The same principals that brought the Linux operating system to the computer world are helping to propagate a new generation of computer hardware.
Numerous processor designs are now being made open for anyone to modify and use, and available for free—or in some cases for small royalties—making it possible for device makers to select from a wider range of chip hardware than ever before.
Although they are all doing so for different reasons, organizations such as Power.org, recently founded by IBM, OpenCores.org, an online clearinghouse for processor core designs and to a lesser extent SPARC International, which maintains the SPARC processor, aim to offer one-stop shopping for would-be chip licensees.
The groups are positioning themselves as one potential alternative to traditional off-the-shelf processors or custom-designed chips known as ASICs, having added elements such as processor design support or networks to connect would-be licensees with the service providers, such as chip manufacturers, that they will need to add a chip based on an open design to their hardware. Their efforts, the groups collectively hope, will foster quicker, easier creation of devices ranging from consumer handhelds to big iron servers and storage systems for businesses by allowing companies to choose from a full menu of items, from a base chip design to an end-device manufacturer.
Power.org, which was founded around IBMs Power processor architecture, says it aims to make possible the same kind of collaborative innovation that takes place in software with Linux for Power-processor hardware.
"Our thesis was, Maybe we could do that for hardware," said Nigel Beck, vice president of technology marketing at IBM, in recent interview with Ziff Davis Internet.
Power.org has set out to be the broadest of the three open hardware groups. It has added nearly 30 companies or educational institutions, including Sony Corp., Chartered Semiconductor Inc. and Jabil Circuit, as well as thousands of individual developers to its membership, Beck said.
Although he said IBM had its own aims to open Power and help to establish Power.org—to broaden the processor architectures influence, especially now that IBM is parting ways with Apple Computer Inc.—it underscores a growing level of interest in open processor designs, said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report.
"Some people just like rolling their own," Krewell said. But overall, "There is more interest. Some of it is people trying to bootstrap unique designs. Some of it is that [manufacturing] process technology has advanced enough so that you can build a relatively cheap core, these days, that can get a lot of work done."
The efforts of groups like OpenCores.org or Power.org might ultimately make it easier or cheaper—or both—for companies to acquire processor designs. However, open processors are somewhat different from open software, in that they are likely to be used by a relatively small group of companies. While its certainly possible, its less likely for an individual to experiment with an open processor than an open software application. Meanwhile some products might use open processors designs but do so unbeknown to their owners, as hardware makers often keep the guts of their machines a secret.
Furthermore, despite being potentially cheaper to acquire, choosing an open processor still requires development work. Aside from finding a manufacturer for a given chip, adding it to a device can be tricky and time-consuming without support from its designer or a third party thats well-versed in it.
"You have to be a bit of a tinkerer to take on that kind of a project," Krewell said.