GTA04 Block V4

Wolfgang Spraul wolfgang at
Wed Aug 13 04:49:04 CEST 2008

should we change your job title to 'novelist' :-)
I think many people like the idea of the second ARM core.
If you have any chips in mind, can you add them to the 'Chip Scouting'  
section of MokoForesight?

On Aug 13, 2008, at 5:03 AM, Werner Almesberger wrote:

> Andy Green wrote:
>> This was actively rejected by folks in .tw last time this was live,  
>> but
>> I expect we get another chance when it comes up again.
> The brief history of this:
> - we started with the observation that we always ended up with bits
>  and pieces that needed discrete logic and/or board revisions, and
>  that could be solved quickly and/or more elegantly if we had a
>  separate MPU that runs in parallel to the main CPU or when the main
>  CPU doesn't.
>  In particular, PMU setup and various other power management issues
>  would be in this domain. We didn't have a specific "must have"
>  scenario, though, only the general observation that one will
>  certainly develop over time.
> - the search for a suitable MPU quickly centered on the TI MSP430
>  family, which are very low-power 16 bit microcontrollers.
> - since the general idea was to have the MPU ready to take care of
>  problems wherever they may pop up, a fairly large (and expensive)
>  chip from that family was chosen as the candidate.
>  It seems that we didn't communicate this concept properly, so the
>  MPU was considered by many as something that would also eat lots
>  of space and be really expensive in the final product.
> - in parallel, we also considered ways for simplifying and improving
>  our "unbrickability" concept. In GTA01, the only unbrickability
>  feature was the debug board. That debug board has had an enormous
>  cost on terms of engineering effort and it still isn't something
>  we'd consider "nice". A brief overview of the debug board story:
>  - the debugv2 design and prototype went quite smoothly, but then
>    we discovered stray EEPROM failures, which eventually (after
>    weeks ? months ?) were tracked down to overly large capacitors
>    causing the supply voltage to drop just at the wrong moment
>    during reset.
>  - the FPC is fragile and can break when bent
>  - the FPC connectors (both) break easily. Furthermore, they're
>    only rated for 10 insertions.
>  - the FPC often had problems fitting into the connectors, either
>    being too wide (so it wouldn't go in or only if forced) or too
>    narrow (so it would go in without a fight, but you had no idea
>    what kind of contacts it made).
>  - our FPC source dried up and we had to find a new one, with a
>    repeat performance (just worse) of the mechanical issues. You'd
>    think an FPC maker could make a cable that fits into a standard
>    connector in their sleep. Well, actually, perhaps that's what
>    they tried to do ...
>  - there are suspected signal integrity issues due to the long
>    unshielded cable as well
>  - it's a large piece of external circuitry, which can alter the
>    way the phone behaves electronically, thus limiting its use
>    when debugging hardware problems
>  - we then made a debugv3 board, fixing various minor issues and
>    the reset problem.
>  - for GTA02, we investigated into replacing the FPC connector
>    with something mechanically less dubious, but couldn't find any
>    solution we could trust to be reliable, buildable, and that
>    would fit into the existing case without causing new problems.
>  - there is talk of trying again to find a mechanically more sound
>    connector for the debug board in future devices.
>  - the debug board is full of bare contacts, eagerly waiting for
>    an opportunity to short or to pick up some surge. We considered
>    making a case in the debugv3 era, but abandoned the idea.
>  - we made another attempt to give the debug board a case earlier
>    this year, and this actually went to the point of having a
>    design proposal and a quote for manufacturing it, but this was
>    cancelled for schedule and cost reasons.
>  - besides all the problems with the implementation of the debug
>    board, the general design is quite unsuitable for a mobile
>    device. (One of the original ideas was that one could carry Neo
>    and debug board around as a package. Hence the USB downstream
>    ports.)
>  So the bottom line is that we have very much a love-hate
>  relationship with the debug board. It's undeniably useful, it
>  fits squarely with all we believe in regarding openness, but the
>  implementation is fraught with problems, and many of our attempts
>  to control them were abysmal failures.
>  To mitigate the debug board issues somewhat, we added the NOR in
>  GTA02, so that one could recover from mere software problems without
>  requiring a debug board. The NOR has its own set of issues, namely:
>  - it's designed to be "write-once" (at the factory, with regular
>    users not expected to change it, although they can with a debug
>    board or a bit of soldering skills) and it contains a complex
>    piece of software, namely u-boot.
>    This means that there's the risk that we'll fix bugs or need new
>    features (e.g., if we were to change the partitioning scheme),
>    which thus cannot be deployed.
>    This has actually happened already, but fortunately none of the
>    issues encountered so far were catastrophic.
>  - the NOR chip costs money and is hard to source
>  - it loads the memory bus, limiting our top speed for accessing
>    the RAM
>  - perhaps worst of all, it eats PCB space
>  For GTA03, we plan to drop the NOR and to basically use the whole
>  NAND just for booting, along with a more flexible write protection
>  mechanism. This will mitigate or solve all of the issues above,
>  but it also means that we have a major architectural constraint
>  and we still haven't solved the debug board problems when
>  debugging.
>  Since not everyone has a debug board and it's messy to attach, this
>  also limits our ability to obtain detailed bug reports from users
>  who wouldn't consider themselves kernel hackers.
>  Given all the problems with the debug board, we came up with the
>  idea of simply removing all the unnecessary parts and integrating
>  it into the phone.
>  This would solve almost all of the problems of the debug board and
>  it would also reduce the need for having a hardware-protected
>  alternate boot path for unbricking.
>  This idea went through two iterations and in the end we had it down
>  to just needing the FT2232 and a bit of glue logic. However, also
>  this drew flak:
>  - the FT2232 is fairly large, something our hardware team obviously
>    strongly resents
>  - we'd need another USB connector, which may confuse users, is
>    hated by design purists, and may also violate one of the more
>    obscure areas of USB OTG.
>  - the FT2232 isn't cheap either
>  So after some struggle, that idea was shot down as well.
> - during discussion about the microcontroller some discomfort was
>  felt about having another CPU architecture in our system, and in
>  particular one that's fairly exotic to most Linux hackers. The
>  suggestion was made to just add another ARM.
>  Now this may sound crazy, but in recent years, small ARM-based
>  systems have started to enter what was previously the domain of
>  small microcontroller, such as 8051, PIC, AVR, or MSP430. There
>  are still clear differences, for example in power consumption, but
>  they're no longer necessarily a big issue.
> - all that has been put aside for a while as more pressing issues in
>  GTA02 and the work towards GTA03 surfaced
> - meanwhile, we ran into new problems (regarding PMU bringup) which
>  confirmed our expectation that an MPU able to act independently
>  from the CPU would be something really useful to have. So there's
>  hope that we'll be able to defend the MPU better when the GTA04
>  discussion is opened again.
> - realizing that we had two very promising enhancements that would
>  also solve recurring nightmares that are as old as Openmoko itself,
>  which both were shut down for cost and space reasons, the idea came
>  up to actually combine the two, thus halving the perceived penalty.
>  In addition to this, it's tempting to also try to avoid complicating
>  our development environment, and make everything ARM.
> And this is what this ultimately is about: if we can have an MPU that
> has USB device functionality, it could act as a JTAG interface and
> serial console towards the CPU. Since we want to be able to also
> change the firmware of the MPU, it has to be unbrickable as well,
> which could be achieved by having a robust mechanism to download
> new firmware over USB.
> So far, we haven't found a solution that would be perfect, and there's
> still the possibility of having an MPU that only helps with low-level
> tasks, without getting involved with USB and such. But I'm hopeful
> that we'll get there, and that we can close the book on that series of
> engineering tragedies debug board and lack of MPU have already caused
> us.
> - Werner
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