Category Archives: Feature

Thoughts on the AMD 5350 APU

The AMD 5350 is one of my most favorite chips that has come out in the mainstream in a long while. As a serious system builder, you look for solidity, predictability, a strong feature set with matching performance, and a good price ratio to contrast that against. The AMD 5350 really hits those sweet spots.

I was looking for a low TDP chip a while back that could be used as the centerpiece of some small, lower-power workstations a client needed. Previously I had tried Intel Atom processors for this, but gave up quickly – they are painfully slow in real use, and even when they’re not so bad, they bog down very quickly when stressed — and their feature sets are poor, while their price is high. Not again for Intel Atoms just yet.

So I was skeptical trying this 5350 chip. I loved that there were commodity motherboards available for it. I loved that it was quad-core to spread out load. And I especially loved that it supported full hardware virtualization — all in just 25 watts of power use!

These 5350’s are APU’s, so graphics were built in, and if they were as close to as good as the FM2+ socket APU’s in graphics, this would meet the criteria.

Well, I was really, very pleasantly surprised. I’m a bit shocked this chip doesn’t get talked up more around tech sites. I suppose those sites are more about marketing than science and engineering though. But this chip provided excellent real-word performance, considering its low power draw. Far better than any of the Atom processors I’d tried.

I ended up making several of these workstations into XFCE4 Linux boxes, and used the hardware virtualization support built into this amazing little processors to install legacy Windows XP instances. And they ran far faster than the bare metal machines they were replacing in XP. 😉 It’s a super solution for any organizations stuck in XP.

Since then I’ve used them in several different devices and configurations. My latest is a DVR box with MythTV (have to do something for myself every once in a while). And I have to say, I’m floored once again by the performance of these AMD 5350 chips.

First, I’m not even using a power supply on this tiny mITX build. I bought an ASRock mobo that had a DC in, so you just use a laptop power cord.

On the network, I have a HDHomerun television tuner which has 2 TV tuners on it. With this AMD 5350 APU, I can record 2 1080p HD television channels at the same time, while I’m watching a previously recorded 1080p HD show, or home media videos in h.264 — with no stutter or lag at all! In fact, there are considerable CPU resource left. This is an amazingly well-engineered chip from AMD. A true hidden gem.

And what’s more, this is all without even using the proprietary AMD video drivers. This is using the free/open source Linux kernel drivers, which apparently AMD has been silently working to get mainlined in the kernel and XOrg — and astonishingly well I might add.

Oh — and I forgot to mention — this chip even while recording 2 TV shows, watching a 3rd recorded one — it can also stream out to another TV via DLNA even another HD movie. I forgot about that movie getting watched upstairs — with no problem.

I just had to write this quick little praise piece on the AMD 5350 chip. The thing is $50. 🙂 And I can’t believe what it can do. I even have one running virtual servers with a virtual router. 😉

The only downside is that it supports only single-channel memory, so although you can get motherboard with more than 1 memory slot, it’s limited to using the bandwidth of just 1 channel — not that you notice though with what I’ve been putting it through. Also, although the 5350’s seem to support ECC memory, there doesn’t seem to be a motherboard vendor who’s placed support in their motherboards.

Come on ASUS! You’re the one always being great about supporting the ECC capabilities of the AMD FX chips… put that ECC love on a new motherboard!

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to say something about this chip for long time, and just finally have sat down to do so, because it’s so hot that I can neither go to sleep, nor stay awake. 😉

AMD is a brilliant engineering and design company. They sure aren’t a marketing company. And I appreciate that. This 5350 is most definitely an unsung hero of a chip.

The Pope, You and I. And Gadgets!

In recognition of an event that has not happened in more than half a millennium, the Bishop of Rome abdicating, here is a piece of music composed by Bach and played on a cathedral organ.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense. However, I do recognize history. As much harm has been done in the name of God, so too has much benefit come.

Cathedral organs were, for centuries, the pinnacle of human technological achievement. The complexity, scale, craftsmanship, art and engineering was a major milestone. Cathedrals themselves are astonishing achievements.

While browsing through YouTube for a good video example, I ran across several submissions where the person taking the video within the cathedral could not help but continue panning around the vista continuously. Even today these structures manage to fill us with a sense of awe, whether we believe in any god or not.

The West has Christianity because of the Catholic Church. They brought education. And even today the Catholic Church strongly advocates academic achievement, even in deference to science, particularly amongst the Jesuit order.

I have never been Catholic. But if you are aware of our history in the West, you realize the significance – the impact the Catholic Church has had upon our most fundamental thought processes. It is our legacy, in many ways.

It was the first multinational organization, at a time, much like today, when all people were ruled by a very few individuals who held nearly all the resources and power. The Catholic Church brought a common sense of ethics and morality, and a respect for written law, that all Western nations, despite language differences, share in common. They became a force that dictators and rulers had to heed. And this helped bind Europe with a common identity that eventually transcended the notion of earthly rulers.

And that’s the key here. Transcendence. Moving beyond where we find ourselves. And this can be sad, painful and exhilarating. We look for a rebirth into something new. As individuals, and as nations. A rebirth into something kinder. Something better. Something wiser.

The Pontiff has abdicated his position, calling for someone who will be, perhaps, more open. But perhaps not caught up so much as us in all the fast-paced, momentary and superficial trappings we lap up. Perhaps while even being more open, he will still remind us of the importance – to look within ourselves.

God knows we need some good and big changes for the better. Or perhaps there is no being to know this. Perhaps we have to do this on our own. The harder route. The route where we must take responsibility for all that we say and do. And all that we do not say – and all that we do not do.

It is worth a prayer to something larger than ourselves. If only to our better selves that we aspire. May we all make wise choices in the time to come. And may we find peace and comfort in that.

No Time for Time

No Time for TimeI think people, including myself, easily get confused by thinking of time as an actual thing. I suspect that time is no more an actual thing than the number 3 is an actual thing. The number 3 is simply an abstraction that helps us represent a quantity (usually) of one thing or another. But the number 3 isn’t really a thing, in and of itself.

Time is similar. It’s nowhere to be found. Yet we can measure a quantity of changes within physical space by comparing them with other quantities of change within physical space, and we call that time.

For example, this crystal will vibrate 2,000 times before this ball arrives to hit me upside the head. Time isn’t anywhere in there, unless we want to say that 2,000 vibrations of that crystal is 2 seconds. Just keep in mind, though, we’ve made that up.

Now, suppose I’m next to a black hole, which isn’t far from the truth. My crystal will be vibrating slower if you’re looking from the outside, because space is so much more densely packed where I’m sitting – or rather gravity is stronger. My crystal will vibrate a different number of times before the ball smacks me upside the head. But is that necessarily something called time, or is it just a characteristic of more densely-packed space, behaving as it “ought”?

Preconceptions are buggery gremlins which often lead us easily astray. We can measure stuff, and compare it against other stuff, and even accurately predict what those measurements will be. But we’re just saying that stuff happening at seemingly constant intervals is time, and stuff happening to those same things, when the intervals change, are alterations to time.

Always remember, though, that a thing called time doesn’t need to exist — any more than the number three. It just helps when we’re counting.

Blowing Away the Cloud

Clouds and WeatherLast night I was listening to an Earth Day interviewee claim that nuclear power, despite its shortcomings, was still strongly advocated by corporations and government agencies mostly because nuclear energy is centrally controlled. Why else go to such elaborate lengths to boil water? Central control means fewer people own the pie and so gain a larger proportion of money. Conversely, solar, wind and hydrogen is largely decentralized, effectively obsoleting the business of large, centrally-controlled power organizations.

We know that distributing work out in a decentralized manner, amongst many things, is a good idea. The Internet was born from this thinking, by design — highly tolerant of any small or even large segments failing. The military knows that relying on central control makes you both vulnerable and dependent. So the Internet requires no central authority to operate in any fundamental sense. If a failure occurs, it routes around that failure. This is the aspect, ironically created through military funding, that now physically embodies democracy – disparate entities functioning together loosely as a greater whole, both individually free and collectively resilient.

It was not always so. Just a couple decades ago, Apple created the famous commercial where the beautiful and free “new order” smashed the tyranny of Big Brother and his centrally-kowtowed minions.  IBM mainframes, the huge repositories of centrally controlled information, were the mainstay of corporate and government life. When they failed, everything stopped. Your only choice was to call IBM, whose agents arrived en masse, unsettlingly dressed all alike in creepy dark suits to set things right; so business carries on. As long as you purchased the right plan…

When Apple came along with computers for humans, or “end users” in corporate IBM-speak, IBM realized their business model must change. They already had branched into “distributed computing” by installing smaller mainframes at customer’s satellite companies that fed into larger, central mainframes. Now it was just a matter of embracing these “personal” computers as well. Although centralized power resisted distributing processing to end users, mostly by the technorati themselves, and doomsaying abounded, the newly freed employees could finally have their way with their own information, and productivity soared. People could get what they needed, when they needed it, change it into any form they could imagine, and were no longer wholly dependent upon centralized resources and control.

Yet strangely, a trend seems to be moving us back toward the centralized control of information processing, glitteringly re-branded as some amorphous “cloud”. The reality is, this cloud is really just a collection of CPU’s and storage devices, very much the same as any latter-day mainframe. In essence, the big Old Iron has returned, and we’re eagerly handing our data processing capabilities right over to it. And it’s not even our mainframe any more. It’s someone else’s. Some might say it’s not a mainframe, but a cluster. A collection of CPU’s and memory that had access to large and fast data storage and retrieval. Those people need to take another look at what latter-day mainframes are.

Even if we do get past the cloud of marketing and look at using another company’s data processing services, certain realities remain: maintaining 100% uptime is only a holy grail. Despite all the effort and cleverness a systems engineer will devote to maintaining uptime, the fact is, we are returning to a single point of failure every time we put something on the cloud, unless we are using the cloud as merely a supplementary or backup mechanism, or have those mechanisms ourselves as backup. And there is little, if any, transparency. Even several days after a major failure of the largest cloud, no detailed information has been provided about what actually went wrong, nor what is being done to mitigate such an incident in the future. Even IBM in the days of the old iron would provide immediate and ongoing detailed status reports. But “the cloud”… who knows? Right?

One last thing to consider other than central points of failure, and their accompanying points of performance limitations and benefits, is that using another company’s mainframes creates a single point of access for increased government access and control. When everything is on the cloud, the government needs only to deal with one company – one ring to rule them all, so to speak. During the infamous illegal government wiretapping case that broke during the Bush era, the government compelled AT&T to allow access to our communications by forcibly bringing all data into one hub in San Francisco, so they could snoop. Using the centralized old iron model makes this government behavior simple, whereas the distributed model once again points us toward democratization.

As the dust settles from this failure, the spin, which will be dutifully echoed by all the tech heads currently ensorcelled with the “cloud computing” moniker, will be that there is nothing wrong with cloud computing. In fact, it is user error – the customers who were too cheap to purchase a second or third redundant site at another data center (or region) deserved what they got. And strangely, they won’t even notice this implies multiple “clouds”, nor will it raise any questions as to how this cloud differs, in essence, from any well-managed colo rental space.

If anything comes of this, perhaps people might start saying the plural clouds instead of the singular, amorphous cloud. I doubt it. It’s one of those sensationally brilliant marketing accidents that is perpetually reinforced by throngs of parrots. What we must learn is to start asking the question once again: who are we renting our servers from, and who are we giving our, and our customer’s data to? And why?

Perhaps cloud fans would find Eucalyptus interesting.

Image credit: Salvatore Vuono

PS. You are the sun.

This article was published in The Sunbreak and was quoted in The New York Times.

Welcome Home

Remember, it is the ubiquitous things we seldom notice, even when they are fundamental to our life. Every day we travel to another world through a radical transition of our consciousness, where the real and the unreal intermix, creating who we are.

Each morning we pass through a transition, ancient as our species, when our mind, and our body, leaves its sleep, coalescing into wakefulness. This is, nearly always, the most radical occurrence of our day, yet we pay it no heed. For eight hours we live a life of pure imagination. For eight hours our body relaxes its form, completely. For eight hours we lay, trusting and vulnerable to all things. And then we wake, where the imagined life is closed.

Academics will tell you, the three greatest minds shaping the modern canon are Darwin, Freud and Marx. Darwin gives us our position in the world and defines for us many of our struggles within it, as a natural evolution. Freud creates a vocabulary for our mind, so that it might make sense, of itself, and other minds. And Marx lays bare our participation within the societies we inhabit.

If we are alive, then our lives are always in transition. Darwin’s ideas have, mostly, settled into our collective psyche; even into those people who rail against “Darwinism”. That apple has been eaten, and we create what gardens we can. Freud, also, is absorbed into our lives, if only “subconsciously”. Despite our ego. And Marx lit the fire that fuels our ongoing struggle for social justice and equality, against a tyranny of the few.

We see religions evolving, fighting to survive truths. We begin allowing ourselves to believe that caring for our sick and injured is more important than monetary profit, and that an injured Earth must also have care. We become aware that an incessant struggle to obtain money only creates more wealth for those who already have it, and the disparity becomes apparent. We wage a war of uncertainty, discontent, and a promise of hope within ourselves. We begin learning the lessons we already knew, were true. We begin to inhabit that disassociation, to resolve it. We evolve.

Through the scary things, and the confusing things. Through what we care about, and what we hate. Through our obsessions and our distractions, and our enjoyment. We evolve through our shame and guilt. Our obligations to each other. Our attention and expression. Hard and soft. And that which does not evolve, dies many slow deaths, one after the other. While here, it is our nature to become. Some would say, to be. We are, each of us, in this together.

The other day, I was listening to Grace Lee Boggs, a 92 year old woman who devoted her life to improving everyone’s life. She was nearly ecstatic about the urban community gardens she helped create in a decaying Detroit so many years ago; a movement that spread to other cities. Not for herself, but for the gardens; growing fresh food within communities on land reclaimed from the fall of misguided edifice. It was people, neighbors, shaping their own destiny independently. It was people, looking to each other, instead of waiting for direction from on-high. These gardens represented the cornerstone of what we are becoming. Excruciatingly slowly.

wecomehomeThe world is rising, outside our borders. It has smacked us hard, saying, that is enough. We, beyond your borders, are not you. And the West, staring aloof, even amongst themselves, ratchets up its machinery. The grim countenance of bankers staring down upon these unruly children, who must be taught.

And the other day I watched Africans dancing, and singing in that rhythm which grips inside the gut, lifting up through the heart and skull, then bursts into a primal happiness. Children climbed the stage to dance, and fat women in wildly colored clothing, young and old, joined in the spell. This outpouring dwarfed the reach of our machines. But before this, I heard a story, of the mother, carrying her baby across a land, for so long, so tired. The vulture arriving through the air with its great wings, offering to lift her child home so she might rest, then join them at home. The vulture, who fulfilled his promise by returning her child with his heart pulled from his chest, consumed, and his eyes plucked out, explained himself: stupid woman, you deserve your grief, for trusting a stranger with your child.

Even our own stories, within our borders, tell of the bearers of the rings of Power, wielding them in the name of good. The great lady, who, when freely offered the One Ring that rules and binds them all, admits her desire to take it, using it only for good. But in her wisdom and restraint, she refuses. I pass the test, she says. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.

To be alive is to live transition. I heard President Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly. It was a beautifully-shaped formula, pompous and condescending to the nations of the world, yet laced with some truly good things. He spoke as if the United States was always the peaceful negotiator in a world whose nations held intractable positions. And now we, the United States, will bring the world together in the name of good.

The few of the Security Council, donning their rings of power, to bend the world toward good. But no good can come from them, nor any nation’s leaders. Good will only arise from those crazy children who walked onto the stage, simply to dance, and the large women who joined them, flowing across the field of view in bright, colorful boubous, simply for the joy of life’s rhythm.

Such a power in their dance, of raw life. Of a good, that is more than Good. This cannot be injected into people’s arms from points on-high. Good rises from the earth to gather in the chest, traveling out, only through our eyes. To each other. The world knows where we must go. We are in transition, in the garden. And our opportunity for good is to diminish, into each other’s midst.