Dell OptiPlex 7010 / 9010 is the majority of machines used in 3mdeb office by the engineers and developers. It is only natural for a company promoting open source firmware (OSFW) to utilize their own product in daily work. The process of porting coreboot on the machine took significant amount of free time (which you may read about in other blog posts by the way) but it was definitely worth it. It opened a path for developing a firmware that would squeeze out the full potential of the platform. You may be wondering what else a platform may do that OEM didn’t implement. But I will tell you this, with open source firmware almost anything is possible and with Dasharo firmware we make it a reality.
Intel Management Engine is a very controversial component of modern Intel chipsets and SoCs due to its capabilities and features. One of the most fearful features is the remote management and connectivity. Intel ME is able to utilize network via dedicated network controller on vPro machines without any awareness of the operating system software. It is used for software like Intel Active Management Technology (AMT) or Computrace (with cooperation of Intel Anti-theft Technology which seems to be a service running on Intel ME). Such features and capabilities often raises doubts and concerns about privacy. Moreover it is a few megabytes of proprietary closed source firmware of unknown quality with uncertain other impacts on the system. Many people often want to disable ME or even neutralize it to reduce the attack surface. This is what we offer with Dasharo firmware on Dell OptiPlex 7010 / 9010, me_cleaner is being applied on the firmware image which can be flashed on the board. From a 6MB of unknown firmware only dozens of kilobytes are left. me_cleaner has been created based on researching and reversing of the Intel ME which is prohibited according to its license agreement. Decompilation however, may be allowed according to some EU courts. See also Article 6. But IANAL.
As engineers we often encounter situation that the same board comes in a few SKUs (stock keeping units) which may be distinguished by the used processor for example. Such a procedure is often utilized to reduce the cost of the product or rather offer a product less or more equipped to make it more affordable on the market. Also as engineers doing open source firmware we want to know how many differences they are, whether we may unify support of the variants or even use the same binary to support multiple boards. But in the cases where the mainboard is essentially identical and the OEM offers it with different hardware capabilities, one question comes to the mind immediately: what is going on? It happens for the 7010 and 9010 variants in the specsheet.
Why would maximum RAM be limited by the variant? The number of memory slots and the used processors are the same so there should not be any difference. However with the Dasharo firmware we ensure that you are not limited to vendor restrictions and 32GB memory may be populated on both 7010 and 9010. Fortunately putting 32GB of RAM into Dell OptiPlex 7010 with Dell firmware does not limit the memory reported to the operating system. Summing it up, the limitation of maximum RAM is just business differentiation of the offered machines, i.e. “the higher model number is the better are the parameters offered”. That’s it (fortunately).
It occurred that the mainboard design allows the usage of ECC memory modules. The memory module ECC lanes are connected to the CPU socket. However there is one caveat. The Intel Q77 chipset used on the machine doesn’t support CPUs with ECC (currently only Xeon CPUs and some embedded ones support ECC). The CPU compatibility of the chipset may be checked on Intel ARK. But no risk no fun. A decent Xeon CPU matching the board could be bought for less than $100. So we did a quick test and… it worked!. We have a ECC capable CPU, now all we need is a ECC DIMM. Be aware though. A typical server memory will not work here. We need an unbuffered ECC DIMM with lower latencies (registered memory will only work on servers). However this time it didn’t work.
According to the investigations of the coreboot logs the CPU did not report the ECC capability. The real question is why? There are a few pointers:
- something else is controlling the capability
- ECC support does not depend solely on CPU (the memory controller is a part of the CPU)
In some depths of a sensitive black hole I have found an information that the chipset and CPU is “autonegotiating” the supported features according based on the SKUs before the BIOS executes. So basically the CPU features may be limited by the chipset based on supported processors. So even though you may be successful in booting ECC capable Xeon CPU, if you don’t have a C-series chipset (C216 in this case) you will not be able to utilize ECC. Linus Torvalds has expressed his deep dissatisfaction how Intel phased off the ECC support on consumer chipsets in this article Maybe if we know a little bit more about how the autonegotiation works or if ME firmware may force the ECC support, it will be possible to override the current state.
Dasharo firmware enables support for booting from PCIe NVMe drives unlike the original Dell firmware. Back in 2013 the first NVMe drives have actually been manufactured (Samsung XS1715) so the technology was not so popular when the machine is launched. However even after 5 years of BIOS update releases this lovely machine did not live to see NVMe support. These machines have a PCIe x4 slot which is perfect for a NVMe disk, just need a few bucks to buy an adapter like this one. With Dasharo firmware it is possible to boot from such NVMe disk without issues.
Intel TXT support and TrenchBoot
Intel Trusted Execution Technology is a feature of Intel CPUs and chipsets to perform trusted measurement of the operation system software defined in Trusted Computing Group D-RTM architecture specification. Although Dell firmware supports TXT and it is nothing new for Dasharo to support it as well. And we did it (you will be able to read more about this achievement in the incoming blog post). Moreover we aim to support TrenchBoot on this machine. A very good use case of Intel TXT was presented by Qubes OS Anti Evil Maid (AEM). By the way we have been working on enabling AMD CPUs and TPM 2.0 as well in AEM. In an ideal case Dell OptiPlex will come with TXT and TrenchBoot support and use AEM to securely measure Qubes OS and perform a remote attestation using Fobnail. To protect the user even further we also plan to integrate Intel STM to avoid System Management Mode attacks to which Intel TXT is vulnerable.
Open Security Training 2
All these possibilities, open source firmware and security features, makes the Dell OptiPlex 7010 / 9010 a first class citizen secure workstation. It has been recognized by Xeno Kovah, a former Apple firmware security architect, as an excellent training platform for teaching Intel firmware security and coreboot courses. The Dell OptiPlex 7010 / 9010 is used as a reference machine in the OpenSecurityTraining2 “Architecture 4001: x86-64 Reset Vector Firmware” class (which is currently in private beta testing). And that class then leads into the “Architecture 4031: x86-64 Reset Vector: coreboot” class, and future coreboot classes which are under development, such as “Architecture 4032: coreboot Hardware Hands-On” (where you will be able to experience flashing the firmware on the Dell OptiPlex 7010).
How to get it?
Of course 3mdeb offers the OST2 reference setups of Dell OptiPlex 7010 / 9010 to be purchased here.
The machine setup is configurable where you may choose the fully featured option with 32GB RAM, NVMe with M.2 adapter, ME neutering and of course the Dasharo firmware. If you like games you may even put some Nvidia GTX/RTX graphics card (must be low profile, half height) if you like, the PCIe x16 port (blue) is available for such extension. Onboard TPM 1.2 is supported out-of-the box.
Dell OptiPlex is a wonderful machine with many security features. When TXT becomes available with the open source firmware, the STM and Fobnail remote attestation integration will create a machine which may rival Microsoft Secured Core PC (if not outclass). There is still more to come o Dasharo on Dell OptiPlex so stay tuned and watch for new blog posts and Dasharo releases.
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