Purism Librem Laptops Remain Blobbed Up, Less Than Interesting

Written by Michael Larabel in Hardware on 26 July 2015 at 09:45 AM EDT. 5 Comments
While it's been several months since the Purism Librem crowd-funding campaing got underway for producing "the first high-end laptop in the world that ships without mystery software in the kernel, operating system, or any software applications," the Librem 15 still relies upon a proprietary BIOS and there's still no easy fix.

When first hearing of the Purism Librem campaign last year I was amazed they were trying to make this "respect your freedoms" laptop with a NVIDIA GPU given that NVIIDA doesn't officially support an open-source driver and the reverse-engineered Nouveau driver leaves a lot to be desired. Like most independent hardware projects, the high cost was also a turn-off given that without the Coreboot/Libreboot support you can mostly be wise purchasing a new laptop/ultrabook and be nearly as well off unless you're wearing a tin hat.

Purism ended up dropping their NVIDIA graphics plans and their Librem 15 laptop crowdfunding in the end was successful after extending the period to raise enough funds, but given that initial huge oversight by their team has left me skeptical.

The last we reported on Purism/Librem was back in February when a Coreboot developer was talking about how the company doesn't deliver on libre firmware, etc. More recently, Purism has been running a new crowd-funding campaign to try to create the Librem 13 as a new 13.3-inch laptop that respects priacy, security, and freedom. However, with one week to go, they have only raised $88k of their $250k USD goal.

Even with the Librem 13 they're working on right now, they still haven't been able to make a firm commitment for a fully-free BIOS. I was sent an interesting email this weekend exposing more details of Librem. The text was interesting in its own right so it's been as the rest of this article. The original author wishes to remain anonymous.


Todd Weaver (who has employees at Purism now since February, including Jacob Appelbaum) is not only misleading/scamming his crowdfunding backers and the public with "Librem" laptops that aren't, but also harming the free software community at large with his actions.

Todd promotes his Librem 15 as "the first high-end laptop in the world that ships" with a fully free operating system and touts this as a "HUGE win" – obviously this is false, as ThinkPenguin and Los Alamos Computers have been installing Trisquel on high-end laptops for years before Purism existed.

In his November blog posts he claimed with strange diagrams that the BIOS was already two-thirds freed. On the Crowd Supply page he makes conflicting and confusing statements, first saying that "the BIOS does use coreboot" and then saying that "the BIOS is not yet free" but "the Librem 15 will be the first laptop ever manufactured to ship with a modern Intel CPU fused to run unsigned BIOS code". This is followed by a quote from Richard Stallman which suggests that Richard Stallman, speaking on behalf of the FSF, endorse Purism's work.

This inaccurate statement about the Librem 15 is a confusing reference to Intel Boot Guard as well a suggestion that Purism has led "pioneering efforts" and discovered something revolutionary. In reality, Boot Guard is only a "feature" on Haswell (fourth-generation Intel Core) and later CPUs, so in the past all laptops with a "modern Intel CPU" could "run unsigned BIOS code". And frankly, anyone who's built a PC and is vaguely familiar with Boot Guard could figure out how to avoid it – any CPU that is sold separately from the mainboard and BIOS can't be fused by the mainboard vendor to run only their BIOS.

So, considering Todd's statements about the BIOS being two-thirds freed and using coreboot and about the CPU being "fused to run unsigned BIOS code", one might easily be led to believe that Purism is shipping their laptops with fused CPUs and coreboot. However, an owner of a Librem 15 rev1 reported that the unit came with "American Megatrends version 2.15.1236".

This seems to be confirmed on Todd's "BIOS Freedom Status" post, which now since December lists "Release a coreboot/libreboot for the Librem 15" after "Reverse engineer, or release the FSP source" (which sometime in March or so became "Free the FSP/ME"). Todd has said that he's in contact with Sage Electronic Engineering (a company that develops coreboot-based board support packages with non-free firmware for Intel and AMD systems) about porting coreboot to his laptops, which may very well be true.

But apparently he plans to get coreboot running on his laptops after he frees the Intel Firmware Support Package (FSP, a binary firmware package that performs initialization of the memory controller and other hardware, which Intel distributes to boot firmware developers) and Management Engine (ME, an embedded coprocessor with DMA and firmware on which applications like the Trusted Platform Module, Boot Guard, Active Management Technology, and audio/video DRM run). In other words, the Librem laptops might never ship with coreboot.

Regarding the FSP, Todd says that Purism is "working with Intel to allow [Purism] to scrub, release, and maintain the source for the FSP, but [Purism hasn't] finalized that yet." He also says that someone from Intel at IDF14 "suggested that [Intel] might be willing to share some of the needed information" to somehow free the FSP per his BIOS Freedom Status blog post.

Since Google and others have tried to get Intel to publish code or documentation for hardware intialization, and all Google managed to get out of Intel was a Memory Reference Code (MRC) blob for Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge, I suspect that his only contact with Intel was with a salesperson at IDF14 who told him everything he wanted to hear about all of the documentation Intel could provide to Purism under Intel's Corporate NDAs. I'd like to hear more from Todd about who his Intel contact is and what they've said they might share.

If Intel refuses to free the FSP, there is another option: reverse engineer its contents, study documentation (under Corporate NDAs), and develop replacement code. But that will take years of work by people with great knowledge of DDR3 RAM controller initialization and training, among other things.

To his credit, Todd at least seems to have some clue of what's in the FSP. It sounds like he researched Intel and AMD systems and focused on these hardware initialization blobs. Of course, he could have avoided the whole FSP issue (as well as Boot Guard) by using Sandy Bridge (second-generation Intel Core) or Ivy Bridge (third-generation Intel Core) hardware, for which native RAM initialization code was developed by a skilled coreboot hacker who studied the MRC blob.

This would (slightly) increase his odds of successfully building a free system. He knows this and admits as much in the last paragraph of the "Intel Management Engine (ME)" section of his "BIOS Freedom Status" post. But after that statement, he says that the ME is still an issue. The paragraph effectively says, "making a free system is already a hard problem, so we might as well make it harder."

His plan to solve the ME problem shows less thought. Back in November, he didn't even mention the ME, suggesting that either he didn't know about it at all – perhaps thinking, as is common, that an Intel PCH (CPU and northbridge) without the AMT application is completely free of such non-free firmware – or he was trying to ignore the issue. In December he updated his post to acknowledge the ME, proceed to discuss the FSP in what might be an attempt to confuse the matters, then reveal his half-baked plan.

He said that ideally Purism would "load [their] own open source ARC firmware that can initialize the clocks on the board. [Then another confusing/distracting remark about the FSP.]" He then acknowledged that this is, at the very least, "a very very difficult problem" because the ME firmware is signed. So instead his plan is to "get that freed by Intel or more likely their subcontractor BIOS development company [Purism has its] NDA with."

Not only is Intel most likely unwilling to ever free the ME firmware code, but they're also almost definitely unable to do so, because the ME firmware is based on a ThreadX RTOS, a Java virtual machine, a Web server, and probably lots of other proprietary third-party code that Intel can't just release. It also runs "security" applications like for audio and video decryption (DRM). And even if they did release it, the boot loader stored on ARC core's ROM still won't load ME firmware that isn't signed by Intel. So then you have the increasingly common "TiVo" issue of firmware you can modify and build but not install and run.

On systems with Intel 4 Series chipsets running Intel ME firmware version 4.0, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X200, it was possible to remove the ME firmware from the boot flash memory space and modify the ICH9 (southbridge) flash descriptor to disable the ME core. On newer Intel systems this doesn't seem possible, because the ME firmware is more integral to the system. According to coreboot developers, newer ME firmware performs some hardware initialization and power management, and the ME boot loader will shut down the system after 30 minutes if ME firmware with a valid signature isn't loaded.

Sometime around March, Todd removed from his post the sentence describing his plan to get the ME freed by Intel or American Megatrends, which is also rather suspicious. As far as I can tell, Todd's plan for the ME is doomed to fail for multiple reasons, and it looks like he might now realize that. Notably, the Crowd Supply campaign pages don't mention the ME at all – neither making a false promise to free it nor even acknowledging it as a problem.

More information about the ME is available in a book published by Apress, on Wikipedia, and on reverse engineering web-sites.

Another issue with modern Intel CPUs is that their increasingly large instruction sets are implemented in extremely complex microcode, and the factory-installed microcode revisions are always buggy. For this reason, Intel (and AMD) releases (non-free) microcode updates to be uploaded to the CPU by the boot firmware. Since November, Todd has noted that the factory-installed microcode on Librem laptops is unlikely to work.

He confirmed this four days ago in a post responding to Alex's criticism of Purism. He says near the end of the post, "We hope that the FSF will grant the hardware exemption for the CPU microcode, a non-free binary blob that is cryptographically signed and locked down. The Librem 13 requires CPU microcode loaded by coreboot during startup."

Additionally, Librem 15 prototypes included an "NVIDIA GT840M 3D controller", which didn't even work with Nouveau, as can be seen in the Linux ring buffer log that Todd posted (look for "nouveau": the driver says "unknown chipset, 0x118010a2"). Depending on whether this "GT840M" is a GeForce GTX 840M or a GeForce 840M, it might be supported by Nouveau by now. Either way, this is a new GM10x-family Maxwell-architecture GPU.

Nvidia GPUs have a "Falcon" processor which runs microcode for context switching. This microcode is uploaded to the GPU by the graphics driver in the host OS kernel. Nouveau developers have reverse engineered this non-free microcode and replaced it with free microcode for many Nvidia GPUs. However, the Falcon processor on new Maxwell GPUs will only run microcode signed by Nvidia. Nouveau developers remain waiting on Nvidia to release signed firmware images for Maxwell.

All of this suggests some combination of fraud and incompetence in Todd and Purism. And like I said, not only does this serve to trick people into giving their money and attention to a project that can't possibly deliver what it promises, but it also harms the efforts and credibility of the free software movement generally.

The FSF, ThinkPenguin, coreboot, libreboot, Replicant, Nouveau, Google's Chrome OS team, and others have been working for years to enable hardware to work with free software. We as a community have had some nice successes, and we've also hit plenty of walls with Intel, AMD, Atheros, Broadcom, ARM, Nvidia, and other uncooperative hardware vendors. We know that freeing software and firmware to make mostly or fully free systems is hard and that fully free modern Intel systems are basically impossible.

But Todd swoops in, raises at least half a million dollars, and convinces lots of people that free systems with modern Intel hardware are not only possible but forthcoming. I imagine real efforts to make free systems will be met with more criticism than ever (or skepticism among anyone who realizes that Purism can't fulfill their promises). We'll have older Intel systems, AMD boards, low-power ARM laptops, etc. But Todd will have people expecting "fully free" to be "new and shiny high-end Intel laptops". And anyone who honestly sells mostly free systems, like ThinkPenguin does, could eventually be seen by some people as not doing enough for free software, while Purism sells systems that are no more free but are thought to be completely "libre".

The Librem 13 campaign page even says that Purism plans to produce a Librem Tablet followed by a Librem Phone. I expect more self-defeating decisions in those projects, if they happen, especially considering mobile computers have many of the same problems that modern PCs have, and more (non-free and signed boot loader stacks, non-free drivers and firmware for radios, backdoored baseband processors, etc.).
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About The Author
Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.

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