Tag Archives: simplicity

Ultra-simple computing: Part 4

Gel processing

One problem with making computers with a lot of cores is the wiring. Another is the distribution of tasks among the cores. Both of these can be solved with relatively simple architecture. Processing chips usually have a lot of connectors, letting them get data in parallel. But a beam of light can contain rays of millions of wavelengths, far more parallelism than is possible with wiring. If chips communicated using light with high density wavelength division multiplexing, it will solve some wiring issues. Taking another simple step, processors that are freed from wiring don’t have to be on a circuit board, but could be suspended in some sort of gel. Then they could use free space interconnection to connect to many nearby chips. Line of sight availability will be much easier than on a circuit board. Gel can also be used to cool chips.

Simpler chips with very few wired connections also means less internal wiring too. This reduces size still further and permits higher density of suspension without compromising line of sight.

Ripple scheduler

Process scheduling can also be done more simply with many processors. Complex software algorithms are not needed. In an array of many processors, some would be idle while some are already engaged on tasks. When a job needs processed, a task request (this could be as simple as a short pulse of a certain frequency) would be broadcast and would propagate through the array. On encountering an idle processor, the idle processor would respond with an accept response (again this could be a single pulse of another frequency. This would also propagate out as a wave through the array. These two waves may arrive at a given processor in quick succession.

Other processors could stand down automatically once one has accepted the job (i.e. when they detect the acceptance wave). That would be appropriate when all processors are equally able. Alternatively, if processors have different capabilities, the requesting agent would pick a suitable one from the returning acceptances, send a point to point message to it, and send out a cancel broadcast wave to stand others down. It would exchange details about the task with this processor on a point to point link, avoiding swamping the system with unnecessary broadcast messages.  An idle processor in the array would thus see a request wave, followed by a number of accept waves. It may then receive a personalized point to point message with task information, or if it hasn’t been chosen, it would just see the cancel wave of . Busy processors would ignore all communications except those directed specifically to them.

I’m not saying the ripple scheduling is necessarily the best approach, just an example of a very simple system for process scheduling that doesn’t need sophisticated algorithms and code.

Activator Pastes

It is obvious that this kind of simple protocol can be used with a gel processing medium populated with a suitable mixture of different kinds of processors, sensors, storage, transmission and power devices to provide a fully scalable self-organizing array that can perform a high task load with very little administrative overhead. To make your smart gel, you might just choose the volume of weight ratios of components you want and stir them into a gel rather like mixing a cocktail. A paste made up in this way could be used to add sensing, processing and storage to any surface just by painting some of the paste onto it.

A highly sophisticated distributed cloud sensor network for example could be made just by painting dabs of paste onto lamp posts. Solar power or energy harvesting devices in the paste would power the sensors to make occasional readings, pre-process them, and send them off to the net. This approach would work well for environmental or structural monitoring, surveillance, even for everyday functions like adding parking meters to lines marking the spaces on the road where they interact with ID devices in the car or an app on the driver’s smartphone.

Special inks could contain a suspension of such particles and add a highly secure electronic signature onto one signed by pen and ink.

The tacky putty stuff that we use to stick paper to walls could use activator paste as the electronic storage and processing medium to let you manage  content an e-paper calendar or notice on a wall.

I can think of lots of ways of using smart pastes in health monitoring, packaging, smart makeup and so on. The basic principle stays the same though. It would be very cheap and yet very powerful, with many potential uses. Self-organising, and needs no set up beyond giving it a job to do, which could come from any of your devices. You’d probably buy it by the litre, keep some in the jar as your computer, and paste the rest of it all over the place to make your skin, your clothes, your work-spaces and your world smart. Works for me.



Ultra-simple computing part 3

Just in time v Just in case

Although the problem isn’t as bad now as it has been, a lot of software runs on your computers just in case it might be needed. Often it isn’t, and sometimes the PC is shut down or rebooted without it ever having been used. This wastes our time, wastes a little energy, and potentially adds functionality or weaknesses that can be exploited by hackers.

If it only loaded the essential pieces of software, risks would be minimised and initial delays reduced. There would be a slightly bigger delay once the code is needed because it would have to load then but since a lot of code is rarely used, the overall result would still be a big win. This would improve security and reliability. If all I am doing today is typing and checking occasional emails, a lot of the software currently loaded in my PC memory is not needed. I don’t even need a firewall running all the time if network access is disabled in between my email checks. If networking and firewall is started when I want to check email or start browsing, and then all network access is disabled after I have checked, then security would be a bit better. I also don’t need all the fancy facilities in Office when all I am doing is typing. I definitely don’t want any part of Office to use any kind of networking in either direction for any reason (I use Thunderbird, not Outlook for email). So don’t load the code yet; I don’t want it running; it only adds risks, not benefits. If I want to do something fancy in a few weeks time, load the code then. If I want to look up a word in a dictionary or check a hyperlink, I could launch a browser and copy and paste it. Why do anything until asked? Forget doing stuff just in case it might occasionally generate a tiny time saving. Just in time is far safer and better than just in case.

So, an ultra-simple computer should only load what is needed, when it is needed. It would only open communications when needed, and then only to the specific destination required. That frees up processors and memory, reduces risks and improves speed.

Software distribution

Storing software on hard disks or in memory lets the files be changed, possibly by a virus. Suppose instead that software were to be distributed on ROM chips. They can be very cheap, so why not? No apps, no downloads. All the software on your machine would be in read only memory, essentially part of the hardware. This would change a few things in computer design. First, you’d have a board with lots of nice slots in it, into which you plug the memory chips you’ve bought with the programs you want on them. (I’ll get to tablets and phones later, obviously a slightly different approach is needed for portable devices). Manufacturers would have a huge interest in checking their  code first, because they can’t put fixes out later except on replacement chips. Updating the software to a new version would simply mean inserting a new chip. Secondly, since the chips are read only, the software on them cannot be corrupted. There is no mechanism by which a virus or other malware could get onto the chip.

Apps could be distributed in collections – lifestyle or business collections. You could buy subscriptions to app agencies that issued regular chips with their baskets of apps on them. Or you could access apps online via the cloud. Your machine would stay clean.

It could go further. As well as memory chips, modules could include processing, controller or sensory capabilities. Main processing may still be in the main part of the computer but specialist capabilities could be added in this way.

So, what about tablets and phones? Obviously you can’t plug lots of extra chips into slots in those because it would be too cumbersome to make them with lots of slots to do so. One approach would be to use your PC or laptop to store and keep up to date a single storage chip that goes into your tablet or phone. It could use a re-programmable ROM that can’t be tampered with by your tablet. All your apps would live on it, but it would be made clean and fresh every day. Tablets could have a simple slot to insert that single chip, just as a few already do for extra memory.

Multi-layered security

If your computer is based on algorithms encoded on read only memory chips or better still, directly as hardware circuits, then it could boot from cold very fast, and would be clean of any malware. To be useful, it would need a decent amount of working memory too, and of course that could provide a short term residence for malware, but a restart would clean it all away. That provides a computer that can easily be reset to a clean state and work properly again right away.

Another layer of defense is to disallow programs access to things they don’t need. You don’t open every door and window in your home every time you want to go in or out. Why open every possible entrance that your office automation package might ever want to use just because you want to type an article? Why open the ability to remotely install or run programs on your computer without your knowledge and consent just because you want to read a news article or look at a cute kitten video? Yet we have accepted such appallingly bad practice from the web browser developers because we have had no choice. It seems that the developers’ desires to provide open windows to anyone that wants to use them outweighs the users’ desires for basic security common sense. So the next layer of defense is really pretty obvious. We want a browser that doesn’t open doors and windows until we explicitly tell it to, and even then it checks everything that tries to get through.

It may still be that you occasionally want to run software from a website, maybe to play a game. Another layer of defense that could help then is to restrict remote executables to a limited range of commands with limited scope. It is also easy additionally to arrange a sandbox where code can run but can’t influence anything outside the sandbox. For example, there is no reason a game would need to inspect files on your computer apart from stored games or game-related files. Creating a sandbox that can run a large range of agreed functions to enable games or other remote applications but is sealed from anything else on the computer would enable remote benign executables without compromising security. Even if they were less safe, confining activity to the sandbox allows the machine to be sterilized by sweeping that area and doesn’t necessitate a full reset. Even without the sandbox, knowing the full capability of the range of permitted commands enables damage limitation and precision cleaning. The range of commands should be created with the end user as priority, letting them do what they want with the lowest danger. It should not be created with application writers as top priority since that is where the security risk arises. Not all potential application writers are benign and many want to exploit or harm the end user for their own purposes. Everyone in IT really ought to know that and should never forget it for a minute and it really shouldn’t need to be said.

Ultra-simple computing: Part 2

Chip technology

My everyday PC uses an Intel Core-I7 3770 processor running at 3.4GHz. It has 4 cores running 8 threads on 1.4 billion 22nm transistors on just 160mm^2 of chip. It has an NVIDIA GeForce GTX660 graphics card, and has 16GB of main memory. It is OK most of the time, but although the processor and memory utilisation rarely gets above 30%, its response is often far from instant.

Let me compare it briefly with my (subjectively at time of ownership) best ever computer, my Macintosh 2Fx, RIP, which I got in 1991, the computer on which I first documented both the active contact lens and text messaging and on which I suppose I also started this project. The Mac 2Fx ran a 68030 processor at 40MHz, with 273,000 transistors and 4MB of RAM, and an 80MB hard drive. Every computer I’ve used since then has given me extra function at the expense of lower performance, wasted time and frustration.

Although its OS is stored on a 128GB solid state disk, my current PC takes several seconds longer to boot than my Macintosh Fx did – it went from cold to fully operational in 14 seconds – yes, I timed it. On my PC today, clicking a browser icon to first page usually takes a few seconds. Clicking on a word document back then took a couple of seconds to open. It still does now. Both computers gave real time response to typing and both featured occasional unexplained delays. I didn’t have any need for a firewall or virus checkers back then, but now I run tedious maintenance routines a few times every week. (The only virus I had before 2000 was nVir, which came on the Mac2 system disks). I still don’t get many viruses, but the significant time I spend avoiding them has to be counted too.

Going back further still, to my first ever computer in 1981, it was an Apple 2, and only had 9000 transistors running at 2.5MHz, with a piddling 32kB of memory. The OS was tiny. Nevertheless, on it I wrote my own spreadsheet, graphics programs, lens design programs, and an assortment of missile, aerodynamic and electromagnetic simulations. Using the same transistors as the I7, you could make 1000 of these in a single square millimetre!

Of course some things are better now. My PC has amazing graphics and image processing capabilities, though I rarely make full use of them. My PC allows me to browse the net (and see video ads). If I don’t mind telling Google who I am I can also watch videos on YouTube, or I could tell the BBC or some other video provider who I am and watch theirs. I could theoretically play quite sophisticated computer games, but it is my work machine, so I don’t. I do use it as a music player or to show photos. But mostly, I use it to write, just like my Apple 2 and my Mac Fx. Subjectively, it is about the same speed for those tasks. Graphics and video are the main things that differ.

I’m not suggesting going back to an Apple 2 or even an Fx. However, using I7 chip tech, a 9000 transistor processor running 1360 times faster and taking up 1/1000th of a square millimetre would still let me write documents and simulations, but would be blazingly fast compared to my old Apple 2. I could fit another 150,000 of them on the same chip space as the I7. Or I could have 5128 Mac Fxs running at 85 times normal speed. Or you could have something like a Mac FX running 85 times faster than the original for a tiny fraction of the price. There are certainly a few promising trees in the forest that nobody seems to have barked up. As an interesting aside, that 22nm tech Apple 2 chip would only be ten times bigger than a skin cell, probably less now, since my PC is already several months old

At the very least, that really begs the question what all this extra processing is needed for and why there is still ever any noticeable delay doing anything in spite of it. Each of those earlier machines was perfectly adequate for everyday tasks such as typing or spreadsheeting. All the extra speed has an impact only on some things and most is being wasted by poor code. Some of the delays we had 20 and 30 years ago still affect us just as badly today.

The main point though is that if you can make thousands of processors on a standard sized chip, you don’t have to run multitasking. Each task could have a processor all to itself.

The operating system currently runs programs to check all the processes that need attention, determine their priorities, schedule processing for them, and copy their data in and out of memory. That is not needed if each process can have its own dedicated processor and memory all the time. There are lots of ways of using basic physics to allocate processes to processors, relying on basic statistics to ensure that collisions rarely occur. No code is needed at all.

An ultra-simple computer could therefore have a large pool of powerful, free processors, each with their own memory, allocated on demand using simple physical processes. (I will describe a few options for the basic physics processes later). With no competition for memory or processing, a lot of delays would be eliminated too.

Ultra-simple computing: Part 1


This is first part of a techie series. If you aren’t interested in computing, move along, nothing here. It is a big topic so I will cover it in several manageable parts.

Like many people, I spent a good few hours changing passwords after the Heartbleed problem and then again after ebay’s screw-up. It is a futile task in some ways because passwords are no longer a secure defense anyway. A decent hacker with a decent computer can crack hundreds of passwords in an hour, so unless an account is locked after a few failed attempts, and many aren’t, passwords only manage to keep out casual observers and the most amateurish hackers.

The need for simplicity

A lot of problems are caused by the complexity of today’s software, making it impossible to find every error and hole. Weaknesses have been added to operating systems, office automation tools and browsers to increase functionality for only a few users, even though they add little to most of us most of the time. I don’t think I have ever executed a macro in Microsoft office for example and I’ve certainly never used print merge or many its other publishing and formatting features. I was perfectly happy with Word 93 and most things added since then (apart from the real time spelling and grammar checker) have added irrelevant and worthless features at the expense of safety. I can see very little user advantage of allowing pop-ups on web sites, or tracking cookies. Their primary purpose is to learn about us to make marketing more precise. I can see why they want that, but I can’t see why I should. Users generally want pull marketing, not push, and pull doesn’t need cookies, there are better ways of sending your standard data when needed if that’s what you want to do. There are many better ways of automating logons to regular sites if that is needed.

In a world where more of the people who wish us harm are online it is time to design an alternative platform which it is designed specifically to be secure from the start and no features are added that allow remote access or control without deliberate explicit permission. It can be done. A machine with a strictly limited set of commands and access can be made secure and can even be networked safely. We may have to sacrifice a few bells and whistles, but I don’t think we will need to sacrifice many that we actually want or need. It may be less easy to track us and advertise at us or to offer remote machine analysis tools, but I can live with that and you can too. Almost all the services we genuinely want can still be provided. You could still browse the net, still buy stuff, still play games with others, and socialize. But you wouldn’t be able to install or run code on someone else’s machine without their explicit knowledge. Every time you turn the machine on, it would be squeaky clean. That’s already a security benefit.

I call it ultra-simple computing. It is based on the principle that simplicity and a limited command set makes it easy to understand and easy to secure. That basic physics and logic is more reliable than severely bloated code. That enough is enough, and more than that is too much.

We’ve been barking up the wrong trees

There are a few things you take for granted in your IT that needn’t be so.

Your PC has an extremely large operating system. So does your tablet, your phone, games console… That isn’t really necessary. It wasn’t always the case and it doesn’t have to be the case tomorrow.

Your operating system still assumes that your PC has only a few processing cores and has to allocate priorities and run-time on those cores for each process. That isn’t necessary.

Although you probably use some software in the cloud, you probably also download a lot of software off the net or install from a CD or DVD. That isn’t necessary.

You access the net via an ISP. That isn’t necessary. Almost unavoidable at present, but only due to bad group-think. Really, it isn’t necessary.

You store data and executable code in the same memory and therefore have to run analysis tools that check all the data in case some is executable. That isn’t necessary.

You run virus checkers and firewalls to prevent unauthorized code execution or remote access. That isn’t necessary.

Overall, we live with an IT system that is severely unfit for purpose. It is dangerous, bloated, inefficient, excessively resource and energy intensive, extremely fragile and yet vulnerable to attack via many routes, designed with the user as a lower priority than suppliers, with the philosophy of functionality at any price. The good news is that it can be replaced by one that is absolutely fit for purpose, secure, invulnerable, cheap and reliable, resource-efficient, and works just fine. Even better, it could be extremely cheap so you could have both and live as risky an online life in those areas that don’t really matter, knowing you have a safe platform to fall back on when your risky system fails or when you want to do anything that involves your money or private data.