July News

Brisbane across river

Brisbane, 26th July

I awake to see that no one is free
We're all fugitives
Look at the way we live
Down here I cannot sleep from fear no
I said, “Which way do I turn?”
Oh I forget everything I learn

   Spies, track 3 — Parachutes, 2000,
by Cold Play, Lyrics at coldplay.com/recordings

Software Development

This website has become difficult to manage without learning a large number of packages and their frameworks. We started to venture into PHP, installed various test suites (Mampro which handles the MySQL, Apache, and PHP testing). We also installed the NetBeans IDE on an Apple server, which wanted to know which of many PHP frameworks to use. We chose CakePHP after a brief look at the different frameworks' documentation.

PHP might be fine on a server, but with our testing against the hosting servers in Singapore, we were not able to find out where to install include files, or what the default directory paths were, so the files were placed in local directories. For reuse, that obviously does not scale, so we decided to write software that reads XML configuration scripts and generates HTML, LaTeX (later) and uses straight forward C code for parsers. The CakePHP PDF document (Feb 2014) had 1,151 pages. Most of the functions seem to be an attempt to get a standard library out that makes it almost possible to write in a dialect of C, but testing PHP on a remote server is not nearly as easy as Apple's Xcode for testing C. The parsing and generation of HTML is essentially an exercise in string handling, something that is very easy to do in C. Integration via a directory file structure or a database on a box that you control is a lot easier than learning a new package every few years. We also had some nasty surprises with billing from hosting companies due to proxy registration and not being able to disable automatic billing. Once complete, the software should make migration of large websites a simple run of the configuration with a change of the base name. Updates will also be uniform across a site with identical headers, footers, menu navigation and merging with content files. We also intend being able to use the same content with output for LaTeX, which can then be used to generate PDF output.

The software was tested for about a week before being pulled off to do paid work. It looks very promising and we understand why hosting companies do not want to give people access to a Unix file structure and the power of a C compiler, but if for some reason you were to host your own sites, or project documentation (like a wiki but also with the Makefiles), then a single powerful environment will be easier to master than a bunch of different packages. We believe that the next generation of 64-bit networking SoC from the ARM licensees will make this possible. For people in countries with silly telecom pricing this will take a bit longer to happen, but clouds and private clouds can run on less powerful hardware if the layers between the data and HTML served to viewers' browsers are minimised.

AMD announces ARM64 availability

At the end of July, AMD announced sampling of development boards for their Seattle processor. The links for documentation are non-existant, which puts them in the same secret service as APM and Cavium. Broadcom are not even mentioned as we found they would not provide anything to small players when we were still interested in MIPS64. Other than the announcement, it looks like it is all still marketing and vapourware. There was a price and we put in a request, but the lines have gone quiet. We will run on our existing hardware until next year when you can purchase motherboards from the local Chinese importers based on one of the 64-bit ARM chips that is actually shipping. The AMD development board prices are roughly $3000 which is actually a very nice Apple Mac Pro.

ARM 64-bit Compilers

We regularly visit ARM's website, particularly now that the 64-bit era has finally arrived. There are offers to download fast models and evaluation versions of compilers, however, thirty days is not practical when you only get a few hours here and there to do any unpaid work, so we asked for pricing before even downloading anything. Eventually, ARM forwarded our details to the Australian agent, who gave us pricing, and we were surprised, especially when told that it was annual pricing! ARM must be really sure of their market, but we are not in the business of building chips. There are several free compilers for Linux and from Linaro, but we were interested in the trace ports and how to debug multiple cores over a single debug port. The assurance was that the ARM trace probe would handle all our needs. At some stage, we might go to the UK to actually “kick the tires” and see how it runs on bare metal (and on actual hardware).


We have tracked the OpenCores.org and OpenRISC development for over ten years, as we have a special interest in debugging and tracing. Anything that can easily run in a FPGA with access to source code and instrumentation has been attractive. PowerPC in earlier Xilinx Virtex-II Pro devices were rather complicated while claiming to be RISC devices. During this time we have seen MIPS and PowerPC fade off the radar, while shipped ARM devices reached billions per annum. However, the fragmentation in the ISA by ARM is bad enough that you may as well learn a new device. From the 32-bit to 16-bit Thumb instructions, then to the Cortex cores with odd addresses in the link register to show that it is Thumb code (but the Cortex only runs Thumb2 code), the exceptions get too much to track. Our feelings are generally known about all the typedefs in the nested include files, plus the standards that ARM has introduced on their software side, so after looking at the ARMv8 manuals, it is good that there is a clear break from prior ARM compatibility, but the “wired to zero” register and stack pointer sharing were unexpected. MIPS just dedicated one of the 32 registers to zero. Much of the ARMv8 chip looks like MIPS.

Recently, researchers at Berkeley University released a 64-bit ISA for a chip they hope to become a standard open architecture. Prof. David Patterson is no stranger to processor design, and FPGAs are getting more capable. At this stage of our design career and energy, we will watch to see how the market develops, but it appears to be the only alternative to ARMv8. The wait and secrecy on the ARMv8 devices has left a gap for small players who might only want to run multi-core 64-bit devices around 1GHz, and have access to low cost tools. Free is even better, but having the source and being able to instrument the cores will be a game changer. Trace ports at several thousand dollars translates into a very capable FPGA platform, particularly when interconnects go serial (even for memory). The arguments for a good ISA are available as a technical report at the RISC-V website. Several boards have been used to run the design — the Xilinx Zynq boots the FPGA and provides debug for the RISC-V cores. Hopefully, when Altera ships their quad 64-bit A53 based FPGAs, the debug assist will improve even more. Altera's A53 seem to have been caught up in Intel's delay to achieve volume at 14nm, which in itself is no small feat and not been done elsewhere.


Tales from the Woods


On 17th July, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. The newspapers were quick to point out who did it, and even what kind of missile was used, as well as say that they must have been supported by well trained radar operators. For a report the next day, see Malaysian Airlines flight MH17: 10 things we know, dated 18th July, which also includes a video. That was not so smart to claim they knew, plus there will be some increased distances in flight paths if one looks at the map to see how many fly over Russia, particularly with retaliatory sanctions.

One part of the video footage mentioned above showed a missle launcher covered in snow, but to my knowledge, it was summer when the tragedy happened, killing all passengers and flight crew. My brother was also flying to Melbourne from London to attend the HIV conference on a later flight along the a similar flight path, which was diverted mid-flight. They found out on landing that MH17 had been shot down. He has been active in HIV/Aids research and development of drugs for over thirty or so years, and knew many of the researchers, who were to attend meetings in Melbourne.

Will we ever find out what happened? It is hard to believe that something so large could be smuggled across a border, or perhaps it was captured from some Ukranian base. The claims and counter claims are hearsay at the moment, with references even made to social media.

Unless there is hard evidence of a launch with back tracking the missile origin via satellite imagery, we must assume that the “spy-in-the-sky” is not as good as we have been led to believe. A metre on the ground resolution should have been able to pick up any large movements, particularly as NATO had claimed a tanks and aircraft build-up on the Ukraine border, so someone was supposedly looking at this area. From witness accounts reported on BBC, there were bodies raining out of the sky, so we assume that this was during daylight hours. I sure would not like to be a passenger on any airline flying over any war zone, as even an escort fighter plane would attract some attention. A low-tech missile will probably go for the biggest target (heat or radar cross-section).

Russian sanctions

It is interesting how quickly Western leaders tried to apply sanctions on Russia, but the consequences will indeed be far reaching as one would expect Russia to retaliate. The European markets will be affected, particularly as winter approaches and gas prices increase.


In the meantime, thousands of people have been killed in Gaza but the condemnation is silent in comparison. Deliberate bombing of schools and hospitals must be up there with shooting down a passenger airline. It is also difficult to understand how shooting rockets into a country would not result in some response. Thankfully, we are at the bottom of the planet away from these senseless acts of violence.

Hi Tech

Microsoft announced that the Xbox TV production unit would close. See BBC, 18th July, 2014, and after losses in its Nokia division, 18,000 staff to lay off in Microsoft profit falls 7% on Nokia loss. According to the BBC article, losses in Nokia were $692m (22nd July, 2014). Most of the staff positions to be eliminated (12,500 out of 18,000) were from the phone business which it acquired in April.

Microsoft was busy unifying parts of its different Windows operating systems (also on BBC, 23rd July).

Family Visit

We had a family “get together” in Brisbane at the end of July (youngest brother lives in Brisbane, so my wife and I flew up for the weekend, while my younger brother flew up from Melbourne after the HIV Conference). My wife and younger brother were in the same class at medical school, and I last visited him in London in 2012. A while back he managed to survive a flesh-eating bacteria — it was indeed uncertain whether he would return to work. Life is held together by a very thin thread so celebrate it while you can.

Mime in Brisbane

An excellent mime in Brisbane city centre.

Mimes in Barcelona

Mimes in Barcelona, also in silver. When fed money, they would pedal the bicycles which would rattle the skeletons. Taken in April, 2005, during a week visit for an IEEE Robotics Conference.