Everything is better when you can program it, right? We have software-defined radios, software-defined networks, and software-defined storage. Now a company called Ascenium wants to create a software-defined CPU. They’ve raised millions of dollars to bring the product to market.
The materials are a bit hazy, but it sounds as though the idea is to have CPU resources available and let the compiler manage and schedule those resources without using a full instruction set. A system called Aptos lets the compiler orchestrate those resources.
One thing about vintage computers is that they depend greatly on whether or not one can plug a compatible monitor into them. That’s what’s behind [Tube Time]’s Graphics Gremlin, a modern-design retro ISA video card that uses an FPGA to act just like a vintage MDA or CGA video card on the input end, but provides a VGA port for more modern display output options. (Actually, there is also an RGBI connector and a composite video out, but the VGA is probably the most broadly useful.)
Why bother making a new device to emulate an old ISA video card when actual vintage video cards are still plentiful? Because availability of the old cards isn’t the bottleneck. The trouble is that MDA or CGA monitors just aren’t as easy to come across as they once were, and irreplaceable vintage monitors that do still exist risk getting smashed during shipping. Luckily, VGA monitors (or at least converters that accept VGA input) are far more plentiful.
If you used almost any form of networked PC in the late 1980s or the 1990s, the chances are that you will at some point have encountered the Novell NE2000 network card. This 16-bit ISA card became a de facto standard for 16-bit network cards, such that very few “NE2000” cards were the real thing. A host of clones filled the market, some of which followed the spec of the original rather loosely. It’s something [Michal Necasek] examines as he takes the reader through the history of the NE2000 and why it gained something of a bad reputation. An interesting read for ’90s PC veterans who battled with dodgy Windows 3.1 network drivers.
The Novell line of network cards were not a primary product of the network server OS company but an attempt to spur the uptake of networked computers in an age when few machines were supplied from the factory with a network card installed. They were largely an implementation of the reference design for the National Semiconductor DP3890 Ethernet interface chipset, and for simplicity of interfacing and drivers they used an I/O mapped interface rather than DMA. The problem with the NE2000 wasn’t the card itself which would work with any NE2000 driver, but the host of “NE2000 compatible” cards that appeared over the decade as that magic phrase became a key selling point at the bottom end of the market. Sure they might contain a DP3890 or its clones, but even minor differences in behaviour would cause them not to work with all drivers, and thus they gained a bad name. The piece reveals the original card as one that might have been slow and outdated towards the end of its reign as a standard card, but maybe one not deserving of the ire directed at it.
Nostalgia seems to be an inevitable consequence of progress. Advance any field far enough into the future, and eventually someone will look back with misty eyes and fond memories of the good old days and start the process of turning what would qualify as junk under normal conditions into highly desirable collectibles.
In some ways, those who have been bitten by the computer nostalgia bug are lucky, since the sheer number of artifacts produced during their period of interest is likely to be pretty high, making getting gear to lovingly restore relatively easy. But even products produced in their millions can eventually get difficult to find, especially once they get snapped up by eager collectors, leaving the rest to make do or do without.
Of course, if you’re as resourceful as Tube Time is, there’s another alternative: build your own retro recreations. He has embarked on some pretty intense builds to recapture a little of what early computer enthusiasts went through trying to build useful machines. He has built replicas of early PC sound cards, like an ISA-bus AdLib card, its MCA equivalent, and the “Snark Barker”— or is it the “Snood Bloober”? — which bears an uncanny resemblance to the classic Sound Blaster card from the 1980s.
Tube Time will join us for the Hack Chat this week to answer questions about all his retro recreations, including his newest work on a retro video card. Be sure to bring your questions on retro rebuilds, reverse engineering, and general computer nostalgia to the chat.
The ISA bus is a relic of the distant past, and no longer supported by the PC mainstream. Outside of retro fanatics and likely some long-term industrial users, it’s all but forgotten. That hasn’t stopped [Manawyrm] from hacking away, however, and he’s developed a nifty adapter for the modern era.
Still in its early stages of development, the ISASTM is a ISA-over-USB adapter that allows a modern computer to work with older expansion cards. Running on an STM32H743, and using the microcontroller’s native USB1 interface, the ISASTM card is able to be slotted into a backplane in order to address multiple cards with one adapter. [Manawyrm] demonstrates the hardware by running Monkey Island 1 in the PCem emulator, with sound provided by an AdLib ISA soundcard.
The 2019 Hackaday Superconference kicked off with a marvelous, and marvelously geeky, keynote talk on the subject of RISC-V by Dr. Megan Wachs. She is VP of Engineering at SiFive, a company that makes RISC-V processors in silicon, but the talk is a much more general introduction to the RISC-V open instruction-set architecture (ISA) and why you’d care. The short answer to the latter is the same reason you care about any other open standard: it promotes interoperability, reusable toolchains, and will result in us all having access to better and faster CPUs.
The video is embedded below, and it’s absolutely worth a watch. Unfortunately, The video is missing the first few minutes, you can follow along through her slides (PDF) and read through our brief recap below of what fell down the video hole.
A computer processor uses a so-called Instruction Set Architecture to talk with the world outside of its own circuitry. This ISA consists of a number of instructions, which essentially define the functionality of that processor, which explains why so many ISAs still exist today. It’s hard to find that one ISA that works for as many distinct use cases as possible, after all.
A fairly new ISA is RISC-V, the first version of which was created back in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley. Intended to be a fully open ISA, targeting both students (as a learning tool) and industrial users, it is claimed to incorporate a number of design choices that should make it more attractive for a number of applications.
In this article I’ll take a look behind the marketing to take stock of how exactly RISC-V differs from other open ISAs, including Power, SPARC and MIPS.