Go, Sparky, Go!

Open-source hardware? Yeah, open-source hardware. I mean: YEAH!!! Open-source hardware!! If you missed it, we announced earlier this week that we'll be open sourcing the UltraSPARC T1 processor early next year. In other words, our latest and greatest, coolest and hottest, SPARC processor. Downloading a chip--and for free--kind of a funky idea. OpenSPARC.

For those not familiar with how hardware is designed this may seem an odd concept, but it is actually pretty straightforward. At least conceptually. Hardware designers write pile and piles of code in a hardware description language (HDL) which is then essentially "compiled" and used to create an actual, physical chip. We used Verilog for the UltraSPARC T1 design. Here's an example of what Verilog looks like from the Wikipedia.

So who's going to play in this new sandbox? I don't think we know for sure yet. I'd expect universities to give it a serious look since students don't often get to look at a full, industrial-strength, cutting-edge microprocessor design in an academic environment. It would be cool to see someone offer a course in which students make interesting modifications to the basic framework. With all of the framework already there, I'd expect to see some pretty funky and creative mods, even within the span of a single semester.

On his blog David Johnson says he doesn't think hobbyists will have too much use for OpenSPARC, but he does allow that someone could take it as a base and, by ripping out a lot of instructions, create a simpler custom processor design that they might then burn into an FPGA. Interesting idea. I could imagine some three-letter agencies I know thinking the same thing.

One thing is sure. If you give people a hugely powerful and flexible tool with all the knobs and buttons exposed, there's no telling what they'll come up with. And watching that is going to be tremendous fun.


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