Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX) is a pretty cool piece of technology that aims to make it possible for user programs to hide secrets from other user programs and the operating system itself. It establishes enclaves in the system that hides the data being processed and the code processing it from all other software. The original application for SGX was to support client-machine features like DRM, to create a safe space on a client that a server can trust. Recently, the people behind the Signal messaging system have provided a really interesting example of an application that makes use of the of SGX “in reverse”, to make it possible for a client to trust a server.
I once wrote a blog post about the use of computer architecture pipeline simulation in the IBM ”Stretch” project, which seems to be the first use of computer architecture simulation to design a processor. After the ”Stretch” machine, IBM released the S/360 family in 1964. Then, the Control Data Corporation showed up with their CDC 6600 supercomputer, and IBM started a number of projects to design a competitive high-end computer for the high-performance computing market. One of them, Project Y, became the IBM Advanced Computing Systems project (ACS). In the ACS project, simulation was used to document, evaluate, and validate the very aggressive design. There are some nuggets about the simulator strewn across historical articles about the ACS, as well as an actual technical report from 1966 that I found online describing the simulation technology! Thus, it is possible to take a bit of a deeper look at computer architecture simulation from the mid-1960s.
inThere will be a session on checkpointing in SystemC at the upcoming SystemC Evolution Day in München on October 18, 2017. I will be presenting it, together with some colleagues from Intel. Checkpointing is a very interesting topic in its own right, and I have written lots about it in the past – both as a technology and it applications.
More travel notes. This time from Loka Brunn, a spa hotel and conference facility in the vicinity of Grythyttan in mid-west Sweden. The place dates back to around 1720, when an organized “Kurort” was founded. I spent a weekend there with my wife, and found the place to be very relaxing and professionally run.
I have posted a two-part blog post to the public Intel Developer Zone blog, about the “Small Batches Principle” and how simulation helps us achieve it for complicated hardware-software systems. I found the idea of the “small batch” a very good way to frame my thinking about what it is that simulation really brings to system development. The key idea I want to get at is this:
[…] the small batches principle: it is better to do work in small batches than big leaps. Small batches permit us to deliver results faster, with higher quality and less stress.
I read some news (ExtremeTech, Techcrunch) about how “smart” wifi-connected locks sold by Lockstate got bricked by an automatic over-the-network update. This sounds bad – but it is bad for a good reason. I think the company should be lauded for actually having the ability – and laughed out for royally botching it.
Integration is hard, that is well-known. For computer chip and system-on-chip design, integration has to be done pre-silicon in order to find integration issues early so that designs can be updated without expensive silicon re-spins. Such integration involves a lot of pieces and many cross-connections, and in order to do integration pre-silicon, we need a virtual platform.
After updating my Sony Xperia Z5 Premium from 2016 to Android 7.1, I noticed the settings for screen scaling (known as Display Size). The setting has probably been around since I got Android 7 (Nougat) on the device a while back, but I did not notice it until now. I tried it out, and it is kind of useful to shrink text a bit to get more onto the rather large screen of the device. But the keyboard behaves in a rather funny way…
It is summertime, and time for another off-topic blog post about travel. This year, we took our family vacation on the island of Mallorca, at the Playa Garden Hotel & Spa. It is located in Playa de Muro, between Port d’Alcudia and Can Picafort on the east coast of Mallorca. The goal was to enjoy a bit of sun & sea, and that worked out very well. It looks like we were lucky in our hotel choice, too.
IEEE Spectrum ran a short interview with Thomas Knoll, the creator of Photoshop, who made a very interesting point about the move to subscription-based software rather than one-time buys plus upgrades. His point is that if you are building based sold using the “upgrade model”, developers have to create features that cause users to upgrade. In his opinion, that means you have to focus on flashy features that demo well and catch people’s attention – but that likely do not actually help users in the end.
I have just published a piece about the Intel Excite project on my Software Evangelist blog at the Intel Developer Zone. The Excite project is using a combination of of symbolic execution, fuzzing, and concrete testing to find vulnerabilities in UEFI code, in particular in SMM. By combining symbolic and concrete techniques plus fuzzing, Excite achieves better performance and effect than using either technique alone.
Human Resource Machine, from the Tomorrow Corporation, is a puzzle game that basically boils down to assembly-language programming. It has a very charming graphical style and plenty of entertaining sideshows, hiding the rather dry core game in a way that really works! It is really great fun and challenging – even for myself who has a reasonable amount of experience coding at this low level. It feels a bit like coding in the 1980s, except that all instructions take the same amount of time in the game.
Skype for Business is an interesting beast. It is a nice little program for internal collaboration, but some of its behaviors are just super-annoying. One my pet peeves is the fact that when you get into a meeting with screen sharing you have a bunch of big heads covering up a sometimes significant chunk of the materials being presented. I finally figured out how to get rid of them. It comes down to the view mode. This little icon in the toolbar:
Today, when developing embedded control systems, it is standard practice to test control algorithms against some kind of “world model”, “plant model” or “environment simulator”.
Using a simulated control system or a virtual platform running the actual control system code, connected to the world model lets you test the control system in a completely virtual and simulated environment (see for example my Trinity of Simulation blog post from a few years ago). This practice of simulating the environment for a control computer is long-standing in the aerospace field in particular, and I have found that it goes back at least to the Apollo program.
In the early 1990s, “PC graphics” was almost an oxymoron. If you wanted to do real graphics, you bought a “real machine”, most likely a Silicon Graphics workstation. At the PC price-point, fast hardware-accelerated 3D graphics wasn’t doable… until it suddenly was, thanks to Moore’s law. 3dfx was the first company to create fast 3D graphics for PC gamers. To get off the ground and get funded, 3dfx had to prove that their ideas were workable – and that proof came in the shape of a simulator. They used the simulator to demo their ideas, try out different design points, develop software pre-silicon, and validate the silicon once it arrived. Read the full story on my Intel blog, “How Simulation Started a Billion-Dollar Company”, found at the Intel Developer Zone blogs.
I had many interesting conversations at the HiPEAC 2017 conference in Stockholm back in January 2017. One topic that came up several times was the GEM5 research simulator, and some cool tricks implemented in it in order to speed up the execution of computer architecture experiments. Later, I located some research papers explaining the “full speed ahead” technology in more detail. The mix of fast simulation using virtualization and clever tricks with cache warming is worth a blog post.
Doing continuous integration and continuous delivery for embedded systems is not necessarily all that easy. You need to get tools in place to support automatic testing, and free yourself from unneeded hardware dependencies. Based on an inspiring talk by Mike Long from Norway, I have a piece on how simulation helps with embedded CI and CD on my Software Evangelist blog on the Intel Developer Zone.
I and my wife recently took a short vacation in Nerja in Spain, a tourist town on the Costa del Sol. Late February was definitely low season, which made for a rather relaxing experience without the huge crowds that would be expected to fill up the place later in the year.
I just spend some hours building a new living room PC for the home. I based on common components like a Fractal Design Node 202 chassis and an MSI Z270i motherboard for my Intel Core i7-7700 processor. Trying to figure out how to put it together was a bit interesting though – especially if I had tried to do so without the help of the Internet. The manuals that came with some of the components were just completely useless, essentially boiling down to “please figure out what to do”.
I have a two-part series (one, two) on testing posted on my Software Evangelist blog on the Intel Developer Zone. This is a long piece where I get back to the interesting question of how you test things and the fact that testing is not just the same as development. I call the posts Mindset and Toolset
It is really sad that the European Space Agency (ESA) lost their Schiaparelli lander last year, as we will miss out on a lot of Mars science. From a software engineering and testing perspective, the story of why the landing failed rather instructive, though. It gets down to how software can be written and tested to deal with unexpected inputs in unexpected circumstances. I wrote a piece about this on my blog at the Intel Developer Zone.
A new entry just showed up in the world of reverse debugging – Simulics, from German company Simulics. It does seem like the company and the tool are called the same. Simulics is a rather rare breed, the full-system-simulation-based reverse debugger. We have actually only seen a few these in history, with Simics being the primary example. Most reverse debuggers apply to user-level code and use various forms of OS call intercepts to create a reproducible run. Since the Simulics company clearly comes from the deeply embedded systems field, it makes sense to take the full-system approach since that makes it possible to debug code such as interrupt handlers.
I have also updated my history of commercial reverse debuggers to include Simulics.
Intel CoFluent Technology is a simulation and modeling tool that can be used for a wide variety of different systems and different levels of scale – from the micro-architecture of a hardware accelerator, all the way up to clustered networked big data systems. On the Intel Evangelist blog on the Intel Developer Zone, I have a write-up on how CoFluent is being used to do model just that: Big Data systems. I found the topic rather fascinating, how you can actually make good predictions for systems at that scale – without delving into details. At some point, I guess systems become big enough that you can start to make accurate predictions thanks to how things kind of smooth out when they become large enough.
The SiCS Multicore Day took place last week, for the tenth year in a row! It is still a very good event to learn about multicore and computer architecture, and meet with a broad selection of industry and academic people interested in multicore in various ways. While multicore is not bright shiny new thing it once was, it is still an exciting area of research – even if much of the innovation is moving away from the traditional field of making a bunch of processor cores work together, towards system-level optimizations. For the past few years, SiCS has had to good taste to publish all the lectures online, so you can go to their Youtube playlist and see all the talks for free, right now!
Simics and other simulation solutions are a great way to add more variation to your software testing. I have just documented a nice case of this on my blog at the Intel Developer Zone (IDZ), where the Simics team found a bug in how Xen deals with MPX instructions when using VT-x. Thanks to running on Simics, where scenarios not available in current hardware are easy to set up.
UndoDB is an old player in the reverse debugging market, and have kept at it for ten years. Last year, they released the Live Recorder record-replay function. Most recently, they have showed an integration between the recorder function and Jenkins, where the idea is that you record failing runs in your CI system and replay them on the developer’s machine. Demo video is found on Youtube, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap8552P5vss.
Last year (2015), a paper called “Don’t Panic: Reverse Debugging of Kernel Drivers” was presented at the ESEC/FSE (European Software Engineering Conference and the ACM SIGSOFT Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering) conference. The paper was written by Pavel Dovgalyuk, Denis Dmitriev, and Vladimir Makarov from the Russian Academy of Sciences. It describes a rather interesting approach to Linux kernel device driver debug, using a deterministic variant of Qemu along with record/replay of hardware interactions. I think this is the first published instance of using reverse debugging in a simulator together with real hardware.
A recent update to the Amazon Kindle app on my Android devices introduced a severely annoying page curl animation when flipping through pages in a book. This unnecessary animation slows things down and disrupts the reading flow, or at least that is my opinion. It was really hard to find any kind of help on the Amazon pages or elsewhere on the Internet for how to turn it off. I finally figured it out, and here is how I did it so that other people with the same problem can search and find a solution…
I am going to present a paper about our new SystemC Library in Simics, at the DVCon Europe conference taking place in München next month. The paper is titled “Integrating Different Types of Models into a Complete Virtual System – The Simics SystemC* Library”, and I authored it together with my Intel colleagues Andreas Hedström, Xiuliang Wang, and Håkan Zeffer.
On my Intel Software Evangelist blog, I just published an updated version of an interview I first published back in May, about how to use Intel CoFluent Studio for IoT system architecture. This is a really cool story, about how you can use a calibrated simulation model to architect and analyze software performance before actually writing the code! I