For $3100 USD You Can Have A Fast, Fully-Free-Software Workstation

Written by Michael Larabel in Computers on 6 February 2016. Page 1 of 4. 35 Comments

Last week I brought up the Talos Secure Workstation as a $3100 USD system that's fully free and open down to the firmware and with an open-source friendly processor design while being high performance. Since then, I've had access to test out the hardware making up this POWER8-powered system to see how fast a fully-open system can be. Here is more information on the proposed Talos Workstation along with a few early Linux benchmarks.

The Problem With Current "Open" Systems

While there are various other systems on the market that are fully-free down to the firmware via Libreboot (the Coreboot downstream that doesn't permit any un-free software blobs for hardware support) they tend to be outdated systems that are refurbished and sell at a significant premium compared to today's cheaper and more powerful laptops/PCs. Other motherboards getting freed down to the firmware level also tend to be very old since today's AMD and Intel processors/chipsets require closed-source firmware support packages when paired with Coreboot. That is also why modern efforts like those around the Librem laptop really haven't panned out to be fully-free down to the firmware level.

Aiming For POWER

In aiming to provide a modern but fully-free system/workstation, Raptor Engineering turned to OpenPOWER Foundation's POWER8 architecture rather than having to deal with the openness of modern Intel/AMD CPUs. Raptor Engineering's $3100 Talos Secure Workstation calls for an eight-core 130 Watt POWER8 CPU to power their free software rig. Raptor Engineering is the firm that has done a lot of Coreboot/Libreboot porting work.

Raptor describes their proposed Talos Secure Workstation as, "Talos is the world's first ATX workstation-class mainboard for the new, open-source friendly IBM POWER8 processor and architecture. Raptor Engineering's Talos Secure Workstation brings unparalleled performance, security, and user control to the desktop. Designed for security-conscious, high performance users, the highly flexible and extensible Talos Secure Workstation board includes two Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI) capable slots, utilizes open-toolchain FPGAs, provides a plethora of PCI Express slots, and includes a GPIO header, along with open schematics and fully open and auditable firmware. Why POWER? POWER is the only open, owner-controllable architecture that is competitive in performance. No other architecture comes close to POWER's unique advantages."

The Hardware

The Talos Secure Workstation is currently in a pre-release phase where they are trying to understand if it's possible to do a production run of this product. This isn't a crowd-funding campaign, but they are just looking to evaluate possible customer interest at this phase. Their current plans are for 3.32GHz CPU cores. For this initial run, the Talos Workstation would be the CPU+motherboard+heatsink/fan while later on in production they would look at the full system with GPU, RAM, disks, and case.

What About Graphics?

Given our Linux graphics focus at Phoronix, you probably are curious about the graphics processor part of a $3k USD secure workstation? It's still being decided, but loaded in the test system we had access to was an AMD Radeon R9 290X. Raptor Engineering's Timothy Pearson explained to us that they are still evaluating their options while trying to pursue the Free Software Foundation's "Respect Your Freedom" certification on this workstation while initially it may be limited to the CPU+motherboard combination.

Blocking potential NVIDIA GPU use while having a fully-open system is the matter of GeForce GTX 900 series hardware now mandating signed firmware images. These signed firmware image files and other changes with Maxwell have led Nouveau developers to call NVIDIA's latest hardware "very open-source unfriendly" due to these restrictions. For previous generations, Nouveau developers would reverse-engineer the firmware to the point that Nouveau's DRM kernel driver could auto-generate the needed microcode for hardware initialization with acceleration. Now, the Nouveau developers are still waiting on NVIDIA after more than one year to release the signed firmware files for the GTX 900 series to simply have open-source 3D acceleration...

With the latest NVIDIA GPUs out of the question, Raptor Engineering has to decide from using older Kepler class NVIDIA graphics or an AMD graphics card. But on the AMD side, it's considered a "grey area." Beyond AMD GPUs also needing closed-source firmware files in their open-source driver for hardware initialization (this has already been the case for several hardware generations), there is also some concerns by the Free Software Foundation over the open-source AMD driver's use of AtomBIOS.

It's been quite a while since AtomBIOS has been a contentious issue among open-source developers, going back to the RadeonHD days when the SUSE developers were trying to pursue an AtomBIOS-free approach with their driver in order to make the driver more open. We all know how that turned out and AtomBIOS continues to be heavily relied upon by the current open-source driver stack. With the choice for open GPUs on Linux becoming more of a problem now due to NVIDIA's signed firmware (and Intel graphics also needing closed-source firmware with their open-source Linux driver), it seems AtomBIOS might go back under the microscope by free software advocates but the main issue is over the Radeon DRM driver needing to upload the firmware blobs. Thus Raptor Engineering will be discussing with the Free Software Foundation their best approach for graphics on this high-end workstation. Raptor also pointed out that thanks to an IOMMU, any rogue firmware of the graphics card shouldn't cause a potential problem for the main system.

Let's move onto running some tests of this currently experimental hardware system...

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