When running a server, especially one with mission-critical applications, it’s common practice to use error-correcting code (ECC) memory. As the name suggests, it uses an error-correcting algorithm to continually check for and fix certain errors in memory. We don’t often see these memory modules on the desktop for plenty of reasons, among which are increased cost and overhead and decreased performance for only marginal gains, but if your data is of upmost importance even when working on a desktop machine, it is possible to get these modules up and running in certain modern AMD computers.
Specifically, this feature was available on AMD Ryzen CPUs, but since the 7000 series with the AM5 socket launched, the feature wasn’t officially supported anymore. [Rain] decided to upgrade their computer anyway, but there were some rumors floating around the Internet that this feature might still be functional. An upgrade to the new motherboard’s UEFI was required, as well as some tweaks to the Linux kernel to make sure there was support for these memory modules. After probing the system’s behavior, it is verified that the ECC RAM is working and properly reporting errors to the operating system.
Reporting to the OS and enabling the correct modules is one thing, actually correcting an error was another. It turns out that introducing errors manually and letting the memory correct them is possible as well, and [Rain] was able to perform this check during this process as well. While ECC RAM may be considered overkill for most desktop users, it offers valuable data integrity for professional or work-related tasks. Just don’t use it for your Super Mario 64 speedruns.
The era of mainframe computers and directly programming machines with switches is long past, but plenty of us look back on that era with a certain nostalgia. Getting that close to the hardware and knowing precisely what’s going on is becoming a little bit of a lost art. That’s why [Phil] took it upon himself to build this homage to the mainframe computer of the 70s, which all but disappeared when PCs and microcontrollers took over the scene decades ago.
The machine, known as PlasMa, is not a recreation of any specific computer but instead looks to recreate the feel of computers of this era in a more manageable size. [Phil] built the entire machine from scratch, and it can be programmed directly using toggle switches to input values into registers and memory. Programs can be run or single-stepped, and breakpoints can be set for debugging. The internal workings of the machine, including the program counter, instruction register, accumulator, and work registers, are visible in binary lights. Front panel switches let you control those same items.
The computer also hosts three different microcodes, each providing a unique instruction set. Two are based on computers from Princeton, Toy-A, and Toy-B, used as teaching tools. The third is a more advanced instruction set that allows using things like emulated peripherals, including storage devices. If you want to build one or just follow along as the machine is constructed, programmed, and used, [Phil] has a series of videos demonstrating its functionality, and he’s made everything open-source for those more curious. It’s a great way to get a grasp on the fundamentals of computing, and the only way we could think of to get even more into the inner workings of a machine like this is to build something like a relay computer.
Continue reading “A Mainframe Computer For The Modern Age”
A lot of talk and discussion happens anytime a hardware manufacturer releases a new line of faster, more powerful, or more efficient computers. It’s easy to see better and better specifications and assume that’s where all the progress is made. But without improved software and algorithms, often the full potential of the hardware can’t be realized. That’s the reason for the creation of
io_uring, an improved system call interface in the Linux kernel. It’s also where [chompie] went to look for exploits.
The reason for looking here, in a part of the kernel [chompie] had only recently learned about, was twofold. First, because it’s a place where user space applications interact with the kernel, and second because it’s relatively new and that means more opportunities to find bugs. The exploit involves taking advantage of a complicated asynchronous buffer system, specifically at a location where the code confuses a memory location being used by the kernel with one which is supposed to be used for user space.
To actually get this to work as an exploit, though, a much more involved process is needed to make sure the manipulation of these memory addresses results in something actually useful, but it is eventually used to gain local privilege escalation. More about it can be found in this bug report as well. Thanks to the fact that Linux is open-source, this bug can quickly be fixed and the patch rolled out to prevent malicious attackers from exploiting it. Open-source software has plenty of other benefits besides being inherently more secure, though.
There’s an apocryphal quote floating around the internet that “640K ought to be enough memory for anybody” but it does seem unlikely that this was ever actually said by any famous computer moguls of the 1980s. What is true, however, is that in general more computer memory tends to be better than less. In fact, this was the basis for the Macintosh 512k in the 1980s, whose main feature was that it was essentially the same machine as the Macintosh 128k, but with quadruple the memory as its predecessor. If you have yet to upgrade to the 512k, though, it might be best to take a look at this memory upgrade instead.
The Fat Mac Switcher, as it is called by its creator [Kay Koba], can upgrade the memory capability of these retro Apple machines with the simple push of a switch. The switch and controller logic sit on a separate PCB that needs to be installed into the computer’s motherboard in place of some of the existing circuitry. The computer itself needs its 16 memory modules replaced with 41256 DRAM modules for this to work properly though, but once its installed it can switch seamlessly between 512k and 128k modes.
Another interesting quirk of the retro Macintosh scene is that the technically inferior 128k models tend to be valued higher than the more capable 512k versions, despite being nearly identical otherwise. There are also some other interesting discussions on one of the forum posts about this build as well. This module can also be used in reverse; by installing it in a Macintosh 512k the computer can be downgraded to the original Macintosh 128k. For this the memory modules won’t need to be upgraded but a different change to the motherboard is required.
A product like this certainly would have been a welcome addition in the mid 80s when these machines were first introduced, since the 512k was released only months after the 128k machines were, but the retrocomputing enthusiasts should still get some use out of this device and be more able to explore the differences between the two computers. If you never were able to experience one of these “original” Macintosh computers in their heyday, check out this fully-functional one-third scale replica.
Computers connected to networks are constantly threatened by attackers who seek to exploit vulnerabilities wherever they can find them. This risk is particularly high for machines connected to the Internet, but any network connection can be susceptible to attacks. As highlighted by security researcher and consultant [Rick Osgood], even computers connected to nothing more than a radio can be vulnerable to attacks if they’re using certain digital modes of communication.
The vulnerability that [Rick] found involves exploiting a flaw in a piece of software called WinAPRS. APRS is a method commonly used in the amateur radio community for sending data over radio, and WinAPRS allows for this functionality on a PC. He specifically sought out this program for vulnerabilities since it is closed-source and hasn’t been updated since 2013. After some analysis, he found a memory bug which was used to manipulate the Extended Instruction Pointer (EIP) register which stores the memory address of the next instruction to be executed by the CPU. This essentially allows for arbitrary code execution on a remote machine via radio.
The exploit was found while using Windows XP because it lacks some of the more modern memory protection features of modern operating systems, but the exploit does still work with Windows 10, just not as reliably and with a bit of extra effort required. It’s a good reminder to use open-source software when possible so issues like these can get resolved, and to regularly install security updates when possible. If you’re looking to delve into the world of APRS in more modern times, take a look at this project which adds APRS to budget transceivers. Just make sure you get your license first.
The odds are that if you’ve heard about application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) at all, it’s in the context of cryptocurrency mining. For some currencies, the only way to efficiently mine them anymore is to build computers so single-purposed they can’t do anything else. But an ASIC is a handy tool to develop for plenty of embedded applications where efficiency is a key design goal. Building integrated circuits isn’t particularly straightforward or open, though, so you’ll need some tools to develop them such as OpenRAM.
Designing the working memory of a purpose-built computing system is a surprisingly complex task which OpenRAM seeks to demystify a bit. Built in Python, it can help a designer handle routing models, power modeling, timing, and plenty of other considerations when building static RAM modules within integrated circuits. Other tools for taking care of this step of IC design are proprietary, so this is one step on the way to a completely open toolchain that anyone can use to start building their own ASIC.
This tool is relatively new and while we mentioned it briefly in an article back in February, it’s worth taking a look at for anyone who needs more than something like an FPGA might offer and who also wants to use an open-source tool. Be sure to take a look at the project’s GitHub page for more detailed information as well. There are open-source toolchains if you plan on sticking with your FPGA of choice, though.
Lately, there has been a push for people to stop using programming languages that don’t promote memory safety. But as we still haven’t seen the death of some languages that were born in the early 1960s, we don’t think there will be much success in replacing the tremendous amount of software that uses said “unsafe” languages.
That doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless cause, though. [Kees Cook] recently posted how modern C99 compilers offer features to help create safer arrays, and he outlines how you can take advantage of these features. Turns out, it is generally easy to do, and if you get errors, they probably point out unexpected behavior in your original code, so that’s a plus.
We don’t think there’s anything wrong with C and C++ if you use them as you should. Electrical outlets are useful until you stick a fork in one. So don’t stick a fork in one. We really liked the recent headline we saw from [Sarah Butcher]: “If you can’t write safe C++ code, it’s because you can’t write C++.” [Cook’s] post makes a similar argument. C has advanced quite a bit and the fact that 30-year-old code doesn’t use these new features isn’t a good excuse to give up on C.
Continue reading “Modernizing C Arrays For Greater Memory Safety”