Open-source credo moves to chip design

Engineers around the world, connected via the Internet, are seeking to develop a vast library of freely available hardware designs.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
5 min read
A cadre of hardware developers is trying to bring concepts from the open-source software world to the hardware business.

Engineers around the world, connected via the Internet, are seeking to develop a vast library of freely available hardware designs, similar to how Linux developers and other open-source programmers share intellectual property.

This open-source hardware library--consisting of design elements for processors, memory controllers, peripherals, motherboards and a host of other components--would aide semiconductor start-ups and device manufacturers alike. Instead of investing millions in basic and sometimes redundant design work, companies would be able to tap the library for the know-how they need, licensing designs for chips and other technology for free.

At the same time, selecting well-designed open-source hardware has the potential to speed development of computing devices, ranging from set-top boxes to network switches.

"I started investigating open-source hardware when I was a student in the late '90s," Jamil Khatib, an open-source hardware designer and unofficial evangelist for open-source hardware group OpenCores, said in an e-mail interview. "I was wondering why there (was) not open-source hardware, like open-source software, so I started publishing my designs on the Web.

"The open source (process), in general, is the result of contributions from many people around the world about specific design that is open for anyone to contribute (to) and review."

No free chip
But choosing to go the open-source hardware route is not as simple as downloading and installing a copy of Linux. Companies using open-source designs still need to integrate the open-source elements into final device designs. This could prove to be a frustrating and costly effort, with no one available to provide direct support for an open-source technology. Potential patent issues also loom.

"You see, hardware can never be really free," said Rudolf Usselmann, a chip designer and active participant in OpenCores. "However, we hope for some cheaper and better-quality hardware. Just look at the unit price of an Intel Pentium chip."

To get around the manufacturing issue, the open-source community is seeking agreements with companies such as Flextronics, which provides chip manufacturing, engineering and design services.

Ultimately, the open-source hardware community would like to create a library so vast that companies could use it to build devices based entirely on open-source designs. But that will take some time.

United by the Net
Open-source hardware owes its life to a number of individuals who, above all else, think it's fun to design chips and other hardware. The leaders of the movement congregate and share their ideas at focal points on the Internet, such as the OpenCores Web site.

One of the most important efforts now under way is an effort to develop the next OpenRISC processor. The processor--which could be used in Web appliances, factory machines and other Internet-connected devices--is based on a RISC (reduced instruction set) processor core now available as an open-source design. OpenCores plans to integrate a memory controller and a USB controller, among other items, with the new OpenRISC chip.

"Big companies spend a lot of money on engineering, not always working very efficiently," Usselmann said. "In the OpenCores community, we the techies know what we want and we know it best."

The group is moving to design its next OpenRISC processor with new system-on-a-chip capabilities. A system-on-a-chip (SOC) processor puts a processor core and all the peripheral functions necessary to run a certain hardware device on a single chip. SOC chips are generally used in devices such as set-top boxes, Internet appliances and even some PCs. The new chip would compete with offerings from traditional chipmakers, including National Semiconductor, IBM and even Transmeta, itself an open-source software participant.

Developers, including some working on the new chip, got into open-source hardware for fun. But they quickly became vocal proponents for the open-source way of working.

Other members happened on the OpenCore site by chance and signed on.

"Basically I was getting bored," Usselmann said. "I needed something to keep the gray matter going. By accident I came across the OpenCores Web page, and joined in.

"It started as an exercise and to have something to do besides enjoying life. It evolved into lots of fun little projects, without management breathing down your neck, producing cores that people actually find useful."

Now Usselmann is working to help design the OpenRISC chip and also to help arrange sponsorships for OpenCores projects, both in the form of procuring needed development tools and securing support from contract chip manufacturers, he said.

Growing library
With new system-on-a-chip designs in the works, along with efforts to create memory controllers, DSP chips and even motherboards, the wealth of technology available at OpenCores promises to snowball.

Usselmann alone has posted a number of designs.

"So far they have been mostly simple little projects, my current one (the USB 2.0 IP core) is by far the most complex," he said.

Usselmann's PIC clone, a version of a popular RISC microcontroller, has been used in several finished chips "because my design is so much faster and allows the users to control what kind and how many peripherals they actually include," he said.

One of the main challenges developers at OpenCores face is that, despite being able to obtain hardware designs for free, the cost of integrating those hardware bits into a device is still considerable, analysts say.

"The big savings would be in licensing fees and royalties on a part, if you ship significant quantities," said Kevin Krewell, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

Support network
At the same time, device makers need support in a range of areas when developing their products.

"The hardest part is software support," Krewell said. The hardware must be made to be compatible with software used in devices.

Despite the potential for new businesses to crop up, it's unlikely open-source hardware will be as disruptive to hardware makers as open-source software has been to the software industry and players such as Microsoft.

Established chipmakers such as Intel and IBM might not be directly challenged by open-source hardware because their technology, such as Intel's X86 processor architecture, is protected by a number of closely held patents.

It is possible to create an open-source X86 chip, but without a license for the technology, "I don't think anyone could hit the open-source world with X86 and survive Intel," Krewell said.

OpenCores engineers seem unconcerned with competition, however.

"We can combine the know-how from all over the world and build and improve on technologies and products," Usselmann said. "I'm certain that it will become a big success. As we develop more and more cores and address different areas of applications, people are starting to pay more attention to us and what we are doing."

Usselmann added that dislodging established chipmakers isn't really the point for open-source hardware. "Just like Intel and AMD can coexist, we can coexist with the big players. We do not intend to compete with the Suns and Ciscos out there."

But established players would be wise to pay attention to this new hardware-development trend, Khatib said.

"The open-source hardware trend will not compete with such companies, but they may need to change their strategies," he said.

When you offer "more options to companies in how they approach the market, that's a good thing," Krewell said.