NVMe Blurs The Lines Between Memory And Storage

The history of storage devices is quite literally a race between the medium and the computing power as the bottleneck of preserving billions of ones and zeros stands in the way of computing nirvana. The most recent player is the Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe), something of a hybrid of what has come before.

The first generations of home computers used floppy disk and compact cassette-based storage, but gradually, larger and faster storage became important as personal computers grew in capabilities. By the 1990s hard drive-based storage had become commonplace, allowing many megabytes and ultimately gigabytes of data to be stored. This would drive up the need for a faster link between storage and the rest of the system, which up to that point had largely used the ATA interface in Programmed Input-Output (PIO) mode.

This led to the use of DMA-based transfers (UDMA interface, also called Ultra ATA and Parallel ATA), along with DMA-based SCSI interfaces over on the Apple and mostly server side of the computer fence. Ultimately Parallel ATA became Serial ATA (SATA) and Parallel SCSI became Serial Attached SCSI (SAS), with SATA being used primarily in laptops and desktop systems until the arrival of NVMe along with solid-state storage.

All of these interfaces were designed to keep up with the attached storage devices, yet NVMe is a bit of an odd duck considering the way it is integrated in the system. NVMe is also different for not being bound to a single interface or connector, which can be confusing. Who can keep M.2 and U.2 apart, let alone which protocol the interface speaks, be it SATA or NVMe?

Let’s take an in-depth look at the wonderful and wacky world of NVMe, shall we?

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Hackaday Links: July 26, 2020

An Australian teen is in hot water after he allegedly exposed sensitive medical information concerning COVID-19 patients being treated in a local hospital. While the authorities in Western Australia were quick to paint the unidentified teen as a malicious, balaclava-wearing hacker spending his idle days cracking into secure systems, a narrative local media were all too willing to parrot, reading down past the breathless headlines reveals the truth: the teen set up an SDR to receive unencrypted POCSAG pager data from a hospital, and built a web page to display it all in real-time. We’ve covered the use of unsecured pager networks in the medical profession before; this is a well-known problem that should not exactly take any infosec pros by surprise. Apparently authorities just hoped that nobody would spend $20 on an SDR and an afternoon putting it all together rather than address the real problem, and when found out they shifted the blame onto the kid.

Speaking of RF hacking, even though the 2020 HOPE Conference is going virtual, they’ll still be holding the RF Hacking Village. It’s not clear from the schedule how exactly that will happen; perhaps like this year’s GNU Radio Conference CTF Challenge, they’ll be distributing audio files for participants to decode. If someone attends HOPE, which starts this weekend, we’d love to hear a report on how the RF Village — and the Lockpicking Village and all the other attractions — are organized. Here’s hoping it’s as cool as DEFCON Safe Mode’s cassette tape mystery.

It looks like the Raspberry Pi family is about to get a big performance boost, with Eben Upton’s announcement that the upcoming Pi Compute Module 4 will hopefully support NVMe storage. The non-volatile memory express spec will allow speedy access to storage and make the many hacks Pi users use to increase access speed unnecessary. While the Compute Modules are targeted at embedded system designers, Upton also hinted that NVMe support might make it into the mainstream Pi line with a future Pi 4A.

Campfires on the sun? It sounds strange, but that’s what solar scientists are calling the bright spots revealed on our star’s surface by the newly commissioned ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter satellite. The orbiter recently returned its first images of the sun, which are extreme closeups of the roiling surface. They didn’t expect the first images, which are normally used to calibrate instruments and make sure everything is working, to reveal something new, but the (relatively) tiny bright spots are thought to be smaller versions of the larger solar flares we observe from Earth. There are some fascinating images coming back from the orbiter, and they’re well worth checking out.

And finally, although it’s an old article and has nothing to do with hacking, we stumbled upon Tim Urban’s look at the mathematics of human relations and found it fascinating enough to share. The gist is that everyone on the planet is related, and most of us are a lot more inbred than we would like to think, thanks to the exponential growth of everyone’s tree of ancestors. For example, you have 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, who were probably alive in the early 1800s. That pool doubles in size with every generation you go back, until we eventually — sometime in the 1600s — have a pool of ancestors that exceeds the population of the planet at the time. This means that somewhere along the way, someone in your family tree was hanging out with someone else from a very nearby branch of the same tree. That union, likely between first or second cousins, produced the line that led to you. This is called pedigree collapse and it results in the pool of ancestors being greatly trimmed thanks to sharing grandparents. So the next time someone tells you they’re descended from 16th-century royalty, you can just tell them, “Oh yeah? Me too!” Probably.

IPhone NVMe Chip Reversed With Custom Breakout Boards

Ever so slowly, the main storage in our computers has been moving from spinning disks, to SSDs over SATA, to Flash drives connected to a PCI something or other. The lastest technology is NVMe — Non-Volitile Memory Express — a horribly named technology that puts a memory controller right on the chip. Intel has a PCI-based NVMe drive out, Samsung recently released an M.2 NVMe drive, and the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are built around this storage technology.

New chips demand a reverse engineering session, and that’s exactly what [Ramtin Amin] did. He took a few of these chips out of an iPhone, created a board that will read them, and managed to analize the firmware.

Any reverse engineering will begin with desoldering the chip. This is easy enough, with the real trick being getting it working again outside whatever system it was removed from. For this, [Ramtin] built his own PCIe card with a ZIF socket. This socket was custom-made, but the good news is you can buy one from ITEAD. Yes, it is expensive — that’s what you get with a custom-made ZIF socket.

With the chip extracted, a custom PCIe card, and a bit of work with the NVMe implementation for Linux, [Ramtin] had just about everything working. Eventually, he was able to dump the entire file system on the chip, allowing anyone to theoretically back up the data on their iPhone or MacBook Air. Of course, and especially for the iPhone, this data is encrypted. It’s not possible to clone an iPhone using this method, but it is a remarkably deep dive into the hardware that makes our storage tick.”