Alorium rolled out a new product late last year that caught our attention. The Sno (pronounced like “snow”) board is a tiny footprint Arduino board that you can see in the video below. By itself that isn’t that interesting, but the Sno also has an Altera/Intel Max 10 FPGA onboard. If you aren’t an FPGA user, don’t tune out yet, though, because while you can customize the FPGA in several ways, you don’t have to.
Like Alorium’s XLR8 product, the FPGA comes with preprogrammed functions and a matching Arduino API to use them. In particular, there are modules to do analog to digital conversion, servo control, operate NeoPixels, and do floating point math.
They probably weren’t inspired by [Jeff Dunham’s] jalapeno on a stick, but Intel have created the Movidius neural compute stick which is in effect a neural network in a USB stick form factor. They don’t rely on the cloud, they require no fan, and you can get one for well under $100. We were interested in [Jeff Johnson’s] use of these sticks with a Pynq-Z1. He also notes that it is a great way to put neural net power on a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone. He shows us YOLO — an image recognizer — and applies it to an HDMI signal with the processing done on the Movidius. You can see the result in the first video, below.
At first, we thought you might be better off using the Z1’s built-in FPGA to do neural networks. [Jeff] points out that while it is possible, the Z1 has a lower-end device on it, so there isn’t that much FPGA real estate to play with. The stick, then, is a great idea. You can learn more about the device in the second video, below.
FPGAs can have a steep learning curve, so getting started tutorials are a popular topic. Intel recently published a video titled “Basics of Programmable Logic: FPGA Architecture” and you can see it below. Of course, Intel bought Altera, so the material has a bit of Altera/Intel flavor to it, but the course is generic enough that the concepts will apply to just about any FPGA.
Of course, if you do want to use Quartus, there are quite a few follow-on courses, including the wonderfully named “Become a [sic] FPGA Designer in 4 Hours.” We’d really like to see a sequel titled “Become a Proficient FPGA Designer in 9 Months” but Google didn’t turn that one up.
We got news this was going to happen last year, and now we finally have dates and a location. The East Coast RepRap Fest is happening June 22-24th in Bel Air, Maryland. What’s the East Coast RepRap Fest? Nobody knows; this is the first time it’s happening, and it’s not being produced by SeeMeCNC, the guys behind MRRF. There’s going to be a 3D printed Pinewood Derby, though, so that’s cool.
Intel hit with lawsuits over security flaws. Reuters reports Intel shareholders and customers had filed 32 class action lawsuits against the company because of Spectre and Meltdown bugs. Are we surprised by this? No, but here’s what’s interesting: the patches for Spectre and Meltdown cause a noticeable and quantifiable slowdown on systems. Electricity costs money, and companies (server farms, etc) can therefore put a precise dollar amount on what the Spectre and Meltdown patches cost them. Two of the lawsuits allege Intel and its officers violated securities laws by making statements or products that were false. There’s also the issue of Intel CEO Brian Krzanich selling shares after he knew about Meltdown, but before the details were made public. Luckily for Krzanich, the rule of law does not apply to the wealthy.
What does the Apollo Guidance Computer look like? If you think it has a bunch of glowey numbers and buttons, you’re wrong; that’s the DSKY — the user I/O device. The real AGC is basically just two 19″ racks. Still, the DSKY is very cool and a while back, we posted something about a DIY DSKY. Sure, it’s just 7-segment LEDs, but whatever. Now this project is a Kickstarter campaign. Seventy bucks gives you the STLs for the 3D printed parts, BOM, and a PCB. $250 is the base for the barebones kit.
There is some dispute as to which company invented the microprocessor, and we’ll talk about that further down. But who invented the first commercially available microprocessor? That honor goes to Intel for the 4004.
Path To The 4004
We pick up the tale with Robert Noyce, who had co-invented the IC while at Fairchild Semiconductor. In July 1968 he left Fairchild to co-found Intel for the purpose of manufacturing semiconductor memory chips.
While Intel was still a new startup living off of their initial $3 million in financing, and before they had a semiconductor memory product, as many start-ups do to survive they took on custom work. In April 1969, Japanese company Busicom hired them to do LSI (Large-Scale Integration) work for a family of calculators.
Busicom’s design, consisting of twelve interlinked chips, was considered a complicated one. For example, it included shift-register memory, a serial type of memory which complicates the control logic. It also used Binary Coded Decimal (BCD) arithmetic. Marcian Edward Hoff Jr — known as “Ted”, head of the Intel’s Application Research Department, felt that the design was even more complicated than a general purpose computer like the PDP-8, which had a fairly simple architecture. He felt they may not be able to meet the cost targets and so Noyce gave Hoff the go-ahead to look for ways to simplify it.
When news of Meltdown and Spectre broke, Intel’s public relations department applied maximum power to their damage control press release generators. The initial message was one of defiance, downplaying the impact and implying people are over reacting. This did not go over well. Since then, we’ve started seeing a trickle of information from engineering and even direct microcode updates for people who dare to live on the bleeding edge.
All the technical work to put out the immediate fire is great, but for the sake of Intel’s future they need to figure out how to avoid future fires. The leadership needs to change the company culture away from an attitude where speed is valued over all else. Will the new security group have the necessary impact? We won’t know for quite some time. For now, it is encouraging to see work underway. Fundamental problems in corporate culture require a methodical fix and not a hack.
Editor’s note: We’ve changed the title of this article to better reflect its content: that Intel is making changes to its corporate structure to allow a larger voice for security in the inevitable security versus velocity tradeoff.
While the whole industry is scrambling on Spectre, Meltdown focused most of the spotlight on Intel and there is no shortage of outrage in Internet comments. Like many great discoveries, this one is obvious with the power of hindsight. So much so that the spectrum of reactions have spanned an extreme range. From “It’s so obvious, Intel engineers must be idiots” to “It’s so obvious, Intel engineers must have known! They kept it from us in a conspiracy with the NSA!”
We won’t try to sway those who choose to believe in a conspiracy that’s simultaneously secret and obvious to everyone. However, as evidence of non-obviousness, some very smart people got remarkably close to the Meltdown effect last summer, without getting it all the way. [Trammel Hudson] did some digging and found a paper from the early 1990s (PDF) that warns of the dangers of fetching info into the cache that might cross priviledge boundaries, but it wasn’t weaponized until recently. In short, these are old vulnerabilities, but exploiting them was hard enough that it took twenty years to do it.
Building a new CPU is the work of a large team over several years. But they weren’t all working on the same thing for all that time. Any single feature would have been the work of a small team of engineers over a period of months. During development they fixed many problems we’ll never see. But at the end of the day, they are only human. They can be 99.9% perfect and that won’t be good enough, because once hardware is released into the world: it is open season on that 0.1% the team missed.
The odds are stacked in the attacker’s favor. The team on defense has a handful of people working a few months to protect against all known and yet-to-be discovered attacks. It is a tough match against the attackers coming afterwards: there are a lot more of them, they’re continually refining the state of the art, they have twenty years to work on a problem if they need to, and they only need to find a single flaw to win. In that light, exploits like Spectre and Meltdown will probably always be with us.
Let’s look at some factors that paved the way to Intel’s current embarrassing situation.