hardware design Archives

  1. The ‘Penn State Automatic Computer’ →

    Some local history on one of the first large-scale university computers.

    They secured $25,000 in University funds and $17,000 from the National Science Foundation for constructing PENNSTAC — Penn State Automatic Computer. The machine they envisioned would cost $300,000 on the commercial market. Yet building it from scratch, Tarpley said, would provide his team of faculty and graduate students invaluable hands-on experience.

    And this:

    According to a 1957 account in the Daily Collegian student newspaper, PENNSTAC could “perform 1,400 additions of 10-digit numbers in one second, and its magnetic drum can store 2.5 thousand 10-digit figures.”

  2. ‘Which Is the Most Important Device You Use to Connect to the Internet?’ →

    Gruber’s takeaway from the survey data reminds us that the transition away from PCs has not been cut and dry, and that the point of transition in terms of an inflection point has already occurred:

    Assuming the polling is valid, this suggests we’ve already passed the inflection point where most people consider their mobile devices (phone and tablet) central to their use of the internet.

    More abruptly stated:

    The bottom line: the post-PC world is here.

    Coinciding with the 2015 survey results, my two most important connected devices are also my smartphone and laptop. I do not own a tablet, and I only turn my desktop on if I have wiped my laptop and need to download Ethernet drivers.

    With smartphones and tablets on the incline, I suspect there are an increasing number of users in the world who use their device(s) to consume data.

    For my lifestyle at work and at home, I need devices from which I can consume and create. While a tablet may meet my creation needs at home, I do not see smartphones or tablets giving me the ability to comfortably design computer hardware in the near future.

  3. Rowhammer, “the first remote software-induced hardware-fault attack” →

    Frightening indeed:

    Rowhammer takes advantage of a design defect in dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, chips, which provide the high-speed data storage for a computer’s CPU. The most common DRAM standard today is called DDR3, ubiquitous on laptops, workstations, servers, phones, and tablets.

    DDR3 memories are also littered across non-commercial embedded applications (industrial, medical, military).

    A single DRAM chip contains billions of electrical capacitors, each of which stores a single bit. The sheer density of capacitors on these memory chips, however, causes a problem. By “hammering” a row of bits repeatedly, constantly changing their values, an attacker can sometimes induce an electrical interference in which capacitors in a different, adjacent row are mistakenly flipped. If the attacker can sufficiently control what’s in that adjacent row, then the attacker can manipulate your computer without authorization.

    At the most basic level, memory robustness is verified by focusing on a single cell’s ability to affect neighboring cells. See this excerpt from the folks at ParkMass software, who develop the acclaimed Memtest86 memory test software:

    Memory chips consist of a large array of tightly packed memory cells, one for each bit of data. The vast majority of the intermittent failures are a result of interaction between these memory cells. Often writing a memory cell can cause one of the adjacent cells to be written with the same data. An effective memory test attempts to test for this condition. Therefore, an ideal strategy for testing memory would be the following:

    1. write a cell with a zero
    2. write all of the adjacent cells with a one, one or more times
    3. check that the first cell still has a zero

    How memory manufacturers will add robustness to prevent a row of cells from affecting a neighboring row may be a challenge, but this testing philosophy could be scaled to toggle groups of cells within a row to help determine if the memories are at risk for an attack similar to Rowhammer.

    I hope that I never see this thing.

    (via Alex King)

  4. Do I really have to do all of this paperwork? Can’t I just, you know, design? →

    Great write-up.

    For a lot of designers ‘work’ is when you’re sketching thumbnails, pushing pixels, poring through code, or daydreaming about organic free-range fixies. That is work, but it is only part of the job. We have a strange saying at Floate, “The work around the work is the work.” By that we mean that timesheets, meetings, phone calls, conversations in Basecamp or any of a million other things are part of the fabric of what we do. This work around the work comes with the territory and get ready for this one crazy thing they didn’t tell you in design school — if you are bad at this stuff then you are bad at your job. Period.

    (via Alex King)

  5. Memory Testing Philosophy →

    The MemTest86 folks have a nice easy-to-understand write-up explaining how memory should be tested, and why:

    Memory chips consist of a large array of tightly packed memory cells, one for each bit of data. The vast majority of the intermittent failures are a result of interaction between these memory cells. Often writing a memory cell can cause one of the adjacent cells to be written with the same data. An effective memory test attempts to test for this condition. Therefore, an ideal strategy for testing memory would be the following:

    • write a cell with a zero
    • write all of the adjacent cells with a one, one or more times
    • check that the first cell still has a zero
  6. “Smaller than a candy bar” →

    Times they are a changing:

    This summer, ASUS will launch a new type of Chrome device: the Chromebit. Smaller than a candy bar, the Chromebit is a full computer that will be available for less than $100. By simply plugging this device into any display, you can turn it into a computer. It’s the perfect upgrade for an existing desktop and will be really useful for schools and businesses.

    And Google is not the only one.

    (via Daring Fireball)