Concern over growing reach of proprietary firmware BLOBs

Just because it's on Github doesn't mean you can read it.

Vendors of the FOSS hardware and software communities are voicing their concerns about closed-source firmware.

Virtually impenetrable BLOBs (Binary Large Objects) in firmware mean it's difficult to be sure exactly what the computer is doing. Assuming the BLOBs are unencrypted, and they usually are, you'll have to break out a disassembler to figure out what the code does, which requires skills and knowledge, and is tedious – especially if the binary is obfuscated.

Hardware vendors provide software, too. You can't boot a computer without multiple pieces of code in various flash ROMs – to initialize the processor, the disk drives, and the chips that connect them. As computers get more complex, so does their firmware. More layers of code not only means more potential vulnerabilities, it means they can be hidden from the running OS. This requires blind trust, which is a strong motivator for keeping the source code of such code open.

For the very privacy-conscious, there are x86 laptops such as Purism's Librem machines which use the coreboot open-source firmware, which is also used in Chromebooks.

It's not only for consumer kit. So does the LinuxBoot firmware for servers, which is backed by Google and Facebook via the Open Compute Project. Despite some controversy, it's working on version 2 of its spec. Both coreboot and LinuxBoot use Intel's FSP (Firmware Support Package) to initialize the hardware.

In the wonderful modern world of UEFI and suchlike, even your firmware has firmware

LinuxBoot grew out of Google's NERF project, which was driven by concern about security holes in the Intel Management Engine, as well as scary attacks like Thunderstrike and Thunderstrike 2.

NERF, for reference, stood for Non-Extensible Reduced Firmware, an intentional contrast with UEFI: Unified Extensible Firmware Interface. Way back when we described the origins of virtualisation, we covered the concept of "protection levels" and rings 0, 1, 2 and 3. Hypervisors introduced "ring -1" to this, Intel's SMM brought in ring -2, and now management tools add ring -3 [PDF].

As of version 2.0, Intel hosted FSP on GitHub, under a very simple licence. For amusement, compare that with the previous version. Now, Philipp Deppenwiese the Open Source Firmware Foundation is saying that FSP 3.0 will go closed-source again.

Can you trust your memory?

But wait, there's more to come. As our sister site the Next Platform described in depth, IBM's Power10 chips include a "memory area network". This is used in high-end kit such as the E1080… and that is where another proprietary-firmware issue pops up.

These are expandable servers, but they need very high speed memory. That prevents them from using methods such as the unified memory in Apple's M1, where the machine's RAM is in the same package as the CPU and GPU. Instead, IBM's Power10 puts its RAM on a serial bus, called the OpenPOWER Memory Interface (OMI). OMI memory modules are called Differential DIMMs or D-DIMMs, and they communicate intelligently with the processor. That means local software on the D-DIMMs, meaning local firmware. Power10 also has an on-chip PPE I/O processor, which also needs code – and although that code is on GitHub, it contains at least one BLOB, probably for a Synopsis PCIe-5 controller.

Currently, just one vendor, Raptor, makes POWER-based workstations, and one of its selling points is open firmware throughout. For now, that makes it unable to adopt Power10, much as it would like to. This is an issue that seems unlikely to improve in the near future, unless customer resistance limits sales and forces vendors to be more open. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Despite 'key' partnership with AWS, Meta taps up Microsoft Azure for AI work
    Someone got Zuck'd

    Meta’s AI business unit set up shop in Microsoft Azure this week and announced a strategic partnership it says will advance PyTorch development on the public cloud.

    The deal [PDF] will see Mark Zuckerberg’s umbrella company deploy machine-learning workloads on thousands of Nvidia GPUs running in Azure. While a win for Microsoft, the partnership calls in to question just how strong Meta’s commitment to Amazon Web Services (AWS) really is.

    Back in those long-gone days of December, Meta named AWS as its “key long-term strategic cloud provider." As part of that, Meta promised that if it bought any companies that used AWS, it would continue to support their use of Amazon's cloud, rather than force them off into its own private datacenters. The pact also included a vow to expand Meta’s consumption of Amazon’s cloud-based compute, storage, database, and security services.

    Continue reading
  • Atos pushes out HPC cloud services based on Nimbix tech
    Moore's Law got you down? Throw everything at the problem! Quantum, AI, cloud...

    IT services biz Atos has introduced a suite of cloud-based high-performance computing (HPC) services, based around technology gained from its purchase of cloud provider Nimbix last year.

    The Nimbix Supercomputing Suite is described by Atos as a set of flexible and secure HPC solutions available as a service. It includes access to HPC, AI, and quantum computing resources, according to the services company.

    In addition to the existing Nimbix HPC products, the updated portfolio includes a new federated supercomputing-as-a-service platform and a dedicated bare-metal service based on Atos BullSequana supercomputer hardware.

    Continue reading
  • In record year for vulnerabilities, Microsoft actually had fewer
    Occasional gaping hole and overprivileged users still blight the Beast of Redmond

    Despite a record number of publicly disclosed security flaws in 2021, Microsoft managed to improve its stats, according to research from BeyondTrust.

    Figures from the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) show last year broke all records for security vulnerabilities. By December, according to pentester Redscan, 18,439 were recorded. That's an average of more than 50 flaws a day.

    However just 1,212 vulnerabilities were reported in Microsoft products last year, said BeyondTrust, a 5 percent drop on the previous year. In addition, critical vulnerabilities in the software (those with a CVSS score of 9 or more) plunged 47 percent, with the drop in Windows Server specifically down 50 percent. There was bad news for Internet Explorer and Edge vulnerabilities, though: they were up 280 percent on the prior year, with 349 flaws spotted in 2021.

    Continue reading
  • ServiceNow takes aim at procurement pain points
    Purchasing teams are a bit like help desks – always being asked to answer dumb or inappropriate questions

    ServiceNow's efforts to expand into more industries will soon include a Procurement Service Management product.

    This is not a dedicated application – ServiceNow has occasionally flirted with templates for its platform that come very close to being apps. Instead it stays close to the company's core of providing workflows that put the right jobs in the right hands, and make sure they get done. In this case, it will do so by tickling ERP and dedicated procurement applications, using tech ServiceNow acquired along with a company called Gekkobrain in 2021.

    The company believes it can play to its strengths with procurements via a single, centralized buying team.

    Continue reading
  • HPE, Cerebras build AI supercomputer for scientific research
    Wafer madness hits the LRZ in HPE Superdome supercomputer wrapper

    HPE and Cerebras Systems have built a new AI supercomputer in Munich, Germany, pairing a HPE Superdome Flex with the AI accelerator technology from Cerebras for use by the scientific and engineering community.

    The new system, created for the Leibniz Supercomputing Center (LRZ) in Munich, is being deployed to meet the current and expected future compute needs of researchers, including larger deep learning neural network models and the emergence of multi-modal problems that involve multiple data types such as images and speech, according to Laura Schulz, LRZ's head of Strategic Developments and Partnerships.

    "We're seeing an increase in large data volumes coming at us that need more and more processing, and models that are taking months to train, we want to be able to speed that up," Schulz said.

    Continue reading
  • We have bigger targets than beating Oracle, say open source DB pioneers
    Advocates for MySQL and PostgreSQL see broader future for movement they helped create

    MySQL pioneer Peter Zaitsev, an early employee of MySQL AB under the original open source database author Michael "Monty" Widenius, once found it easy to identify the enemy.

    "In the early days of MySQL AB, we were there to get Oracle's ass. Our CEO Mårten Mickos was always telling us how we were going to get out there and replace all those Oracle database installations," Zaitsev told The Register.

    Speaking at Percona Live, the open source database event hosted by the services company Zaitsev founded in 2006 and runs as chief exec, he said that situation had changed since Oracle ended up owning MySQL in 2010. This was as a consequence of its acquisition that year of Sun Microsystems, which had bought MySQL AB just two years earlier.

    Continue reading
  • Beijing needs the ability to 'destroy' Starlink, say Chinese researchers
    Paper authors warn Elon Musk's 2,400 machines could be used offensively

    An egghead at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, writing in a peer-reviewed domestic journal, has advocated for Chinese military capability to take out Starlink satellites on the grounds of national security.

    According to the South China Morning Post, lead author Ren Yuanzhen and colleagues advocated in Modern Defence Technology not only for China to develop anti-satellite capabilities, but also to have a surveillance system that could monitor and track all satellites in Starlink's constellation.

    "A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation's operating system," the Chinese boffins reportedly said, estimating that data transmission speeds of stealth fighter jets and US military drones could increase by a factor of 100 through a Musk machine connection.

    Continue reading
  • How to explain what an API is – and why they matter
    Some of us have used them for decades, some are seeing them for the first time on marketing slides

    Systems Approach Explaining what an API is can be surprisingly difficult.

    It's striking to remember that they have been around for about as long as we've had programming languages, and that while the "API economy" might be a relatively recent term, APIs have been enabling innovation for decades. But how to best describe them to someone for whom application programming interfaces mean little or nothing?

    I like this short video from Martin Casado, embedded below, which starts with the analogy of building cars. In the very early days, car manufacturers were vertically integrated businesses, essentially starting from iron ore and coal to make steel all the way through to producing the parts and then the assembled vehicle. As the business matured and grew in size, car manufacturers were able to buy components built by others, and entire companies could be created around supplying just a single component, such as a spring.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022