Pi with the PiFEX shield on the right, the SSD under test on the left with testpoints held by a jumper clip, jumper wires connecting the two together

JTAG Hacking An SSD With A Pi: A Primer

[Matthew “wrongbaud” Alt] is well known around these parts for his hardware hacking and reverse-engineering lessons, and today he’s bringing us a JTAG hacking primer that demoes some cool new hardware — the PiFEX (Pi Interface Explorer). Ever wondered about those testpoint arrays on mSATA and M.2 SSDs? This write-up lays bare the secrets of such an SSD, using a Pi 4, PiFEX, OpenOCD and a good few open-source tools for JTAG probing that you can easily use yourself.

The PiFEX hat gives you level-shifted bidirectional GPIO connectors for UART, SPI, I2C, JTAG, SWD and potentially way more, an OLED screen to show any debugging information you might need, and even a logic analyzer header so that you can check up on your reverse-engineering progress.

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Squeeze Another Drive Into A Full-Up NAS

A network-attached storage (NAS) device is a frequent peripheral in home and office networks alike, yet so often these devices come pre-installed with a proprietary OS which does not lend itself to customization. [Codedbearder] had just such a NAS, a Terramaster F2-221, which while it could be persuaded to run a different OS, couldn’t do so without an external USB hard drive. Their solution was elegant, to create a new backplane PCB which took the same space as the original but managed to shoehorn in a small PCI-E solid-state drive.

The backplane rests in a motherboard connector which resembles a PCI-E one but which carries a pair of SATA interfaces. Some investigation reveals it also had a pair of PCI-E lanes though, so after some detective work to identify the pinout there was the chance of using those. A new PCB was designed, cleverly fitting an M.2 SSD exactly in the space between two pieces of chassis, allowing the boot drive to be incorporated without annoying USB drives. The final version of the board looks for all the world as though it was meant to be there from the start, a truly well-done piece of work.

Of course, if off-the-shelf is too easy for you, you can always build your own NAS.

Booting The Raspberry Pi 5 With An NVMe SSD

The Raspberry Pi has come a long way since its humble origins, adding faster processors and better interfaces with each new generation. Now, the Raspberry Pi 5 has a lovely new PCIe port right on board, and [Jeff Geerling] has gone right ahead and slammed in an NVMe SSD as a boot drive.

[Jeff] explains that to use an NVMe to boot, you first have to modify /boot/config.txt to enable PCIe and modify the Raspberry Pi’s boot order. Once the bootloader is appropriately configured, you can boot straight off an SSD with Raspberry Pi OS installed. To get the operating system on to an NVMe drive, he recommends cloning an existing boot volume from a microSD install.

One of the primary reasons you might want to do this is speed. NVMe drives are generally a significant cut above even the best microSD cards, both in speed and reliability. [Jeff] also notes that you can use an NVMe SSD through a PCIe switch on the Pi 5 if you so desire, but you can’t currently boot with this configuration.

It’s a great feature to have on the Pi 5, and it follows on from the earlier implementation on the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4. Video after the break.

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ADATA SSD Gets Liquid Cooling, But Not Everyone’s Convinced

Solid-state drives (SSDs) were a step change in performance when it came to computer storage. They offered incredibly fast seek times by virtue of dispensing with solid rust for silicon instead. Now, some companies have started pushing the limits to the extent that their drives supposedly need liquid cooling, as reported by The Register.

The device in question is the ADATA Project NeonStorm, which pairs a PCIe 5.0 SSD with RGB LEDs, a liquid cooling reservoir and radiator, and a cooling fan. The company is light on details, but it’s clearly excited about its storage products becoming the latest piece of high-end gamer jewelry.

Notably though, not everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon. Speaking to The Register, Jon Tanguy from Crucial indicated that while the company has noted modern SSDs running hotter, it doesn’t yet see a need for active cooling. In their case, heatsinks have proven enough. He notes that NAND flash used in SSDs actually operates best at 60 to 70 C. However, going beyond 80 C risks damage and most drives will shutdown or throttle access at this point.

Realistically, you probably don’t need to liquid cool your SSDs, even if you’ve got the latest and greatest models. However, if you want the most tricked out gaming machine on Twitch, there’s plenty of products out there that will happily separate you from your money.

That Old ThinkPad Needs An Open Source 2.5″ IDE SSD

So you fancy yourself a FOSS devotee, do you? Running GNU/Linux on your old ThinkPad, avoiding devices that need binary blobs? Got LibreBoot installed too? Not bad, not bad. But what about the hard drive? Can you be sure you aren’t leaking some freedoms out of that spinning rust?

Well, worry no more. Thanks to the work of [dosdude1], we now have an open source solid state drive that’s designed to work with any device which originally used a 2.5 inch IDE hard drive. The choice of releasing it under the GPL v3 versus an open hardware license might seem an odd choice at first, but turns out that’s actually what the GNU project recommends currently for circuit designs.

Fair warning: all the chips on the board are BGA.

Which is precisely what we’re talking about here — just a circuit design done up in KiCad. There’s no firmware required, and the PCB features very little beyond the four BGA152/BGA132 NAND flash chips and the SM2236 controller IC. You’ve just got to get the board fabricated, obtain (or salvage) the chips, and suddenly your retro laptop is sporting the latest in mass storage technology.

So how does it work? The SM2236 is actually a CompactFlash (CF) controller, and since IDE and CF interfaces are so similar, the PCB doesn’t have to do much to adapt from one to the other. Sprinkle in a few NANDs, and you’ve got yourself a native SSD suitable for old school machines. [dosdude1] says the board can slot four 64 GB chips, which should be more than enough given the age of the systems this gadget will likely be installed in. There are a few catches though: the NAND chips need to be supported by the SM2236, and they all have to match.

If you need something even smaller, [dosdude1] produced a 1.8 inch SSD using the same techniques back in October of last year.

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The SSD described, a green board with a ZIP connector, a controller chip and two out of four NAND chips populated. There's traces of flux on the chip, as it hasn't been washed after soldering yet.

ZIF HDDs Dying Out? Here’s An Open-Source 1.8″ SSD

A lot of old technology runs on parts no longer produced – HDDs happen to be one such part, with IDE drives specifically being long out of vogue, and going extinct to natural causes. There’s substitutes, but quite a few of them are either wonky or require expensive storage medium. Now, [dosdude1] has turned his attention to 1.8 ZIF IDE SSDs – FFC-connected hard drives that are particularly rare and therefore expensive to replace, found in laptops like the Macbook Air 1,1 2008 model. Unsatisfied with substitutes, he’s designed an entire SSD from the ground up around an IDE SSD controller and NAND chips. Then, he made the design open-source and filmed an assembly video so that we can build our own. Take a look, we’ve put it below the break!

For an open-source design, there’s a respectable amount of work shared with us. He’s reverse-engineered some IDE SSDs based on the SM2236 controller to design the schematic, and put the full KiCad files on GitHub. In the video, he shows us how to assemble this SSD using only a hot air station and a soldering iron, talks about NAND matching and programming software intricacies, and shows the SSD working in the aforementioned Macbook Air. Certainly, assembly would have been faster and easier with a stencil, but the tools used work great for what’s a self-assembly tutorial!

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M.2 For Hackers – Expand Your Laptop

You’ve seen M.2 cards in modern laptops already. If you’re buying an SSD today, it’s most likely an M.2 one. Many of our laptops contain M.2 WiFi cards, the consumer-oriented WWAN cards now come in M.2, and every now and then we see M.2 cards that defy our expectations. Nowadays, using M.2 is one of the most viable ways for adding new features to your laptop. I have found that the M.2 standard is quite accessible and also very hackable, and I would like to demonstrate that to you.

If you ever searched the Web trying to understand what makes M.2 tick, you might’ve found one of the many confusing articles which just transcribe stuff out of the M.2 specification PDF, and make things look more complicated than they actually are. Let’s instead look at M.2 real-world use. Today, I’ll show you the M.2 devices you will encounter in the wild, and teach you what you need to know to make use of them. In part 2, I will show you how to build your own M.2 cards and card-accepting devices, too!

Well Thought-Out, Mostly

You can genuinely appreciate the M.2 standard once you start looking into it, especially if you have worked with mPCIe devices for some amount of time. mPCIe is what we’ve been using for all these years, and it gradually became a mish-mash of hardly-compatible pinouts. As manufacturers thought up all kinds of devices they could embed, you’d find hacks like mSATA and WWAN coexistence extensions, and the lack of standardization is noticeable in things like mPCIe WWAN modems as soon as you need something like UART or PCM. The M.2 specification, thankfully, accounted for all of these lessons.

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