back to article How to build a totally open computer from the CPU to the desktop

How does one build a completely open-source computer from scratch? Answer: slowly. This week, the pair developing the Novena open laptop have provided an update on their work. The idea is to develop a usable system that is completely open to customization and scrutiny – from the electronics to the firmware to the operating …

  1. Charles Manning

    From scratch?

    It seems this is pretty much what goes on all the time in embedded systems shops. It is open to quite a lot of scrutiny, but you can't see what's going on inside the CPU.

    Even the FPGA is not fully open. Whenever you design FPGA code you're importing various libraries. Those contain all sorts of hidden logic - even CPUs. For example, the Altera FPGA SDRAM controller has a CPU in it that is not open to scrutiny.

    If you really want to see "from scratch" Then look at the work of Chuck Moore. He really built a whole system from the ground up.

    First he developed FORTH (a language)... and an OS and desktop.

    Then he developed various processors.

    When he didn't like the chip development tools, he even developed his own chip design software so he *knows* exactly what goes into the processors he designs.

    1. Vic

      Re: From scratch?

      When he didn't like the chip development tools, he even developed his own chip design software so he *knows* exactly what goes into the processors he designs.

      I was employed by a company developing a Forth compiler for (what I believe is) Chuck's latest chip[1].

      His tools were ... interesting. Let's just say he didn't exactly hit the yield points he needed for the chip to be marketable.


      [1] I'm not sure the company producing the chips still exists. There was certainly a very public falling-out with Chuck that pretty much destroyed the whole project.

  2. Gordan

    Or you could just...

    ... buy a Lemote Yeeloong:

    Sufficiently open source even by Richard Stallman's standards.

    1. Charles 9

      Re: Or you could just...

      But this project goes one further. It's an attempt to build a computer that is open both in software and in hardware: with every bit of electronics open for scrutiny, including chip innards (which Lemote devices cannot fully assure).

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And yet...

    "The pair trust the system-on-chip and the FPGA behave as documented."

    And that's precisely where they'll be snared, according to the truly paranoid. Just one tiny slip somewhere and you're dead (or worse, pwned without you knowing it). Unless they can demonstrate there's no hidden pieces where no-good can be done...

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: And yet...

      That's because "the truly paranoid" don't understand security, and in particular don't understand threat models.

      Wait for a perfectly secure system, and you'll still be holding your breath as the universe turns to cold iron around you. There isn't even a sensible definition of a "perfectly secure system", for non-trivial systems.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: And yet...

        "Wait for a perfectly secure system, and you'll still be holding your breath as the universe turns to cold iron around you."

        But then it was the paranoids who started going, "Told you so" when all the Snowden stuff started emerging. They will point out that, in such a world, what's being described wouldn't even qualify as a sufficiently secure system since you have to vouch for all the hardware you use to build your hardware until the components are too simple to subvert (for example, how does one smartly subvert a soldering iron)? Remember, the government appears determined to become Big Brother. Consider the massive data center in Utah--which the paranoids point out is likely just a cover for the working quantum computer hidden underneath. They have experience with this: consider the secret fallout Capitol that was built under the Greenbrier Resort.

  4. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Up


    Give these guys a break. They've done an excellent job here. If you read their article you'll see they are well aware of the limitations, but even so have produced a well thought out, and very clean machine.

    1. Charles Manning

      Re: Oi!

      Sure, good job. I'm merely pointing out that good jobs like this happen every day. There is nothing special in this compared with many other projects and the media storm is misguided.

      But we live now in an age where a boy called Ahmed cracks a commercial alarm clock out of its plastic case and is labelled as a genius inventor and is given an MIT scholarship. The kid down the road who actually made a digital clock out of transistors gets ignored.

  5. Your alien overlord - fear me

    Software based radio. Hmmm, private user version of StingRay anyone?

  6. Unicornpiss

    Homebrew computer renaissance?

    Unfortunately probably not very likely.

  7. omac777

    open-source ARM hardware needs to be more affordable and have higher capacity features

    It's disappointing that all the ARM hardware manufacturers are still pushing older slower hardware specs through deceptively misnamed "Mini-PC"/TV Box and deliberately not mentioning the hardware is 32-bit CPU core based rather than the currently available 64-bit CPU-cores. Be vigilant about this when shopping around.

    A "PC", a personal computer, is a computer users/hobbyists may use for whatever purpose they deem to use for. My experience with "mini-pc"/tv boxes based on ARM SOC's are highly DRM-constrained/DIGITAL-FREEDOM-constrained. BE VIGILANT in preserving your DIGITAL-FREEDOMs when purchasing your computer hardware. Look for statements from the manufacturers addressing your DIGITAL-FREEDOM concerns. If they don't address these, don't buy the hardware. NOVENA's laptop is DIGITAL-FREEDOM preserving laptop because NOVENA uses the Debian GNU/Linux operating system so it's certainly recommended to buy it.

    The only constructive criticism I have towards any ARM-based general-purpose "mini-PC"/laptop including NOVENA:

    -use 64+-bit ARM CPU core hardware instead of 32-bit ARM core CPU.

    -design for 16+GB DDR3+ RAM sockets....SCALABILITY for RAM

    Here is an ARM motherboard that's 64-bit, but is it affordable? The RAM capacity features are where I would expect a mini-PC and not just a server should be in 2015!

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