[coreboot] Doubts about necessity of propietary parts in the firmware

xdrudis xdrudis at tinet.cat
Mon Apr 12 23:07:47 CEST 2010


First things first: thank you all for working in coreboot, yet another
free software project I wouldn't think possible if you hadn't made it

I've been reading the archives and browsing coreboot.org, but I have
little clue about firmware so I still have doubts I would like  to 
clear beforing buying/building my next computer 


Is it necessary ?. I've seen some reports of using coreboot with a
propietary VGA BIOS, either run from the graphics card ROM or reaped
from the motherboard propietary BIOS. Is this an intermediate state in
development and it is eventually replaced with free code ? or we're
not there (yet?). Can one live without any VGA BIOS ? Leaving it out
means coreboot boots blindly but then (a deblobed) linux/X initializes
the graphics hardware all right and you have display just like with
VGA BIOS, only later in the boot process ? Or the GPU can't be used
without the propietary VGA BIOS ? Can GRUB display a menu without VGA
BIOS ? (SGA BIOS doesn't seem useful here, since I don't want to use a
serial link forever) Btw, can GRUB show background images without VGA
BIOS ?  Do these answers depend on the GPU or northbridge ?

Double graphics is a problem ? 

As far as I know the only modern desktop class chipsets supported by
the manufacturer, are AMD RS780/SB700 , am I wrong ? (thanks, AMD!). I
think all come with an ATI IGP , which requires blobs in the linux/X
driver (AtomBIOS).  I may be misinformed on AtomBIOS, but I think I
don't want to use it.  I've heard nouveau has just deblobed its
driver, so I might add an Nvidia graphics card to it (at least while
Open Graphics Project isn't ready for consumers). I'll try to buy one
second hand, as lesser evil, since I dislike buying directly from
vendors not supporting free software. Does having both the ATI IGP and
the Nvidia card give any additional complication ? (besides it's going
to be less tested than more usual setups). I wish Intel supported
coreboot or radeonhd didn't use AtomBIOS (like it once was).

Any AMD RS780/SB700 boards roadmap ?

Any hints which AMD RS780/SB700 boards are going to be supported first ?
(I'm using the suggestions I see on the mailing list, but I've heard of 
GSoC potential effort and I don't know if there're priorities already set 
for it)

DDR3 coming soon ?

I've heard optimism on DDR3 but I believe it's not yet supported by coreboot.
Do you have any estimation on how long can it take or how much would it cost
if someone was to pay for it ? (I don't think I can pay, it's just to quantify the
effort). For now I'm planning to avoid DDR3 just in case. I'm not sure it's 
a huge performance benefit.

How to choose socketed boards ?

How can one know whether a card has socketed or soldered BIOS ROMs besides
looking at it or some photos ? Should it be in the specs or manual ?
(I don't trust myself with a soldering iron).


I don't like Treacherous Computing and the like so I would prefer to
buy a motherboard without TPM. If I can get coreboot to run then the TPM may
become harmless, but I still don't want to encourage vendors to put TPM in.
The question is, are there security benefits if you control the firmware,
like you would eventually increase security by using your own keys, or
are the keys hardwired and unreplaceable so that the best you can hope
for is to disable them? I don't really know how many  boards without TPM 
are in the market, anyway.

Thanks for reading so far and sorry for abusing this list thus. I'm
going to include a little background now, but your answers can help me
even without you reading further.

I'm a professional programmer, and I studied Enginyeria Tècnica de
Sistemes Informàtics before completing it to Enginyeria Informàtica
(that's a 3 years degree in computer systems engineering, followed
with the courses to turn it into a 5 years degree in computing). But I
wasn't really interested in electronics and we didn't see anything
about firmware.  I did some exercises in 8086 and M68000 assembler,
some C for operating systems and so on, but I don't have professional
experience on it. Never wrote drivers or so on. I've worked more on
web apps, web services and business applications.  So I hope I can
learn enough to test things without bricking my board, but not really
to help develop anything.

I used to buy laptops with intel IGP, because they had free drivers
but now that my current laptop is getting older I looked for current
hardware and found out about Intel Active Management Technology and
DASH by AMD et al, and from that I discovered SMM. I used to think the
BIOS was a small piece of code that was only used for booting and I
could then forget it, but now I'm a bit more afraid of remote control
with propietary BIOSes.

I would like a computer with as little propietary software as
possible, but yet powerful enough to compile quick enough, and ideally
able to run a couple of distributions virtualized to test
stuff. Something like 4-8 Gb of RAM (8 -16 Gb maximum) , buses as fast
as possible, a somewhat fast CPU, and a reasonably fast hard drive,
with a DVD burner. No bleeding edge, just not too old. 1 or 2 years
old technology would be fine. I don't mind 3D acceleration, but I
don't really need it. I'd prefer a laptop, but Rocky is too heavy
(assuming I could get one), and the rest are too difficult for me to
try coreboot on them, so I may end up buying parts to assemble a
desktop PC (and maybe a lemote to use as a terminal?). I think desktop
because of my use of it, but if I can a buy a server that gets closer
to this and isn't too expensive, then I will. 

Buying preferently from vendors who behave more favorably to free
software, develop it or properly document its products is a secondary
goal. If I have to buy from other vendors then I'd rather buy second
hand, not that it is very useful, but at least I wouldn't directly
increase their sales figures.  Boot speed is nice to have but not
decisive and legacy compatibility or propietary software support is
unwanted (ok, I could live with it if it's a necessary side effect).
I'd like to use my computer with gNewSense or a similar 100% free
distribution and be confident that no third party can break into it or
decide what I can do with it (or at least that I keep trying by
patching any holes, or at least that the system is not designed for
remote control), but I want to access the internet with it.
If this is a tall order, then I just want to get as close to it as
possible.  I would like to buy and/or build a computer soon which is
as close as possible to someday reach that goal, maybe after some
more effort in software/firmware, or after hardware upgrades.

And of course I'm just a consumer, with no business plans about any of

I welcome any advice on this.

Thank you.

Xavi Drudis Ferran
xdrudis at tinet.cat

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