What is Neotron?

Neotron is an attempt to make computers simple again, whilst also taking advantage of the very latest in programming language development. We are saddened by chat clients that require multi-Gigabyte installs, and systems with hundreds of millions of lines of source code that no one person could ever hope to understand. We want to build a machine that is sized for an individual to comprehend, not a trillion-dollar corporation.

If you want a pithy sound-bite, it's like CP/M for tiny ARM microcontrollers, but written in Rust.

Tell me more...

Neotron is based around four fundamental components.

  • A standardised OS interface, for portable Applications to call. This provides APIs for reading/writing files, accessing devices, writing to the screen, playing audio, etc.
  • A standardised BIOS interface, for the Operating System to call. The BIOS abstracts the specific hardware implementation of the Video, Audio, UART, SPI, I2C, GPIO, Disk Drive, Parallel Printer, Keyboard and Mouse interfaces. By using the BIOS, we should be able to run the exact same Neotron OS on a variety of different microcontrollers.
  • Use of the Rust Programming Language to write as much of the software as possible (we avoid raw assembler as much as possible, but we're happy to port existing applications that are written in C even if we avoid that language in the system software).
  • The ARM Thumb-v7M instruction set (as supported by ARM Cortex-M based microcontrollers from the M3 and up). This is what allow us to run the same programs on microcontrollers from different vendors.

Looking back at classic home computers of the 1980s and early 1990s though, we see systems that were (and still are) simple enough to understand, or even - with time - to learn to master. Here's a rough comparison with just a few of the classic systems we have taken as inspiration (where not otherwise specified, these are the first version launched of a given system):

FeatureNeotron 32Neotron PicoIBM PCBBC MicroCommodore 64Apple MacintoshAmstrad PCWAmigaAcorn Archimedes
Launch Year202020211981198119821984198519851987
Instruction SetARMv7E-MARMv6-MIntel x86MOS 6502MOS 6502Motorola 68kZilog Z80Motorola 68kARM v2
CPUCortex-M42x Cortex-M0+80886502A651068000Z80A68000ARM2
Clock Speed80 MHz2x 133 MHz4.77 MHz2 MHz1 MHz8 MHz4 MHz8 MHz8 MHz
Low Level OSNeotron BIOSNeotron BIOSIBM BIOSAcorn MOSKERNALToolboxXBIOSKickstartRISC OS
High Level OSNeotron OSNeotron OSPC-DOS 1.0Acorn MOSN/ASystemCP/M PlusAmigaDOSRISC OS
ShellNeotron ShellNeotron ShellCOMMAND .COMBBC BASICBASIC v2FinderCP/M CCPWorkbenchRISC OS Desktop
Primary LanguageRustRustAssembly / CAssemblyAssemblyObject PascalAssemblyBCPL / CAssembly / BBC BASIC
ROM256K2048K8K32K16K64K256 bytes256K512K
RAM32K256K16K to 256K32K64K128K64K256K512K
Self-hostingNoNoYesYesNoYesYesYesYes

The IBM PC BIOS was stored in a ROM chip on the motherboard. It provided a certain level of hardware abstraction, with APIs for writing to the screen, setting the video mode and reading/writing from block devices such as floppy drives. The BIOS initialised the hardware, loaded the first sector of a chosen block device into RAM and then executed the code contained within. This was the Boot Sector and contained enough code to load the rest of the Operating System. PC-DOS made use of BIOS APIs, but often games would bypass both MS-DOS and the BIOS and access hardware directly. Famously, Microsoft was able to sell copies of PC-DOS (relabelled as MS-DOS) to manufacturers of 'PC compatibles', provided they had a BIOS ROM which offered the same (reverse-engineered) API as the IBM BIOS.

The BBC Micro had a very advanced Operating System for the time, known as the Acorn Machine Operating System (MOS). You could add extra ROMs to the system, such as the Disk Filing System (DFS). BBC BASIC was also very advanced for the time, including a built-in 6502 assembler.

The Commodore 64 contained two 8 KiB ROM chips - one contained the OS (called the KERNAL) and one contained a rebadged Microsoft 6502 BASIC. The KERNAL was very low level and Microsoft BASIC didn't include any commands to produce graphics or sound - developers were expected to interact with memory mapped hardware directly. The C64 KERNAL could be assembled using PET RESIDENT ASSEMBLER on a Commodore PET, but the Microsoft BASIC source code was written on a PDP-10 using the MACRO-10 assembler.

The original Apple Macintosh had a ROM on the motherboard which initialised the hardware and drew a graphical image on the screen indicating that the user should insert the System disk. The ROM then loaded the OS (known as System up to version 7, and Mac OS for versions 8 and 9) into RAM, along with a graphical desktop called Finder. Applications on the Macintosh (including the Finder) made use of a number of graphical routines stored in the ROM, known as the Macintosh Toolbox.

The Amstrad PCW8256 was similar to the Amiga 1000 in that the main BIOS was loaded from floppy disk. Going further than the Amiga though, the PCW didn't include a ROM chip at all. Instead the 256 bytes of bootstrap code were loaded from the microcontroller responsible for managing the printer interface. The bootstrap loaded the so-called XBIOS from floppy disk into RAM. XBIOS then initialised the hardware and loaded CP/M Plus (also known as CP/M 3.0). The shell was the familiar CP/M Command Console Processor (CCP), and both the OS and the CCP were the same across a wide range of CP/M machines from many different vendors, with the BIOS providing the hardware abstraction layer.

The Amiga 1000 hardware didn't include much in the way of a ROM at all. A basic bootstrap program stored in ROM was able to load most of the low-level OS (known as Kickstart) into a special write-only area of RAM. Kickstart could then load either the particular game being played, or AmigaDOS and a graphical shell known as Workbench. On later machines (such as the A500), the Kickstart was stored in ROM.

The Acorn Archimedes was first shipped with an OS in ROM called Arthur, but this was soon replaced with the more familiar RISC OS 2 (and later RISC OS 3). The entire OS - bootstrap, HAL, filesystem and GUI - was one on ROM chip, meaning it booted up very quickly, without needing to read from any sort of disc.

The key feature for many these systems (apart from the Commodore 64), was portability across other machines in the family (or, indeed, third-party clones). The PC, the Amiga, the Macintosh and CP/M all provided a platform, and if you respected certain limits when writing your software, that software was then portable across all the systems which provided that platform. For Neotron, this is a key concept - because microcontrollers vary so wildly, we have a BIOS that implements hardware abstraction, just like with the PC or CP/M machines. We then run a standard OS (indeed, the same OS image should work on every Neotron machine - more-or-less), either from ROM or loaded into RAM by the BIOS. On top of the OS is the text-mode Neotron Shell (like CP/M's CCP, or MS-DOS's COMMAND.COM). Booting to a graphical desktop would be nice, but given the Neotron 32 only has 32 KiB of RAM (barely enough for a low resolution frame-buffer), text mode is the default. Ultimately, a Neotron 32 should be able to 'compete' on a functional level with an un-expanded IBM PC 5150 or a BBC Microcomputer Model-B. The Neotron Pico meanwhile, could be more like a Macintosh, Archimedes or Amiga in terms of functionality and in time we do hope to develop a GUI for this system.

As with the CP/M and MS-DOS machines, we hope that in the future there will be a wide range of machines in the Neotron family. These Neotron systems won't generally aim to be super cheap, although we will tend to target commodity microcontrollers that only cost circa $10 or less, so they shouldn't be outrageously expensive. They will, however, aim to be usable computers that can do interesting things, while being simple enough to understand in their entirety and open enough to allow you to gain that understanding.

What can I do with it?

You can do what you can do with most 1980s home computers:

  • Type things on the keyboard.
  • Use a joystick or a mouse.
  • Manage files on internal or removable storage.
  • Load programs from internal or removable storage.
  • Type in your own programs.
  • Put text and graphics on the screen.
  • Make various beepy noises.
  • Connect various internal expansion cards or external peripherals.
  • Expand the system in ways the designer couldn't imagine.

But most importantly, you can learn the fundamentals of what it takes for a computer to be a computer. And you can study the source code and hardware schematics required to make that happen. You can even take the designs and go off and produce your own version - maybe to add a specific interface for a particular peripheral that interests you - all with no licence fees to pay.

What can't I do with it?

A Neotron system will probably never:

  • Support multiple processes (although Windows 3.1-style co-operative task switching is plausible).
  • Support 3D graphics (e.g. OpenGL).
  • Support virtual addressing (i.e. make use of an MMU).
  • Be POSIX compatible.
  • Have a huge software library (or probably any real library of software).
  • Run existing MS-DOS, Windows or Linux programs.
  • Be able to run rustc.
  • Have a port of Rust's libstd.
  • Be directly targetable from Rust with --target=thumbv7em-unknown-neotron-eabi.
  • Be useful for day to day use.
  • Be finished.

If you want a decent open-source UNIX Operating System, have a look at FreeBSD (or NetBSD, or OpenBSD). If you want a small teaching-oriented open-source UNIX Operating System, look at XV6, or maybe MINIX 3. If you want to learn about Linux, try Linux from Scratch. If you want to learn an ancient Arm based Operating System which still has a flavour of the original BBC Microcomputer, look at RISC OS (it's open source now). If you want a proper OS written in Rust, look at Redox. And if you want to do any of that on a system you don't have, try qemu, or rpcemu.

Is this a good idea?

It's certainly not a profitable idea. It's not even likely to be an efficient use of our time and resources. But it is proving to be a fun and educational project to work on, and we hope others find it useful and/or enjoyable too.

But what about ${EXISTING_PRODUCT}?

Raspberry Pi

Yes, you can buy a Raspberry Pi for a little as $5 - and it's a wonderful product that has done arguably more than anything since the BBC Microcomputer in terms of putting hardware you can actually program into the hands of young people. But, the downside is that you get a big, complicated piece of silicon, a proprietary GPU subsystem, 25 million lines of kernel source code, and even more in a user-land which has parts dating back over 30 years. No one person could hope to understand all of that! While we could probably port the Neotron OS to the Raspberry Pi, we'd have to treat the video sub-system as a black-box (like RISC OS does) and the complexity and lack of documentation of that subsystem presents a big barrier to fully understanding the system. Not to mention the the fact that only partial schematics are available, there are no PCB designs available, and there's no general availability on the main processor. It does what it needs to do for its target market quite admirably - but it's not a Neotron.

x86 based systems, like the original IBM PC

You could build yourself a clone of the original IBM PC (kits do exist), but it involves a lot of components that are very difficult to obtain nearly 40 years since that design first came out. Rust is also designed around a flat memory model (rather than the segmentation:offset model used by the 16-bit 8086), and that means using at least a 32-bit Intel 80386. And, of course, these are plain CPUs rather than microcontrollers, so you'll need to find a 'chipset' containing interrupt controller, DRAM memory controller and timers; as well as separate video, sound and IO sub-systems. Our System-on-Chip based design simplifies the motherboard design and reduces cost, and unlike with modern x86 SoCs, we don't have to deal with complicated legacy subsystems such as UEFI, ACPI or PCI.

6502 based systems (like the PE6502 and Commander X16)

You could build a 6502 based system, and many people do, but the Rust programming language doesn't (and probably never will) support an 8-bit CPU with only 256 bytes of stack.

68000 based systems

At the present time, there is no 68k backend in LLVM. If there was, a 68000 system would certainly make an interesting alternative to Neotron, if you can abide the mess that is CISC when compared to the cleanliness of a RISC design.

PowerPC based systems

LLVM does have a PowerPC backend, but unfortunately most PowerPC based chips only come in monster 380+ pin BGA packages, with multiple power rails. This unfortunately puts them beyond the scope of a simple hobby project, much as the author would love to build a machine that harks back to the IBM RS/6000 and Power Macintosh machines of the 1990s.

RISC-V based systems

There are an increasing number of RISC-V based microcontrollers with very small SRAMs, matched by an increasing number of multi-core 64-bit SoCs designed to run Linux from a huge bank of DDR3. At the current time, however, there isn't much in the middle.

A Neotron system built around an open-source RISC-V code run from an FPGA would be an interesting way to increase the openness of the system and remains a future possibility. The simplicity of the RISC-V ISA is also appealing, as compared to the historical mis-mash that is ARMv7E-M.

SPARC based systems

The Gaisler LEON3 is available in VHDL form under the GPL, along with a number of other components required to make a full SoC. The LEON3 implements the SPARC V8 ISA, support for which is available in the Rust compiler. However, this would require an FPGA based system and it's unknown whether the full GRLIB SoC would fit into any of the FPGAs supported by the various open-source FPGA synthesis tools (such as the Lattice iCE40).

Atmel AVR based systems

Many people have built Atmel AVR based systems, but those CPUs are fairly limited in terms of performance and tend to need to be programmed in raw assembler, or at least non-portable C (such as when storing strings in program memory with a 24-bit pointer instead of in data memory with an 8-bit pointer). There is a Rust AVR port, but it's only in an alpha state at the moment.

MIPS32 based systems, like the PIC32

The PIC32 family would make a very interesting home computer. Indeed, a PIC32 can be found in the Colour Maximite. I think it is telling though that the next revision of the Colour Maximite switched over to a Cortex-M7 based STM32H7. You could also point to the fact that MIPS themselves have publicly switched to producing RISC-V designs that maybe this architecture doesn't have the best future ahead of it.

What is this book?

This book describes the Neotron system - from the hardware schematics, all the way up to how to write applications for the system. It is intended to be the canonical reference, although where the source code differs from what is described in this book, we reserve the right to be pragmatic and change either to match the other (or leave them in disagreement...). This book also represents our latest thoughts on a particular topic, and the source code may lag behind while we get around to the implementation. We endeavour to note where this is the case.

Versioning

Each component has a semantic version number - major.minor.patch. The association is:

  • The BIOS will require a compatible hardware version.
  • The OS will require a compatible BIOS version.
  • The Shell and Applications will require a compatible OS version.