AArch64 desktop hardware?

Soon there will be four years since I started working on AArch64 architecture. Lot of software things changed during that time. Lot in a hardware too. But machines availability still sucks badly.

In 2012 all we had was software model. It was slow, terribly slow. Common joke was AArch64 developers standing in a queue for 10GHz x86-64 cpus. So I was generating working binaries by using cross compilation. But many distributions only do native builds. In models. Imagine Qt4 building for 3-4 days…

In 2013 I got access to first server hardware. With first silicon version of CPU. Highly unstable, we could use just one core etc. GCC was crashing like hell but we managed to get stable build results from it. Qt4 was building in few hours now.

Then amount of hardware at Red Hat was growing and growing. Farms of APM Mustangs, AMD Seattle and several other servers appeared, got racked and available to use. In 2014 one Mustang even landed on my desk (as first such machine in Poland).

But this was server land. Each of those machines costed about 1000 USD (if not more). And availability was hard too.

Linaro tried to do something about it and created 96boards project.

First came ‘Consumer Edition’ range. Yet another small form factor boards with functionality stripped as much as possible. No Ethernet, no storage other than emmc/usb, low amount of memory, chips taken from mobile phones etc. But it was selling! But only because people were hungry to get ANYTHING with AArch64 cores. First was HiKey then DragonBoard410 got released. Then few other boards. All with same set of issues: non-mainline kernel, weird bootloaders, binary blobs for this or that…

Then so called ‘Enterprise Edition’ got announced. With another ridiculous form factor (and microATX as an option). And that was it. There was a leak of Husky board which shown how fucked up design it was. Ports all around the edges, memory above and under board and of course incompatible with any industrial form factor. I would like to know what they were smoking…

Time passed by. Husky got forgotten for another year. Then Cello was announced as a “new EE 96boards board” while it looked as redesigned Husky with two SATA ports less (because who needs more than two SATA, right?). Last time I heard about Cello it was still ‘maybe soon, maybe another two weeks’. Prototypes looked like hand soldered, USB controller mounted rotated, dead on-board Ethernet etc.

In meantime we got few devices from other companies. Pine64 had big campaign on Kickstarter and shipped to developers. Hardkernel started selling ODROID-C2, Geekbox released their TV box and probably something else got released as well. But all those boards were limited to 1-2GB of memory, often lacked SATA and used mobile processors with their own set of bootloaders etc causing extra work for distributions.

Overdrive 1000 was announced. Without any options for expansion it looked like SoftIron wanted customers to buy Overdrive 3000 if they want to use PCI Express card.

So we have 2016 now. Four years of my work on AArch64 passed. Most of distributions support this architecture by building on proper servers but most of this effort is not used because developers do not have sane hardware to play with (sane means expandable, supported by distributions, capable).

There is no standard form factor mainboards (mini-itx, microATX, ATX) available on mass market. 96boards failed here, server vendors are not interested, small Chinese companies prefer to release yet-another-fruit/Pi with mobile processor. Nothing, null, nada, nic.

Developers know where to buy normal computer cases, storage, memory, graphics cards, USB controllers, SATA controllers and peripherals. So vendors do not have to worry/deal with this part. But still there is nothing to put those cards into. No mainboards which can be mounted into normal PC case, have some graphics plugged in, few SSD/HDD connected, mouse/keyboard, monitors and just be used.

Sometimes it is really hard to convince software developers to make changes for platform they are unable to test on. And current hardware situation does not help. All those projects of hardware being available “in a cloud” helps only for subset of projects — ever tried to run GNOME/KDE session over the network? With OpenGL acceleration etc?

So where is my AArch64 workstation? In desktop or laptop form.

Post written after my Google+ post where similar discussion happened in comments.