A close look at the Raptor Blackbird and what I did at So Cal Linux Expo 17

Wow, what a swag haul (big box o'breakfast cereal for scale), and what a fun day at SCaLE 17x, the 17th annual So Cal Linux Expo! I'd actually never been before and now I see why people love to go!

SCaLE is at the lovely Pasadena Convention Center, just a short drive from Floodgap Orbiting HQ in sunny rainy southern California. If you're in the greater Los Angeles area, it's pretty accessible by Metro rail, and there are lots of restaurants and things to do if you're flying in from away. I had lunch with my good buddy Bill (lately of the Linux Journal) and two of his cow-orkers at Islands Burgers just north of the Convention Center.

Even if you just buy an expo-only ticket, there are a huge number of vendor booths from big names like IBM, VMware and even Microsoft (!) all the way down to open source projects like VLC, Krita and Inkscape. Would have loved to have seen a Mozilla booth, though. Just saying. I even wore my Mozilla grey hoodie.

I even renewed my Electronic Frontier Foundation membership in support of the great work they do (make mine Titanium).

But of course the star of the show for your humble writer was our friends at the OpenPOWER Foundation, and they came ready for action with our favourite heavy-duty free computing platform:

Hugh Blemings, executive director, kindly tolerated my shutterbugging and an endless parade of retakes to get everything just right. (By the way, did you notice that Timothy Pearson from Raptor is now on the OpenPOWER board?)

He brought in tow their Debian dual-four-core Talos II, which did presentation duty, and of course a prototype Raptor Blackbird motherboard! For those of you new to the blog, this is Raptor's lower-cost way to get into the Power ISA ecosystem. So let's have a detailed look.

Here's the mATX board itself and a side view of the ports. (I'll zoom in on some items of note in a moment.) You can see the ports for USB 3.0 (two rear with additional headers for two more), 4x SATA, 5.1 analogue audio, S/PDIF digital audio, 3x GigE and HDMI. You can also see the two RAM slots and the x8 and x16 PCIe slots. My grizzled old hacker heart was warmed to see that there is still a good old fashioned serial port there too.

The 2D framebuffer is provided by the AST2500 BMC (ARM11 based with a sidecar ColdFire core), at left, routed to HDMI via an ITE IT66121FN; all three Gigabit Ethernet ports are serviced by the Broadcom BCM5719, at right.

Blackbird has some additional hardware for higher-security applications. At left are the flash chips for the BMC and boot flash with hardware write-protect switches, meaning if you can secure the case, nothing's overwriting the firmware. (I looked on my early-model T2 and can't find any such switches, so this is definitely an improvement. Update: found them, just at a slightly different relative location. Timothy Pearson in E-mail notes, however: "In practice, the current firmware stack is a lot chattier with the Flash than we'd like, so there's still some work to be done before we can roll out write protect in official form to both platforms.") Further anti-tampering security is offered by a Raptor-specific FlexVer connector (PDF).

The single POWER9 CPU socket (four or eight cores), and an interesting unlabeled port. Hmmmmmmm. (Update: Timothy Pearson in E-mail identifies it as an FSI port. "Talos II has one just like it; you can plug an FSP box into that port. The FSP boxes are proprietary and available to IBM partners only (like us), however they're also being replaced with the BMC for the most part, which speaks the same protocol and incidentally can do the same kind of debugging tasks now that the FSP boxes were traditionally used for. We will probably continue to retain the connnector, since even if someone designs an open FSI box to plug into the port it could be useful for various low level hacking (in the good sense) tasks. Note that neither the BMC nor this connector can bypass secure boot if enabled, and certainly FlexVer would immediately thrown an attestation error if anyone even tried.")

And last but by no means least, a four-core POWER9 CPU and the exposed die, which Hugh had on display. What a gorgeous bit of silicon, amirite? I'm still planning a full review of this Power-on-a-budget system when my production unit gets here hopefully in just a couple months.

Some other fun stuff:

The One Laptop Per Child handcrank! It exists! I would have killed for this back in the Give One Get One days.

Purism had a nice showing. In addition to their very impressive line of free(r) laptops, they also had a prototype of the Librem 5 libre smartphone, currently scheduled for Q3 2019. I just bought a Pixel 3 (these pictures were taken with it), or I would be buying one of these. I might anyway. I also reminded them that some of us wouldn't mind buying a non-x86 laptop. Power would be nice, but ARM would be fine too. He duly took it under advisement.

Not to be outdone, System76 had a Thelio system on display. Weird site but sexy case. It would be high on my list if I could get the case by itself and slap a Talos-style system in it. How about it, 76?

Standing guard at the entrance to the the exhibit hall was this huge Tux mosaic, made out of AMD Opterons.

It may be a Linux expo, but that doesn't mean the BSD folks can't be there too. I got a couple "RUN BSD" stickers (a la RUN DMC) for my NetBSD machines and one of the fun flashing devil horns headbands. Still looking forward to the FreeBSD port to POWER9!

There were many great open source projects there, but the photographic winner was this particular famous project:

Rock those hats, guys!

And just a tiny selection more of the many vendors, from whom I shamelessly lifted free stuff, and without whose financial support the Expo would probably not be possible:

Special shoutout to the really plush setup the folks from IBM had:

Distros in the hizzouse:

See if you can figure out which one I wrote. No, go on. I'll wait.

The GNU Project/Free Software Foundation had an appropriately chaotic-good booth, with a very important message:

Finally, a few more open source projects to close us out:

Overall I came expecting to just take a couple pics of the Blackbird and leave, and instead I ended up having a blast with all the great exhibits, vendors and free junk to clutter up my house. Next year I'll be springing for the full show and hopefully bringing my wife and a couple friends. It's a great time to be in free computing and the interest has never been higher. I won't put any jokes in about this being the year of the Linux desktop, but I think it really is the year of Power ISA being back on the desktop. It's been gone for too long and it's good to see it roaring back.

Just watch out for the robots.


  1. So I would like to get into POWER computing, since I've used a G5 for about 4-5 years (wonderful work on TFF!), but I have an extremely tight budget. I want something that's POWER6 or newer, and can be supported on Linux for a long while. Do you think you could point me in the right direction?

    1. My opinion on this is controversial (and I have a good guess on who will post a contrary opinion ;), but I think big endian's days are numbered on Power. There will be some distributions that will still support it, but most of the large distros are going LE only.

      To future-proof yourself, I'd strongly advise a chip that can run in both modes. If you're concerned about the money, you could look for a used POWER8 system, though I'm not aware of anything in a workstation form factor. If that doesn't matter to you, there are a number of low-end small rackmounts you could get and most, if not all, will run Linux just fine.

      I have a POWER6 running floodgap.com but it's BE only. It's good enough for what it does and I expect another 8 or 9 years of service life out of it before it gets too old in the tooth to do its workload, but I probably wouldn't spend money on anything earlier than POWER8 personally if you want it to last.

      But if you can manage to scrape some green together, the Blackbird looks like it's going to be a great lower-end fit.

    2. (by which I mean Power _Linux_ -- AIX and IBM i will of course remain BE)

    3. It is by far not a desktop, but this is probably the best offer (still) available at the moment:

      POWER8 AIO water cooling solution done by Daniel Kolesa, maintainer of VoidLinux PowerPC

  2. As long as I am on PowerPC, I will always stick to BE, to at least virtualize Mac OS 9 & X to run the fastest, smoothest & truest. :)

    Unless if you can run QEMU/HQEMU in some "big-endian mode" while using an LE system. (Since POWER8/9 & probably 10 are capable of both modes.)

    1. Yes, that works 100% fine. When I ran OS X under QEMU with KVM, the endian switch was absolutely no problem. (Obviously QEMU with TCG emulation works just fine too, since that is pure emulation instead of virtualization.)

  3. By any chance, do you have a high res photo of Blackbird showing Marvell SATA? I'm curious if this is 9235 or some other animal of that family. Thanks!

    1. Unfortunately I couldn't clearly distinguish the SATA controller on my board pics. Sorry about that.

  4. Hmm, kind of sad there is no heatsink on the VRMs. I guess it is too late now to at least add mounting holes there so that people can add som DIY aluminium HS on them.

  5. Hmm, also do I see electrolytic caps on the VRM? I wonder why they used those, thanks to the bulging cap era it's pretty much norm to only put solid caps on voltage regulation. If they are good they should still last many years but it's an added worry.


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