A modern RISC workstation for a modern (government) era.

While discussing various non x86 boards the topic came up about the Chinese government MIPS based processors, namely the Loongson-3A4000. I’ve tried several times on the past to buy one with no success however 2020 would make up with it as 2 separate leads yielded boards.

To me, there is a great deal of confusion around this setup as it goes by different names, and is sometimes spelt in English, other times Chinese (Simplified & Traditional) with different part numbers and vendors making it kind of confusing.

Various names include, but not limited to:

  • Lemote loongson
  • loongson-3-desktop
  • LEMOTE-LS3A4000-7A1000-1w-V01-pc
  • ICT Loongson-3A R4(loongson-3A4000)
  • Lemote LX-6901
  • Lemote A1901
  • 龙芯3A4000+7A台式机主板

I don’t want to sound like I’m going to just shit all over this thing, but it’s not free, it’s not subsided, and it’s not cheap. Weighing in at 元3,500 RMB the LX-6901 is not a machine for the masses, however it is a non x86 machine for the classes.

Thanks to my day job I was able to get my buyer to trace down several companies, and ads placed on TaoBao and another from AliExpress. Last time I tried both routes, along with the board manufacter Lemote, I was unable to get anything. This time however both leads would work out so now I have 2.

I was told that it would take upwards of 2 weeks for the order(s) to be fulfilled and I should have them in 3 weeks. However 4 business days later this box arrived in my office:

presents from the orient

I suspect they need to temper people’s expectations on shipping, but luckily for me I’m not over seas, although shipping from China to Hong Kong does require a special permit for electronics.

Clearly the tape had been opened several times for various inspections as this shipment was destined to be exported. But props on the dragon tape!

As expected, two boards! Oddly and confusing enough both suppliers insist the boards are different.

Natrually, they are of course identical.

Here is a better glimpse at the board.

The Lemote LX-6901 is not without faults however, it has a memory controller issue and cannot operate correctly with 2 sticks of ram. Luckily my DDR4 extras are 16gb so it’s not bad for messing around. The board also can post ATI boards. However it doesn’t like my Asus Radeon R9 380 Strix board, although it posted fine. I have a few of the FirePro W2100 cards, not a remarkable card, but it does work.

In addition you do need a specific OS for the board, on vendor on AliExpress was unwilling to send me anything, while another on TaoBao was willing to send me UnionTech’s UOS.

System BIOS

the M.2 slot works fine and I was able to boot from USB, and install UOS. The BIOS is very ‘PC’ like, pressing ENTER will enter the bios, and you can change boot priorities, or drop to the UEFI shell if you so please.

BIOS initalization

Installation is pretty easy and straight forward. There is only a few options during install, the desination, if you should accept the default layout (why not)? and a language

The USB stick is slow, but it didn’t matter as I only needed to install twice. The first time I had both memory slots populated, and the board crashed at 5% of the install. I was able to do some searching around and found out about the bad memory controller, so popping out one of the DIMMs and I was able to install and use the machine.

UOS for the MIPS however is a seeming commercial product that is very difficult to buy outside of China (it may very well be allocated only for certain circles as you need a Chinese cellphone number, government ID, and some kind of project id?), although I’m still trying.

Not authorized

The phone support was useless, and I’ve had a few email exchanges on asking if it’s available for purchase, and if so how much. I’ll update if I can figure it out.

What does suck is that while UOS is not authorized you can’t get any OS updates, nor can you enable to root user. So yeah you can’t effectively own the machine with UOS. There is a ‘trial’ mode to enable a 90 day ‘grace’ period so at least I can add GCC and at least build software. Clearly if I can’t sort out UOS I’ll have to dump the kernel / initrd and restore another MIPS64EL Linux distro over the filesystem. Debian has MIPS64EL, and seems to be working to mainline the LX-6901.

UOS bills itself as a Windows replacement, and I have to say that I do enjoy using it. It has some rather ‘Windows’ qualities to it, like the sound mixer, and ease of installing apps from the ‘store’ however if it’s not in the store and it’s Not authorized you are out of luck. As much as I dislike distro of the week nonsense, I do like the idea of thousands of people being hired to flesh it out to make Linux usable, but only time will tell how much of it is translation to Chinese, and how much is developing software.

When it comes to performance the 3A4000 running at 1.8Ghz is faster than a Raspberry Pi 4, however not significantly faster CPU wise. However the big plus the MIPS does have is that it has a far more capable bus with M.2 and PCI-E slots along with SATA giving the board much better IO than any SOC solution like the Pis.

I built the BYTE Benchmark 5.1.3 and did this graph with data from running on a Zero for comparison. I had to adjust scales for some of this so its more visible, however the important data is here that CPU wise they are close together, but in the area of IO the Dragon pulls far ahead. For those who like the Linux boot score, the CPU ‘clocks’ in at 3594.02 BogoMIPS per core.

It’s been a large ‘discovery’ thing, and a long time since I’ve tried to make Linux a ‘daily driver’ and of course the scarcity of MIPS binaries on Linux is going to be an issue, but I’ll have to explore the apparent ARM/x86 compatibility as I can find more information about it.

Since this has been such a learning curve for me as I learn more things I’ll add them to this list:

I don’t know how much (if any) reach my blog has in China, but if anyone knows any more or can help, drop a line!

12 thoughts on “A modern RISC workstation for a modern (government) era.

  1. I have a “hobby” of trying the -march= option at gcc, a lot of times there is not much difference, but sometimes there are surprises. It’s there a -march= option for these processor?, did you tried it at your benchmark?
    P.S.
    Trying this I encountered that there is an instruction at the Intel Atom processor that no other processor support, weird.

    • There is actually! Although I just did some simple testing with phoon, the phases of the moon program as it’d generate programs on the x68000 that wouldn’t run if the appropriate config wasn’t chosen… and so I knew it was actually doing something.

      there is a bunch (well far too many!) options and other than the 32bit variants not working as this is a pure 64bit install (my attempt to get a 32bit arch on here failed…) the 4000/4700 both ran.

    • I’m pretty sure you can flash the bios there is a toggle switch to a “backup” partition.

      I don’t think the MIPS has rings, that’s an intel thing. It has pci-e slots so sure, if you have driver support I don’t see why not.

      I can’t imagine UEFI firmware and it using grub is all that limiting, if anything it makes it more sane.

  2. There is a Loongson hobbyists group in China.
    You can view wiki.godson.ac.cn for more information.

    This board has another name, Lemote-A1901.

    We usually install Fedora(3rd port) or Debian on this board as they’re free.

    • Great! I added the board name to the list! I see they have the system jumper layout on there, that took me a good 30+ minutes to figure out on my own.. lol

      Thanks for the leads on where to find more information!

    • Well amazingly I was able to link my Hong Kong credit card to WeChat, which actually worked and I paid $112.82 for it.

      “Successfully purchased! Stay tuned for official announcements and related functions online!”

      So time will tell.

    • It sounds more like their “one drive” and OS setting sync thing.

      统信桌面操作系统个人版全新发布X预售来袭全新交互设计,智享不同体验,海量增值服务,带您畅享未来。

      The new release of the personal version of Tongxin desktop operating system X pre-sale is coming with a new interactive design, intelligently enjoying different experiences, massive value-added services, and taking you to enjoy the future.

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