The ultimate hacker computer? Overpriced prototype passed off as product? This is a sort of belated review after having spent nearly three years almost exclusively on a Raptor Computing Systems' Blackbird motherboard. It’s not all sugar plums and happy thoughts but I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate device for my design mission. It really is the most user respecting system I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way, the boards are very expensive right now. The price was on a downward trend before the manufactured crisis shutdown the world economy and it hasn’t recovered since. But for those who demand free and secure design, the cost may be justified. No other system on the market currently checks all the boxes for being both performant and open while enjoying a lineage of established software availability. Their closest RISC-V based competition are still launguishing in the territory of low-power single board computers.
The result of all this trouble is that you end up with a system which harbors no malfeatures lurking beneath some opaque veil. Unlike x86 platforms which all have CPU backdoors since at least 2013, if you find you don’t need remote administrative functionality on the Blackbird (or Talos II), simply do not connect to the NCSI bridged ethernet port 3. And if you do, it is all exclusively under your contol anyway.
Running an uncommon ISA forces one to broaden their knowledge about software and computing. I had found myself tweaking and compiling more programs from source than ever previously justified. Familiarizing oneself with chips on the PCB to manage their respective roles imparts a respect for the segmentation involved. And what becomes blindingly clear is that access to source code essentially dictates whether or not a software may be available on the platform. Even within GNU/Linux projects, there is such a pervasive expectation that end users will be running x86_64 that documentation gets tailored around it. Precompiled packages are often posted only in x86_64 with a side helping of aarch64. Libraries and dependencies used by other applications fail to account for minority achitectures. If you fly the POWER flag, you will end up employing some workarounds.
It comes with the added benefit of keeping everything on your device well within the freely licensed paradigm. Technocrat OSes like Windows literally cannot run on Raptor hardware because they simply aren’t compiled for ppc64(le). So as nice as it would be to promote such a solution to everyone, I cannot say that these POWER9 boards are appropriate for those who aren’t very proficient with GNU/Linux or with computers, more generally. But if you’re up for the challange, factor the above into your migration strategy.