For nearly a decade, x86-64 has held hegemony over the desktop market. While there are ARM-based projects like EOMA68 and the now-discontinued Jide Remix Mini, there has not been a commercially produced workstation using an alternative processor since the IBM IntelliStation POWER 285 and iMac G5 iSight were introduced in October 2005.

In 2016, Raptor Computing attempted to fill this potential market void with the POWER8-based Talos Secure Workstation, yet the crowdfunding effort was unsuccessful.

SEE: The ups and downs of 20 years with the GNOME desktop (TechRepublic)

In August 2017, Raptor Computing announced the POWER9-based Talos II Secure Workstation, along with the opening of preorders for the system. POWER9 CPUs from IBM are expected to ship later this year, while the Talos II is projected for Q4 2017.

What’s on board?

Compared to the previous single-CPU POWER8 design, the Talos II mainboard features more potential for expansion. The Talos II board uses the Extended ATX form factor, with two POWER9 compatible sockets. It also contains:

  • 16 DDR4 ECC RAM slots
  • 3 PCIe 4.0 x16 slots
  • 2 PCIe 4.0 x8 slots
  • 2 Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet ports
  • 4 USB 3.0 ports (two external, two on an internal header)
  • 1 USB 2.0 port
  • 2 RS-232 ports (one external, one internal header)
  • 1 ASpeed BMC with OpenBMC
  • 1 VGA video port

This base configuration is $2150 for a bare mainboard, $2300 for a single-CPU bundle, or $2750 for a dual-CPU bundle. (A single CPU is available for $310, the requisite heat sink and fan is $110.) For mass storage, a proprietary Microsemi SAS 3.0 controller can be added onboard for an additional $300. Raptor encourages the use of NVMe storage for desktop use cases, and notes that users of traditional SATA drives can use practically any AHCI controller which has an open driver in the Linux kernel.

The built-to-order Secure Workstation starts at $4750, and includes a case and two 1400W hot-swappable redundant power supplies, along with a 12-core SMT4 (four-way multithreading) POWER9 (Sforza) processor, as well as an LG Blu-ray drive. The recommended configuration includes a second POWER9 processor, 32 GB DDR4 ECC RAM, AMD Radeon Pro WX 710 GPU, and a 500GB Samsung NVMe SSD, for a total of $6,750.

What POWER9 brings

POWER9 is the first processor designed around version 3.0 of the Power ISA, which brings support for 128-bit quad-precision floating point operations, updated vector instructions, expanded little-endian support, instruction fusion and pc-relative addressing, hardware accelerated garbage collection, random number generation, and hardware enforced trusted computing. POWER9 is manufactured on a 14nm process, and brings support for PCI Express 4.0–a standard not present on Intel’s upcoming Coffee Lake and Cannon Lake (300 series chipset) designs.

Reaching an agreeable price point

Perhaps the biggest criticism–and primary reason the previous crowdfunding effort failed–was the steep price point of the original POWER8-based design. With $3700 for a bare motherboard, and CPU prices starting from $1135 for an 8-core processor, the original Talos project was out of reach for many. Architectural changes in the POWER9 design, in addition to other technologies from IBM, resulted in a more affordable design.

According to Raptor Computing’s Timothy Pearson:

In addition to lowering TDP, the memory controllers are integrated into the CPU package, bringing the overall chip count down to a level more comparable to competing platforms. Also, the availability of PCIe 4.0 and the ability to place a second CPU on the board meant that a costly PCIe switch was no longer needed. In addition, IBM has opened more of its technology, and brought other projects, such as OpenBMC, to a state where they can be shipped directly on new hardware. This is a major step forward for libre computing and has helped reduce the cost of the overall development effort required to bring Talos II to market.

Designing a completely free and auditable system

Following the very high-profile vulnerability in Intel AMT, which allowed hackers to take control of computers even as they are powered off, public interest in a system with open, auditable firmware has increased. Pearson noted that several factors, including x86-64 lockdown and the scheduled implementation of GDPR in the European Union have contributed to increased interest.

What’s your view?

Are you a Linux user interested in alternative processor architectures? Do you have concerns about the security model of Intel AMT? Share your thoughts in the comments.

See also

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