SecurityNow on Randomness

Episodes 299 and 301 of the SecurityNow podcast deal with the problem of how to get randomness out of a computer. As usual, Steve Gibson does a good job of explaining things, but I felt that there was some more that needed to be said about computers and randomness, as well as the related ideas of predictability, observability, repeatability, and determinism. I have worked and wrangled with these concepts for almost 15 years now, from my research into timing prediction for embedded processors to my current work with the repeatable and reversible Simics simulator.

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Evaluating HAVEGE Randomness

I previously blogged about the HAVEGE algorithm that is billed as extracting randomness from microarchitectural variations in modern processors. Since it was supposed to rely on hardware timing variations, I wondered what would happen if I ran it on Simics that does not model the processor pipeline, caches, and branch predictor. Wouldn’t that make the randomness of HAVEGE go away?

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Execution Time is Random, How Useful

When I was working on my PhD in WCET – Worst-Case Execution Time analysis – our goal was to utterly precisely predict the precise number of cycles that a processor would take to execute a certain piece of code.  We and other groups designed analyses for caches, pipelines, even branch predictors, and ways to take into account information about program flow and variable values.

The complexity of modern processors – even a decade ago – was such that predictability was very difficult to achieve in practice. We used to joke that a complex enough processor would be like a random number generator.

Funnily enough, it turns out that someone has been using processors just like that.  Guess that proves the point, in some way.

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Modeling Endianness

Endianness is a topic in computer architecture that can give anyone a headache trying to understand exactly what is happening and why. In the field of computer simulation, it is a pervasive problem that takes some thinking to solve in an efficient, composable, and portable way.

This blog post describes how I am used to working with endianness in virtual platforms, and why this approach makes sense to me. There are other ways of dealing with endianness, with different trade-offs and overriding goals.

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Wind River Blog: Interview with a Virtualization Researcher

Past Friday, I posted a new blog post in my Wind River blog. It is an interview the PhD student Girish Venkatasubramanian from the University of Florida. He is doing research on virtual machines/hypervisors and how they can be implemented more efficiently by making fairly small changes to the architecture of memory management units.

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Pipeline Performance Simulator Anno 1960

I have just found what almost has to be the first cycle-accurate computer simulator in history. According to the article “Stretch-ing is Great Exercise — It Gets You in Shape to Win” by Frederick Brooks (the man behind the Mythical Man-Month) in the January-March 2010 issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, IBM created a simulator of the pipeline for the IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer developed from 1956 to 1961 (photo from

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Power Architecture Rip Van Winkle

For some reason (I guess it is the job…) I was browsing through the Power ISA version 2.06 specification last week and hit the following gem of an instruction: “rvwinkle“. It is named after a short story I had never heard about, but which apparently is sufficiently well-known in the US literary canon to warrant a sleep mode being named after it.
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MCC 2009 Presentations Online

UPMARC_700x150The presentations from the 2009 Swedish Workshop on Multicore Computing (MCC 2009) are now online at the program page for the workshop. Let me add some comments on the workshop per se.

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GPGPU – a new type of DSP?

My post on SiCS multicore, as well as the SiCS multicore day itself, put a renewed spotlight on the GPGPU phenomenon. I have been following this at a distance, since it does not feel very applicable to neither my job of running Simics, nor do I see such processors appear in any customer applications. Still, I think it is worth thinking about what a GPGPU really is, at a high level.

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Cavium Octeon II: Short Notes

octeon-iiAbout two months ago, Cavium Networks launched their second generation of Octeon chips, the Octeon II. The most obvious difference to the previous generation (Octeon, Octeon Plus) is a new MIPS64 core with much better support for hypervisors and virtualization. There are some other interesting aspects to this chip, though.

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The Hardware-Software Interface is where the Action Is

pn4_quad-gigaswift-utp-adapterWhen I started out doing computer science “for real” way back, the emphasis and a lot of the fun was in the basics of algorithms, optimizing code, getting complex trees and sorts and hashes right an efficient. It was very much about computing defined as processor and memory (with maybe a bit of disk or printing or user interface accessed at a very high level, and providing the data for the interesting stuff). However, as time has gone on, I have come to feel that this is almost too clean, too easy to abstract… and gone back to where I started in my first home computer, programming close to the metal.

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When does Hardware Acceleration make Sense in Networking?

q_stampYes, when does hardware acceleration make sense in networking? Hardware acceleration in the common sense of “TCP offload”. This question was answered by a very nicely reasoned “no” in an article by Mike Odell in ACM Queue called “Network Front-End Processors, Yet Again“.

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Cool Obscure Hardware: Sun SCC and Software License Protection

sunlogoIn a very roundabout way, I recently got to hear about a cool Sun server feature introduced sometime back in 2003 or 2004: the SCC System Configuration Card. This is a smart card that stores the system hostid and Ethernet MACs, along with other info, and which can be transferred from one server to another.

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DNS: Hardware Accelerator Time!

In Episode 157 of Security Now,Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte discuss the recently discovered security issues with DNS. In particular, the cost of making a good fix in terms of bandwidth and computation capacity. Fundamentally, according to Steve, today’s DNS servers are running at a fairly high load, and there is no room to improve the security of DNS updates by for example sending extra UDP packets or switching to TCP/IP. As this theoretically means a doubling or tripling of the number of packets per query, I can believe that. The “real solutions” to DNS problems should lie in the adoption of a truly secured protocol like DNSSEC. As this uses public key crypto (PKC), it would add a processing load to the servers that would kill the DNS servers on the CPU side instead…

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Kunle Olukotun Interview: Heterogeneity, Domain-Specific Programming

TheRegister Radio LogoThe Radio Register has a nice interview with Kunle Olukotun, the man most known for the Afara/Sun Niagara/UltraSparc T1-2-etc. design. It is a long interview, lasting well over an hour, but it is worth a listen. A particular high point is the story on how Kunle worked on parallel processors in the mid-1990s when everyone else was still chasing single-thread performance. He really was a very early proponent of multicore, and saw it coming a bit before most other (general-purpose) computer architects did. Currently, he is working on how to program multiprocessors, at the Stanford Pervasive Parallelism Laboratory (PPL). In the interview, I see several themes that I have blogged about before being reinforced…

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Tri-core or Tricore or TriCore(tm)

I do find it kind of funny when marketing names go bad in unexpected ways of collide in unexpected ways. There is this fairly old Infineon combined DSP/MCU core called TriCore (the name means it is both a RISC, a DSP, and an MCU). It was a nice name, easy to recognize, easy to pronounce, unlike the competition at the time. Today though, we are seeing multicore chips with three cores on the die. So what are these, if not tri-core chips, in analog with single- dual- quad- oct- etc.  And this makes it very necessary to use the hyphen. For example, the Freescale recent StarCore 8113 chip with three cores has its press release explicitly headed tri-core with an hyphen. I guess marketing would have liked the more visually pleasing tricore moniker along with dualcore, which looks fairly established.

Ah well, not to mention the fun Infineon will have if it launches a triple-core TriCore device. Maybe in a third generation TriCore 3? The power of three, indeed. TriTriTriCore possibly?

David Ditzel Interview at The Register/Semicoherent Computing

TheRegister Radio LogoThe Register has a few podcasts in addition to their website, and the one called “Semicoherent Computing” has turned into a very nice series of interviews with interesting people from the computer industry. I recently listened to their interview from September 2007 with David Ditzel of Transmeta fame. He had a lot to say about the history of computing, as well as interesting things on where computing is going. Well worth a listen! Particular interesting highlights…

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Heterogeneous vs homogeneous systems, revisited

I got another email from my friend with the thesis that processors will become ever more homogeneous as time goes on, while I believe in a relative heterogenezation (is that a word?) of computer architecture with many special-purpose accelerators and helper processors. This argument is put forward in a previous blog post. In this round, the arguments for homogenization are from the gaming world.

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Intel ARK

Intel has a really neat tool on their homepage: the Intel ARK — Automated Relational Knowledgebase.  It is a horrible name for a brilliant tool: it lets you search for processor names, codenames, chipsets, and jump around in a database of processor variants, compatible chipsets, feature lists, and more. Not that I care particularly about Intel chips, but the tool is something everyone selling silicon devices should copy. Being able to quickly figure out just what is inside a certain device (and what is not), and finding related devices and compatible chips is just brilliant for curious people, customers, and supporting services.

Please, everybody else?

Solaris to IBM, x86 to Apple, Power to Microsoft, and other flying pig events

The register report “IBM embraces – wtf – Sun’s Solaris across x86 server line” is a very appropriate headline for something quite surprising. The day before this happened, we discussed the announced announcement and said “nah, it can’t be about operating systems”. The idea of IBM in-sourcing Solaris for x86 just felt like the kind of thing that was in the same realm as flying pigs, freezing hells, and similar unlikely events.

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