IT Support and Hardware for Clinics
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IT Support and Hardware for Clinics
News, Information and Updates on Hardware and IT Tools to help improve your Medical practice
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Intel looking to boost horsepower on server chips with ASIC integration

Intel looking to boost horsepower on server chips with ASIC integration | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

Intel is expanding its custom server chip program by integrating a special processing unit that could speed up specific applications in cloud computing environments.

The chip maker said it will integrate ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) in future Xeon chips, which will speed up cloud, security and big data applications. The ASIC designs will be provided by eASIC, a fabless semiconductor company based in Santa Clara, California.

Intel declined to comment on the type of ASICs being integrated, or when they will be integrated in Xeon chips. But the integrated ASICs will be reprogrammable, and customers will be able to add more flexibility to their servers to handle specific types of tasks.

ASICs could play a key role in hardware acceleration in areas like big data, sorting, searching and pattern matching, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. The algorithms tied to specific computing tasks need to be programmed into ASICs, he said.

ASICs could also address challenges with security in the cloud through hardware-based encryption and decryption, Brookwood said.

Intel is already designing custom server chips with different types of I/O, memory and storage controllers. Intel is planning to also integrate FPGA (field-programmable gate array) reprogrammable circuits in its server chips. ASICs will be more power-efficient at specific tasks than traditional FPGAs, Intel said.

Many ASICs are hardwired to run specific tasks, but can be reprogrammed, depending on design parameters, Brookwood said. The FPGA approach is much more programmable, but it’s not as power-efficient as a hardwired ASIC, he said.

Intel has been integrating FPGAs alongside its CPUs in some chipsets for years. Intel is rumored to also be looking to acquire FPGA maker Altera in a bid to expand its chip offerings.

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Obama to sign executive order on cybersecurity info-sharing

Obama to sign executive order on cybersecurity info-sharing | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

President Obama on Friday plans to sign an executive order to promote sharing of information on cybersecurity threats among businesses and between the private sector and government agencies.

The executive order is meant to establish a framework to help those private and public entities quickly identify and protect against online threats by malicious hackers, including those in the employ of criminal organizations or foreign nations.

Companies that have committed themselves to that framework include Apple, Intel, Bank of America and Pacific Gas & Electric.

On Friday, the president will be at Stanford University for a summit on cybersecurity hosted by the White House that will bring together senior leaders in the government and CEOs from the financial, tech and computer-security industries.

Cybersecurity has come front and center for the administration. During his State of the Union address in January, for instance, the president proposed adding $14 billion to the 2016 budget to better protect government and corporate computer systems from hackers. He has also pushed for Congress to pass legislation to help shore up cybersecurity in the US.

And for good reason. Hacks on private businesses and government offices seemed rampant throughout 2014, with little reason to hope those attacks will abate in the coming year and beyond. Last month, the latest banner-headline incident involved the insurance provider Anthem, which revealed that hackers had broken into its computer systems and accessed the personal data of 80 million people. That followed from massive incursions at retailers Target and Home Depot and banking firm JP Morgan.

To even greater notoriety, hackers last November breached the computer network at Sony Pictures, spilling details of the inner workings of Hollywood studios and leading the way to an international incident over the comedy "The Interview." President Obama has pointed to North Korea as the likely culprit behind that cyber break-in.

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We're One Step Closer to Blazingly Fast Computer Chips Made of Silicene

We're One Step Closer to Blazingly Fast Computer Chips Made of Silicene | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

Move over graphene, today is silicene's day to shine. Silicene is a single-atom thick layer of silicon, whose theoretical properties could have exciting applications in computer chips. Now, scientists have made the first silicene transistor, and guess what, it's amazingly fast.

Graphene and silicene are both single-atom thick materials (though graphene is made of carbon), whose structure allows electrons to zip through them at crazy speeds. Computer chips are already made of silicon, though, so it stands to reason that silicene could be easier to integrate.

Deji Akinwande of the University of Texas Austin found a way to make transistors out of silicene, a tricky procedure because silicene is an unstable material. Technology Review explains:

Once silicene is made, its instability means it must be protected, and that makes it difficult to work with. Akinwande found a way around this problem by growing silicene on a thin film of silver capped with aluminum oxide. The whole thing is then peeled off, and then placed on a silicon dioxide wafer with the silver side up. Finally, the silver is patterned to make the electrical contacts for a transistor. Once the device is finished, it is stable under vacuum conditions.

This is an exciting advance for silicene, but it's still far from coming to a computer near you. Computer chips are made up of millions of transistors, and silicene is still pretty darn hard (and expensive!) to make. Silicene may be not practical yet, but these transistors just proved its potential is not entirely theoretical either.

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Intel teams with Luxottica to make smart eyewear fashionable

Intel teams with Luxottica to make smart eyewear fashionable | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

In case it wasn't already clear that Intel believes wearable tech should be stylish, the company has just forged a multi-year partnership with the glasses gurus at the Luxottica Group. The two will collaborate on smart eyewear that you'd actually like to put on your face; it's not happy with the current, overly utilitarian (read: ugly) approach to heads-up displays. They aren't talking specifics, but the aim is to make "premium, luxury and sports" glasses with a dash of intelligence. You won't have to wait long to see the first fruits of this relationship, at least, since the duo expects a product in 2015. Between this and talk of Intel-powered Google Glass, it's clear that the chip maker wants a prominent spot on your cranium -- it's determined to take wearables seriously and avoid missing the boat, like it did with smartphones.

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Intel's PC-on-a-stick dongle now available for preorder

Intel's PC-on-a-stick dongle now available for preorder | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

The Intel Compute Stick, a dongle that plugs into an HDMI port to deliver full computing capability, is now available for preorder.

Newegg is offering preorders of the Compute Stick with a release date of April 24. (Update at 11:11 a.m. PT: now showing out of stock on both with estimated arrival on May 1). The Windows version costs $150 and the Linus version costs $110. Amazon also shows listings for the Windows and Linux versions, but with no pricing or availability information.

Intel unveiled details on the Compute Stick at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The device is a slim HDMI dongle that connects to a monitor via HDMI. It has an Intel Atom quad-core processor, 2GB of onboard RAM, and 32GB of storage.

When Intel showed off the Compute Stick at CES, the company said the Windows 8.1 model would retail for $149. The Linux flavor would retail for $89, it said.

Getting the Compute Stick up and running won't take much. The device is simply plugged into a monitor's HDMI port and turned on. Once it boots up, the owner's operating system of choice is running and with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, the device can provide a full computing experience. The Compute Stick is by no means a competitor to a desktop or laptop, but rather an option for people who are on the move and want a quick way to get some work done.

The Compute Stick is also a competitor to the Asus Chromebit announced last week. Like the Compute Stick, the Asus Chromebit connects to an HDMI monitor and with help from Bluetooth, provides a full computing experience. However, the Chromebit is running on Google's Chrome operating system, rather than the Windows and Linux options available on the Compute Stick. Chromebit is slated to launch this summer for under $100.

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How Intel and PC makers prevent you from modifying your PC's firmware

How Intel and PC makers prevent you from modifying your PC's firmware | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

Even if you’re rocking the most open of open-source operating systems, chances are your laptop isn't really that "free," betrayed by closed firmware binaries lurking deep within the hardware itself.

Modern UEFI firmware is a closed-source, proprietary blob of software baked into your PC’s hardware. This binary blob even includes remote management and monitoring features, which make it a potential security and privacy threat.

You might want to replace the UEFI firmware and get complete control over your PC’s hardware with Coreboot, a free software BIOS alternative—but you can’t in PCs with modern Intel processors, thanks to Intel’s Boot Guard and the “Verified Boot” mode PC manufacturers choose.

Why Coreboot won’t support your new laptop

Coreboot was originally known as LinuxBIOS. It’s a Free Software Foundation-endorsed project working on replacing the proprietary UEFI firmware and BIOS found in typical computers. Coreboot is designed to be lightweight and only provide the necessary functions so the computer can initialize its hardware and boot an operating system. This isn’t just some fringe free software project—all modern Chromebooks ship with Coreboot, and Google helps support it.

When someone recently asked whether Coreboot would support new Intel Broadwell ThinkPads on the mailing list, the response was informative:

“New thinkpad's can't be used anymore for coreboot. Especially the U and Y Intel CPU Series. They come with Intel Boot Guard and you are won't be able to boot anything which is unsigned and not approved by OEM. This means the OEM are fusing SHA256 public key hashes into the southbridge.

For more details take a look at Intel Boot Guard architecture. It could be also confirmed by Secunet AG and Google.”

Intel Boot Guard explained

Intel themselves have a quick little explanation of Boot Guard in this document about Haswell’s new platform features. In summary, Boot Guard is a hardware-based technology designed to prevent malware and other unauthorized software from replacing or tampering with the low-level UEFI firmware.

Boot Guard has two separate modes, according to Intel. Every single PC OEM we know of configures it to work in “Verified Boot” mode. The PC manufacturer fuses their public key into the hardware itself. If the UEFI firmware isn’t signed by the OEM—that is, created by the OEM—the computer will halt and refuse to boot. That’s why you can’t modify the UEFI firmware or change it to something else.

There’s also a second option: “Measured Boot” mode, where the hardware securely stores information about the boot process in a trusted platform module (TPM) or Intel Platform Trust Technology (PTT). The operating system could then examine this information, and—if there was a problem—present an error to the user.

As Purism recently discovered, laptop makers can choose to have their hardware boot without looking for a digital firmware signature at all. The fusing of the processors can be set by the motherboard manufacturer to simply bypass the check. Purism's crowdfunded Librem 15 laptop will ship with a modern Intel CPU fused to run unsigned BIOS code.

In other words, Intel and Boot Guard don’t absolutely require hardware manufacturers to lock the computer to only using manufacturer-signed firmware, but every major PC maker does anyway.

Want to stay up-to-date on Linux, BSD, Chrome OS, and the rest of the World Beyond Windows? Bookmark the World Beyond Windows column page or follow our RSS feed.

It’s all a big conspiracy, right? Not exactly

It can be tempting to see this as a big conspiracy. These big corporations—Intel and hardware manufacturers—are preventing us from running the software we want to run on our own computers, as if we were using some underpowered, locked-down Surface RT instead of a powerful PC we’re supposed to have control of.

And sure, that’s true, but Boot Guard does help secure the UEFI firmware and protect against malware that infects the boot process. Intel and PC OEMs aren’t out to crush free software and prevent open hardware. The truth is more mundane—Intel and hardware manufacturers prioritize tighter security for the masses over the proprietary firmware concerns of a few. 

But, to their credit, Intel does allow PC manufacturers to configure the hardware in a different way. The real way to get that open hardware seems to be to build it from scratch and make the right decisions along the way, as Purism is trying to do. If you want this sort of open hardware, be prepared to vote with your wallet. Taking existing PC laptops and trying to bend them into open hardware—as Gluglug does with the Free Software Foundation-endorsed Libreboot—doesn’t seem to be an option anymore.

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New Intel graphics driver adds 4K video support, Chrome video acceleration and more

New Intel graphics driver adds 4K video support, Chrome video acceleration and more | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

Intel has released a new graphics driver package that promises to boost 4K video playback and playing videos using Chrome. It also is the first driver to support the 5th-generation Intel Core chips, known as Broadwell.

Version is important for just about everyone, because it impacts both the 4th-gen Core chips, known as Haswell, and the new 5th-gen Core chips, including the new Core M. (You can download the 32-bit version from Intel’s site, as well as the 64-bit version.) Windows 7, Windows 8.0, and Windows 8.1 are all supported.

According to Intel, the benefits of updating to this driver include the addition of partial hardware acceleration of the VP9 video format, used in Chrome video playback and Google Hangouts; GPU-accelerated decoding of the HEVC video format (for 4K Ultra HD video playback); as well as expanded Open CL and Open GL extension support. 

The driver is also the first to support the Intel HD Graphics 5500, HD Graphics 6000, and Iris Graphics 6100 graphics cores, which will roll out as part of the Broadwell generation. Intel previously said that Broadwell notebooks should enjoy about 90 extra minutes of battery life compared to a similar 4th-gen Haswell Core chip, with 22-percent faster integrated graphics and 50-percent faster video conversion—although it’s not quite clear whether that was supposed to come about before the driver release, or after it. 

Intel has also said that a new Core i7-5600U Broadwell chip with an Intel Graphics 5500 GPU would be 22 percent faster than a Haswell-based Core i7-4600U with an Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU, running the 3DMark IceStorm 1.2 benchmark. Business travelers should benefit from an additional 90 minutes of HD video playback, from about 7.2 to 8.7 hours, Intel said. (For a complete breakdown of the new Broadwell chips, see our previous story.)

The release notes for the new driver package also note that the updated software fixes issues in several popular games, as well as a bug where the screen occasionally froze while using Skype.

Why this matters: New graphics drivers generally add performance and features at no penalty—especially if they’re part of the driver's 'stable' (tested, rather than beta) release, as these are. Millions of PCs have a Haswell chip inside, too. Your PC will probably eventually download the drivers by itself, but if you want an early jump on things, hit the download links above. `

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