Home > Amiga, Gaming, Life, Raspberry PI > The case for Raspberry PI, FPGA and AmigaOS 4.1

The case for Raspberry PI, FPGA and AmigaOS 4.1

September 10, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

First, thanks for so many good comments on the whole Amiga retro-emulation concepts. I think there is a sort of resurgence today of the whole retro gear thing. On Facebook the Amiga forums and groups are growing, and there is really a sense of community there. Something I havent experienced with the Amiga for well over a decade (or was it two?).

To those that grew up without an Amiga we “old timers” must seem nuts. But that is to be expected by generations growing up with 24/7 internet connections. I’m not dizzing young programmers in any way, absolutely not; but I will make a case that you are missing out on something very valuable in terms of learning and evolving your skill.

“It’s just that it’s based on pre-existing hardware, not an imaginary instruction-set that
assaults the stack while raping the instruction cache”

The term “personal computer” (PC) doesnt really have any meaning today. I see that with my son as well. He has no personal relationship with his computer at all. The computer is a means to an end for him and his friends – a portal if you like, to the reality on the internet. Be it steam, Photoshop express, chatting or whatever. Young coders sort of have a split reality, where their friends online that they have never meet plays a bigger role in their lives than, well, their best friend across the street.

Classic Amiga Workbench

Classic Amiga Workbench running under Amibian

People who grew up without the internet had only their computer to deal with. It was the center of music, demos, games and creativity. Be it coding, graphics, sound or whatever was the interest. The result was naturally that you created bonds to that computer that, to other people, could seem odd or silly. But the phrase “personal computer” is not just a throwback to the time when you no longer needed a campus mainframe or terminal. It also hints to a more personal approach to technology. Which is easy to forget in an age where you switch mobile phones once a year, and the average phone has more computing power than was on the planet in the 1970’s.

Amiga emulation; why it’s a good thing

If we forget the visual aspects of the grey “classical” Amiga OS for a moment and put the looks on the backburner — why on earth should a modern programmer or computing enthusiast even consider Amiga OS? What could a 30-year-old tech bring to a modern world of high-powered CPU and GPU driven monsters?

In a word: efficiency.

AmigaOS thrives with just one megabyte of memory. Stop and think about that for a moment. The core operating system itself resides in a 512kb (half a megabyte) ROM – and the rest fits nicely on a couple of 720kb disks. So if we say that a full desktop experience can fit in 4-5 megabytes (if we include the programs, accessories and extras), what does that tell you?

It should tell you something about how the code is written. But secondly it should tell you about how we write code today (!)

“You think Linux is a fast and efficient operating system? You don’t have a clue”

An average Microsoft Windows installation is what? 16 gigabytes? You can probably trim it down to 8 gigabytes by removing services, graphics and drivers you don’t use. There is also a huge difference in the size of executables and the amount of information stored in the binaries — but ultimately it comes down to a shift in mindset that occurred back in the late 90’s: rather than forcing coders to write efficient programs, the emphasis was placed on the hardware to deliver enough power to run crap and bloated code.

Now being a programmer myself I have no illusions that if AmigaOS, this time the modern and latest 4.x version, was ever re-compiled for x86 it would naturally result in bigger binaries. Depending on the amount of drivers, you would probably end up with at least 512 megabytes to 1 gigabyte of software. Add presentation and media to that and we are quickly breaching the 1.5 to 2 gigabyte boundary. But that in itself would be revolutionary compared to the size of Ubuntu or Windows. Yet the core of the operating system is so small that many young developers find it hard to believe.

And yes I know the Linux kernel and base packages can be squeezed down. But in all honesty, Amiga has much more interesting system. Some of the stuff you can do with shell scripting and Arexx on the Amiga, the lack of cryptic complexity, the ease of use and control you as an end-user had; im sorry but Linux is anything but user-friendly.

Why Raspberry PI

By any modern measure, the Raspberry PI is an embedded board at best, and a toy at worst. It exists there between the cusps of single-function boards and a modern computer. But is it really that bad? Actually, its bloody smashing. It’s just that people havent really been able to run anything written specifically for it yet.

Amibian, a debian based distro that boots straight into UAE (Unix Amiga emulator) and runs classical 16/32 bit Amiga OS, presently performs at 3.2 times the speed if an Amiga 4000\o60. So for $35 you will own the most powerful Amiga ever devised. If you take it one step further and overclock the PI (and add a heat-sink so you don’t burn out the SoC) it emulates the Amiga operating system roughly 4 times the speed of the flagship high-end Amiga of the late 90’s and early 2k’s. You also get 32bit graphics, HDMI output, USB device access through the Linux sub-layer, built-in tcp/ip (and WiFi built-in on the model 3b). And naturally: a hell of a lot more ram than the Amiga even needs (!)

Not exactly technologically impaired

AmigaOS 4, not exactly technologically impaired

Now remember, this is emulated on 68k instruction level (!) It is practically the same as running Java or CLR bytecodes (!) Which is a good parallell. People ask me why i bother with 68k; My reply is: why the hell do you bother with Java bytecodes if you don’t have a clue what a virtual machine is! An emulator is a virtual machine in the true sense of the phrase. It’s just that it’s based on pre-existing hardware, not an imaginary instruction-set that assaults the stack while raping the instruction cache (yeah I’m looking at you Java!).

Imagine then for a second what the situation would be if Amiga OS was compiled for Arm, running natively on the Raspberry PI with direct access to everything. You think Linux is a fast and efficient operating system? You don’t have a clue.

I mean, the PI was initially created to deliver cheap computing power to schools and educational centers, not to mention third-world countries. It made big waves as it blew the ridicules “$100 one PC per child” campagne out of the water (which was more an insult to the poor living in Africa than anything resembling help). Yet at the end of the day – what do these third world countries have to work with? Raspbian and Ubuntu are usable, but only superficially.

Try compiling something on the PI with a modern compiler. What would take less than a second to compile under Amiga OS can take up to 45 minutes to build under Linux on that SoC. If a kid in Africa starts learning C++ with Linux on a PI, he will be 59 years old before he can even apply for a job.

AmigaOS 4 is a sexy desktop

AmigaOS 4 is a sexy desktop

If AmigaOS 4 was ever compiled and setup to match the SoC firmware (which is also a benefit about the PI, the hardware is fixed and very few drivers would have to be made), it would revolutionize computing from the ground up. And I think people would be amazed at just how fast programs can be,when written to be efficient – rather than the onslaught of bloat coming out of Redmond (not to mention Ubuntu which is becoming more and more useless).

The benefit for Hyperion Entertainment, which has done a phenomenal job in upgrading AmigaOS to the modern age, are many:

  • Increased sales of the operating system
  • Sale of merchandize surrounding the AmigaOS brand
  • Sale of SDK and associated development tools
  • The establishment of a codebase for OS 4 that is modern

If we take it one step further and look at what would be the next natural step:

  • Team up with case producers to deliver a more “normal size” case for the PI with keyboard
  • Team up with Cloanto to ship the old ROM files for the built-in 68k emulation layer

The point of all this? To build up money. Enough money for Amiga Inc, Commodore or Hyperion to buy time. Time enough for the codebase to grow and become relevant in the marketplace. Once established, to further sale of a dedicated Amiga HW platform (preferably ARM or X86) and secure the investment the owners have made over the years.

FPGA, the beast of xmas future

FPGA (field programmable gate array) is the future. I don’t care how proud you are of your Intel i7 processor (I have a couple of those myself). Mark my words: 20 years from now you will be blazing behind your FPGA based computer. And I have no doubt that games and applications will adapt the hardware to their needs – with possibilities we can’t even dream about today; let alone define.

mist

Mist. A low-cost FPGA computer capable of becoming an Amiga (and about 10 other platforms). The closest thing to new Amiga hardware to be created in 20 years.

Todays processors are fixed. They have a fixed architecture that is written silicon and copper. Once cooked they cannot be altered in any way. Nanotubes is just about to drop, but again the nature of fixed systems – is that they cannot be altered once cooked.

FPGA however is based on gate logic. Which means (simply put) that the relations that make up the internal architecture is fluid, like a million doors that can be opened or closed to create all manner of living space. In many ways its like a virus, capable of absorbing existing blueprints and becoming “that blueprint”. If we dip into sci-fi for a moment this is the computer variation of a xenomorph, a shape shifter. A creature that can adapt and alter itself to become any other thing.

As of writing this tech is in its infancy. It’s just getting out there and the prices and speed of these spectacular devices bears witness to its age and cost of production. If you want a FPGA with some kick in it, you better be prepared to take out a second mortgage your house.

vampire2

The Vampire 2 accelerator for Amiga 600. This takes over and gives the Amiga so much power that it can play movies, modern music and 3d games faster than ever imagined. At the same time! In fact, I bought an A600 just to get this!

One of the cool things about this hardware is how it’s being used today. One of the first hardware platforms to be devised for FPGA was (drumroll) the Amiga. And you have to understand that we are not talking just the 68k cpu here – but the whole bloody thing: paula, agnus, deniese, fat agnus and the whole crew of chips that made the Amiga so popular in the first place. All of it coded in gate-logic and uploaded to a cpu that with a flick of a switch can turn right around and become an x86 pc, a PPC Mac, a Commodore 64, a Nintendo 64 or whatever tickles your fancy.

Lets stop and think about this.

Today we use virtual machines to mimic or translate bytecode (or pre-existing cpu instructions). We call these solutions by many names: virtual machine, emulator, runtime – but its all the same really. Even if you slap a JIT (just in time compilation) into the mix, which is the case of both emulators, Java and .NET compilers — it still boils down to running an imaginary (or pre-defined) platform under the umbrella of a fixed piece of kit.

Now what do you think would be the next logical step in that evolution?

The answer is naturally being able to sculpt virtual machines in hardware (read: fixed hardware that gives you a non-fixed field). Fixed processors is a costly process. Yet primitive when we really look at it. We may have shrunk the brilliance of the 1800’s and early 1900’s and made all the great inventions of the past fit on the head of a pin — but its all based on the same stuff: physical implementation. Someone has to sit there with a microscope and hammer the damn circuits out (although “hammer” is maybe the wrong word on particle level).

This is also the problem with western culture: the use and throw away mentality that creates mountains of technological garbage – and powers child labour and sickness beyond belief in poor parts of the world. You have six years old kids that work with melting out copper and quicksilver. A waste of life, tech and nature. So yeah, a bit of morality in this as well.

FPGA represents, really, the first actual breakthrough and paradigm shift since the invention of the first electric circuit. For the first time in history a medium has been created that is not fixed. It has to be created of course, and it’s not like its wet-wire technology or anything — but for the first time anyone with the skill to code the gates, can shape and adapt the hardware without the need to cook the chips first.

And they can be infinitely re-used, which is good for both people and nature.

Think about it.. then go “holy cow”.

And that my friend – is the thought of the day!

 

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  1. September 10, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    FPGA comes indeed from the 80s, and there are plenty of Verilog files, some even OpenSource, to implement any processor, from Z80, 68k, 8086, RISC, MIPS…

  2. November 4, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    When I tell my coworkers that my desktop OS (with all bells and whistles) only takes up 3.5MB of disk space.. ha! Hoping Santa brings me an FPGA kit this xmas..

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