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.
However, the three groups are trying to eliminate potential design pitfalls by pulling together communities around their respective efforts. Aside from hosting a community that includes chip designers, chip manufacturers and even contract device manufacturers, Power.org has also been forming committees to device design specifications. Those specifications, it says, will make it easier to create products such as a PowerPC-based server.
The specifications, which arent yet available, would allow companies to use Power.org as a conduit to create products. A server maker, for example, could use Power.orgs specs and its chip, design and manufacturing services, to help put out a new PowerPC-based model.
“The idea is we make servers on top of this architecture and [the effort] makes servers less expensive,” he said.
OpenCores.org, which bills itself as the worlds main source for open processor cores, is pursuing a similar aim. The site, which plays host to about 320 chip projects and just over 1,700 chip developers and sees about 3 million Web hits and about 50,000 downloads per month, offers a variety of processors, including a 32-bit OpenRISC Processor, developed from scratch by OpenCores founder, Damjan Lampret. The core comes with a complete set of development tools and has its own versions of Linux and eCos as well.
“This is a dynamic community,” Lampret said in an e-mail to Ziff-Davis Internet. “Some projects have more keen developers, some are somewhat commercial-related, some are more academic projects or of a research nature, some are hobby. We dont make any rules [about] what the project has to be.”
Several OpenCores affiliates, including Flextronics Corp.s Flextronics Semiconductor division, sponsor the site and offer various forms of design and manufacturing assistance.
SPARC International takes a somewhat different approach than the other two organizations. Its SPARC processor architecture is open in that its maintained by the independent body and anyone can download specifications and use them to design a chip. But it only provides technical support to licensees and those licensees are the only ones that can legally brand their chips as SPARC-compliant.
SPARC International charges licensing fees it says are relatively low. Its 64-bit SPARC V9 core can be licensed for $30,000, while its 32-bit SPARC V8 can be had for $25,000, said CEO Karen Anaya.
Sun Microsystems Inc. might be the best-known user of SPARC processors. But the architecture is used in numerous devices and has even been to space. The European Space Agency, for one, has based its LEON chip on SPARC. It recently released a new radiation-resistant LEON chip, based on the SPARC V8 core, for testing. A SPARC processor core shows up much closer to home in Infrant Technologies Inc.s storage gear.
SPARC International has seen interest in its offerings pick up of late, Anaya said. She likened the level of interest in open processors to a roller coaster moving uphill, before being released on its way.
Lampret says hes seen a similar trend.
“Open hardware, or more specifically open cores for chips is much younger [than Linux] and it has potential to grow in the future,” he said. “In the hardware industry you need more initial investment so open hardware will probably always have a small user base. Nevertheless, I think the current trends clearly show that the open source hardware, well, more precisely the open cores (i.e. for chip design), is growing.”
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