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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Blinkenlights, part 1

Silly Furry Saturday by Buntekuh from flickr (CC-NC-SA)
In two days, I'm going to the Chaos Computing Congress. CCC is about two things - computer security, and blinkenlights.

I didn't want to be the only person on the whole congress who didn't make any blinkenlights in their live. Well, I did make a 16-bit ALU, and I even attached some diodes to its input and output ports, but they didn't blink, so it doesn't really count.

Actually back then I wanted to build a CPU out of simple 74LS TTL parts. When I started I literally (by literally I mean literally) couldn't tell a NAND gate from a NOR gate. It was an awesomely fast way of learning about hardware.

Then I learned how to run simulations on Verilog, how to solder stuff together, and how simple CPUs work. It took me ages before I could reliably connect an inverter to a diode. It gradually became easier, and finally I had a pretty decent 16-bit ALU. I didn't go any further, because by that time I already learned more about hardware than anyone can without jeopardazing their sanity. Also, the register file I wanted now seemed way too difficult to actually make. It was about as complex as the ALU when looking only at number of 74LS TTLs used, but it would be a cabling nightmare. There was just no way to do it in reasonable amount of time, and it would be very fragile.

A worse problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to connect it to a computer. If I wanted to do anything useful with the CPU, it would need some way of reading and writing data, network access and so on. I wasn't anywhere hardcore enough to build memory controller and ethernet card on my own, so at least at first memory access and network would have to go through a real computer. After it works, I'd give it local memory, but a computer link would still be necessary for internet, loading code etc. So the project got shelved. If you're interested, the design, Verilog files and photos are all available.

One thing I did in the mean time was getting a ColdHeat soldering iron. It's way better than traditional soldering irons, it's much safer, and it's very cheap, so there's really no excuse for not getting one if you want to play with hardware.

Of course the interesting thing is connection to the computer. It seems that parallel port
is exactly what I was looking for. Parallel port contains ground pins, 8 data pins, all operating on TTL-compatible 5V. It really couldn't have been any easier.

Parallel ports have some anti-fry protection, but if it fails, the whole motherboard would have to be replaced, so I didn't want to test in on my machine. Instead, I took some old box, burned a Knoppix, and used the following code (run with sudo):

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <sys/io.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <string.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv)
int port = atoi(argv[1]);
int value = atoi(argv[2]);
if(ioperm(port, 1, 1)) {
fprintf(stderr, "Error: cannot access port %d: %s\n", port, strerror(errno));
return 1;
outb(value, port);
return 0;

The hardware part is a bit of an overkill. The only thing you need is to cut a parallel cable and take the 8 data wire and any ground wire, ignoring the rest, but I soldered all 25 cables to a board. It was pretty quick, the ColdHeat soldering iron is really cool compared to my old one.

I can already tell that the parallel port acts as expected, using a multimeter on pins. The code above indeed changes pins in the expected way. You can see some photos from today.

I could already use it for 8-diode blinkenlights, but that would be pretty lame. It should be pretty easy to create some circuit with more diodes, that accepts 8-bit commands. A trivial one would be a bunch of flip flops, 6 bits for address, 1 for value, and 1 for strobe. That would be enough for 32 bits, still not enough.

So I really need some sort of address register. The computer would either first send the address, and then data, or the address register would automatically increase by one every time, whatever is more convenient. I'll think about it later, so far it's been a major success.

1 comment:

Pio said...

You're making CPU controlled blinkenlights ? No shit! ;-)