10 years ago, when I joined Arm, I imagined that we’d all be using Arm desktops soon. After a while working there, I realised this wasn’t really in anyone’s plans (at least not transparent to us, mere developers), so I kind of accepted that truth.
But as time passed, and the 64-bit architecture came along and phones really didn’t seem to be benefiting from the bump in address space or integer arithmetic (it was actually worse, power consumption wise), so I begun to realise that my early hopes weren’t so unfounded.
But as I left Arm around 2011, to a high-performance group, I realised how complicated it would be to move all of the x86_64/PPC high-performance computing to Arm, and that planted a seed in my brain that led me to join the HPC SIG at Linaro last year.
But throughout that journey, I realised I still didn’t have what I wanted in the first place: an Arm desktop. I’m not alone in that feeling, by all means. Enthusiasts have been building Beagle/Panda/RaspberryPi “computers” for a long time, and we have had Arm Chromebooks for a while, and even used them in our LLVM CI for 3 good years. But they were either severely under-powered to the point of uselessness, or the OS was by far the restricting factor (eyes ChromeOS).
So, when Martin told me we were going to build a proper system, with PCIe, GB network, DRAM, SATA in a compatible form factor (MicroATX), I was all in. Better still, we had the dream team of Leif/Ard/Graeme looking at the specs and fixing the bugs, so I was fairly confident we would get something decent at the end. And indeed, we have.
In September 2016, Linus Torvalds told David Rusling:
“x86 is still the one I favour most and that is because of the PC. The infrastructure is there there and it is open in a way no other architecture is.”
Well, the new Arm devbox is ATX format, with standard DIMMs, SATA disks (SSD and spinning), GB Ethernet port (and speed), PCIe (x8+x1+x1) and has open bootloaders, kernels and operating systems. I believe we have delivered on the request.
Synquacer Developer Box
The dev box itself is pretty standard (and that’s awesome!), and you can see the specs for yourself here. We got a few boxes to try out, and we had a few other spare hardware to try it with, so after a week or so we had tried all combinations possible, and apart from a few bugs (that we fixed along the way), everything worked well enough. For more news on the box itself, have a look here and here. Also, here’s the guide on how to install it. Not unlike other desktops.
Even the look is not unlike other desktops, although as I’ll explain later, I’d prefer if I could buy the board on its own, rather than the whole box.
I tried four GPUs: NVidia GT210, GT710, GTX1050Ti and old AMD (which didn’t work on UEFI for lack of any standard firmware). The box comes with the 710 which (obviously) works out-of-the-box. But so does the 210. The 1050Ti works well on UEFI and framebuffer, but (on Debian at lest), you need to install firmware-misc-nonfree which has to be done either with the 710 on terminal or through serial first, then it works on the next boot.
We tried a large number of DIMMs, with and without ECC, and they all seem to work, up to 16GB. We are limited to 4GB per DIMM, but that’s a firmware issue and we’re fixing it. Will come on the next update. Also, in the subject of firmware updates, no need to get your JTAG probes. On Debian, just do like any other desktop.
$ sudo apt install fwupd
$ sudo fwupdmgr refresh
$ sudo fwupdmgr update
$ sudo reboot
Another nice thing is the HTTP installer. Of course, as expected from a desktop, downloading an ISO from your preferred distro and booting from it works out-of-the-box, but in case you’re lazy and don’t want to dd stuff into a USB stick, we bundled an HTTP install from an ISO “on the cloud”. This is an experimental feature, so salt, pepper and all, but the lesson here is simple: on boot, you’ll be pleasantly redirected to a BIOS screen, with options to boot from whatever device, including HTTP net-inst and USB stick.
Folks manage to run Debian (Stretch and Buster) and Fedora and they all work without issues. Though, for the GTX1050Ti you’ll need Buster, because the Nouveau driver that supports it is 1.0.15, which is not on Stretch. I did a dist-upgrade from Stretch and it worked without incidents. A full install, with desktop environment, Cinnamon, Gnome or LXDE have also worked out-of-the-box.
The box builds GCC, LLVM, Linux and a bunch of other software we put it to do (with more than 4GB of RAM is much easier), and it accepts multiple PCI NICs, so you can also run it as a home server, router, firewall. I haven’t tried 10GBE on that board, but I know those cards work on Arm (on our HPC Lab), so it should work just as well on the Synquacer box.
The not so bad
While a lot works out of the box and that’s a first in consumer Arm boards, not everything works perfectly well and needs a bit of fine tuning. Disregarding the need for more / better hardware in the box (you’ll eventually have to buy more RAM and an SSD), there are a few other things that you may need to fiddle.
For example, while Nouveau works out-of-the-box, it does need the following config in its module to get to full speed (seems specific to older cards):
$ echo 'options nouveau config=NvClkMode=auto' | sudo tee /etc/modprobe.d/nouveau.conf
$ sudo update-initramfs -u
Without this, GPU works perfectly well, but it’s not fast enough. With it, I could play Nexuiz at 30fps on “normal” specs, Armagetron at 40fps with all bells and whistles, and 30fps-capped on minetest, with all options set. SuperTuxKart gives me 40fps on the LEGO level, but only 15 on the “under the sea”, and that’s very likely because of its abuse of transparency.
This is not stellar, of course, but we’re talking nouveau driver, which is known to be less performing than the proprietary NVidia drivers, on a GT710. Those games are the ones we had packages for on Debian/Arm, and they’re not the most optimised, OpenGL-wise, so all in all, not bad numbers after all.
Then there’s the problem of too many CPUs for too little RAM. I keep coming at this point because it’s really important. For a desktop, 4GB is enough. For a server, 8GB is enough. But for a build server (my case), it really isn’t. As compilers get more complicated and as programs get larger, the amount of RAM that is used by the compiler and linker can easily pass 1GB per process. On laptops and desktops with 8 cores and 16GB or RAM, that was never a problem, but when the numbers flip to 24 by 4, then it gets ridiculous.
Even 8GB gave me trouble trying to compile LLVM, because I want a sweet spot between using as many cores as possible and not swapping. This is a trial and error process, and with build times in the scale of hours, it’s a really boring process. And that process is only valid until the code grows or you update the compiler. With 8GB, -j20 seems to be that sweet spot, but I still got 3GB of swap anyway. Each DIMM like the one in the box goes for around £40, so there’s another £120 to make it into a better builder. I’d happily trade the GPU for more RAM.
LLVM builds on just over an hour with -j20 and 2 concurrent link jobs (low RAM), which is acceptable, but not impressive. Most of my problems have been RAM shortage and swapping, so I’ll re-do the test with 16GB and see how it goes, but I’m expecting nothing less than 40min, which is still twice as much as my old i7-4720HQ. It’s 1/3 of the clock, in-order, and it has 3x the number of threads, so I was expecting closer timings. Will update with more info when I’m done.
The first thing that comes to mind is that I have to buy the whole package, for a salty price of $1210, with hardware that is, putting it mildly, outdated.
It has a case with a huge plastic cover meant for mean big Intel heat-sinks, of which the Synquacer needs none. It’s also too small for some GPUs and too full of loose parts to be of any easy maintenance. No clips, just screws and hard pushes.
The disk is 1TB, standard WD Blue, which is fine, but honestly, in 2018, I’d expect an SSD. A run-of-the-mill SanDisk 120GB SSD comes at the same price and despite being 1/8 of the total space, I’d have preferred it any day. For not much more you could get a 240GB, which is good enough for almost all desktop uses, especially one that won’t be your main box.
It can cope with 64GB of RAM (albeit, right now, firmware limits it to 16GB), but the box comes with 4GB only. This may seem fine when talking about Intel laptops with 4 cores, but the Synquacer has a whooping 24 of them. Even under-powered (1GHz A53), make -j will create a number of threads that will make the box crawl and die when the linking starts. 8GB would have been the minimum I’d recommend for that hardware.
Finally, the SoC. I have had zero trouble with it. It doesn’t overheat, it doesn’t crash, there are no kernel panics, no sudden errors or incompatibility. It reports all its features and Linux is quite happy with it. But it’s an A53. At 1GHz. I know, there are 24 of them, which is amazing when building software (provided you have enough RAM), but pretty useless as a standard desktop.
When I was using the spinning disk, starting Cinnamon was a pain. At least 15 seconds looking at the screen after login. Then I moved to SSD and it got considerably faster to about 5 seconds. With 8GB of RAM barely used, I blame the CPU. It’s not bad bad, but it’s one of the things that, if we have a slight overclock (even to 1.5GHz), it would have been an improvement.
I understand, power consumption and heating is an issue and the whole board design would have to be re-examined to match, but it’s worth it, in my view. I’d have been happier with half of the cores at twice the clock.
Finally, I’d really like to purchase the board alone, so I can put on the case I already have, with the GPU/disk/RAM I want. To me, it doesn’t make much sense to ship a case and a spinning disk halfway across the world, so I can throw it away and buy new ones.
Given that Linux for Arm has been around for at least a decade, it’s no surprise that it works well on the Synquacer box. The surprise is PCIx x8 working with NVidia cards and running games on open source drivers without crashing. The surprise is that I could connect a large number of DIMMs and GPUs and disks and PCI network without a single glitch.
I have been following the developer team working on the problems I reported early on, and I found a very enthusiastic (and extremely competent) bunch of folks (Linaro, Socionext, Arm), who deserve all the credit for making this a product I would want to buy. Though, I’d actually buy the board, if it came on its own, not the entire box.
It works well as an actual desktop (browser, mail, youtube and what have you), as a build server for Arm (more RAM and there you go) and as a home server (NAS, router, firewall). So, I’m quite happy with the results. The setbacks were far fewer and far less severe than I was expecting, even hoping (and I’m a pessimist), so thumbs up!
Now, just get one of those to Linus Torvalds and Gabe Newell, and we have successfully started the “year of the Arm desktops”.