hackers entirely after just a two-year effort.

According to the notice, you’ve got until September 17 to stock up on Arduino 101s. Intel is freezing its Curie community, but will keep it online until 2020, and they’re not cancelling their GitHub account. Arduino software support, being free and open, will continue as long as someone’s willing to port to the platform.

Who will mourn the Arduino 101? Documentation was sub-par, but a tiny bit better than their other hacker efforts, and it wasn’t overpriced. We’re a little misty-eyed, but we’re not crying.  You?

[via Golem.de]

Intel Discontinues Joule, Galileo, And Edison Product Lines

Sometimes the end of a product’s production run is surrounded by publicity, a mix of a party atmosphere celebrating its impact either good or bad, and perhaps a tinge of regret at its passing. Think of the last rear-engined Volkswagens rolling off their South American production lines for an example.

Then again, there are the products that die with a whimper, their passing marked only by a barely visible press release in an obscure corner of the Internet. Such as this week’s discontinuances from Intel, in a series of PDFs lodged on a document management server announcing the end of their Galileo (PDF), Joule (PDF), and Edison (PDF) lines. The documents in turn set out a timetable for each of the boards, for now they are still available but the last will have shipped by the end of 2017.

It’s important to remember that this does not mark the end of the semiconductor giant’s forray into the world of IoT development boards, there is no announcement of the demise of their Curie chip, as found in the Arduino 101. But it does mark an ignominious end to their efforts over the past few years in bringing the full power of their x86 platforms to this particular market, the Curie is an extremely limited device in comparison to those being discontinued.

Will the departure of these products affect our community, other than those who have already invested in them? It’s true to say that they haven’t made the impression Intel might have hoped, over the years only a sprinkling of projects featuring them have come our way compared to the flood featuring an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi. They do seem to have found a niche though where there is a necessity for raw computing power rather than a simple microcontroller, so perhaps some of the legion of similarly powerful ARM boards will plug that gap.

So where did Intel get it wrong, how did what were on the face of it such promising products fizzle out in such a disappointing manner? Was the software support not up to scratch, were they too difficult to code for, or were they simply not competitively priced in a world of dirt-cheap boards from China? As always, the comments are open.

Header image: Mwilde2 [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Intel’s Vision for Single Board Computers is to Have Better Vision

At the Bay Area Maker Faire last weekend, Intel was showing off a couple of sexy newcomers in the Single Board Computer (SBC) market. It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that SBCs are all about simple boards with a double-digit price tag like the Raspberry Pi. How can you compete with a $35 computer that has a huge market share and a gigantic community? You compete by appealing to a crowd not satisfied with these entry-level SBCs, and for that Intel appears to be targeting a much higher-end audience that needs computer vision along with the speed and horsepower to do something meaningful with it.

I caught up with Intel’s “Maker Czar”, Jay Melican, at Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend. A year ago, it was a Nintendo Power Glove controlled quadcopter that caught my eye. This year I only had eyes for the two new computing modules on offer, the Joule and the Euclid. They both focus on connecting powerful processors to high-resolution cameras and using a full-blown Linux operating system for the image processing. But it feels like the Joule is meant more for your average hardware hacker, and the Euclid for software engineers who are pointing their skills at robots but don’t want to get bogged down in first-principles of hardware. Before you rage about this in the comments, let me explain.

Continue reading “Intel’s Vision for Single Board Computers is to Have Better Vision”