Why the Talos project wants to provide an open and expandable POWER8 workstation

Raptor Engineering announced a crowdfunding project to bring IBM's POWER8 processors to the desktop with a standard ATX motherboard, and a high level of openness and expandability.

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Raptor Engineering has announced a campaign to bring IBM's POWER8 processors to the desktop by building a workstation-class ATX motherboard that utilizes the alternative processor architecture. The base model of the Talos Secure Workstation includes an eight core, 130W processor for $3100, with faster processors available. In addition, it has eight DDR3 RDIMM slots for a maximum of 256 GB RAM, two PCIe CAPI x16 slots, four PCIe x8 slots, one legacy PCI slot, eight USB 3.0 ports, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports, among other features.

Similar to other crowdfunding operations—such as the revival of Clearly Canadian sparkling water—a minimum order of 2,000 units are necessary to produce the motherboards. The Talos Secure Workstation would be the first POWER-based workstation since the discontinuation (PDF) of IBM's IntelliStation line in January 2009. In addition to utilizing a non-Intel processor, the Talos motherboard features blob-free firmware, for a system that is completely customizable and possible to secure.

Why use POWER processors?

In contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, which had a diverse field of processor architectures, the current landscape of computing consists primarily of Intel/AMD (x86-64) for laptop, workstation, and servers. ARM is the incumbent in mobile devices, and has found a new use case in microservers—which are good for energy efficiency, but do not possess the raw computing power to make them a truly high performance competitor to Intel's Xeon line of server processors. Raptor has posted benchmarks of the processor used on Talos boards.

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In an effort to compete with the relative monoculture of server hardware, IBM has opened up the latest generation of the POWER ISA, and licenses that design to any foundry that wishes to make POWER processors, or other manufacturer that wants to produce hardware that utilizes POWER8. It is through this federation that Raptor Engineering is able to produce POWER8-compatible motherboards. The OpenPOWER Foundation oversees the collaboration between hardware manufacturers, and coordinates the development of the platform.

What makes this more secure than other systems?

Intel's Active Management Technology (AMT) out-of-band maintenance utility is the subject of serious concern among security experts for being backdoor accessible even when the computer is turned off (PDF). The signing keys for updates are held by Intel, making it impossible to completely validate the security of the processor, or for users to install their own updates.

Similar concerns exist for other binary blobs (like the system BIOS) which are not auditable on general hardware. The China POWER Technology Alliance (CPTA) was founded as a public-private partnership to accelerate the adoption of POWER8 as the preferred platform due to its openness and auditability, amid concerns with Intel hardware.

This openness is vital to the Talos project. According to Raptor Engineering's Timothy Pearson:

The goal of the Talos project is to provide a fully open, auditable workstation that could achieve Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification without sacrificing performance or features. Raptor Engineering has carefully validated each and every hardware component to ensure that this is, in fact, possible, and that all Talos boards will ship from the factory with a fully open firmware installed. Furthermore we are attempting to allow new innovation in computer peripherals, similar to the wave of innovation enabled by the Raspberry Pi or even the original IBM PC. To that end, we are providing nearly full schematics of the Talos board, and a number of unique features including GPIO ports and self-hosting, open-toolchain FPGAs.

While there are obvious differences between the efforts of building an open desktop workstation and an open notebook computer, a thematically similar project to Talos exists. The Purism Librem project endeavored to provide a completely open laptop, but has fallen short of that goal, as they are ultimately unable to ship with completely open firmware, due to the encumbrances of closed firmware on Intel processors. As such, Librem systems are not be eligible for RYF certification from the Free Software Foundation. POWER8 has no such limitations or restrictions with firmware, making the Talos Secure Workstation a good candidate for certification once it has entered production.

What's your view?

Are you interested in a non-Intel workstation? What features are a priority for you in a workstation? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Disclosure: James Sanders is an associate member of the OpenPOWER Foundation.

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James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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