Open Source Hardware?

Tree Peony opening

One of the things that cropped up in the European software patents debate at the start of the year was the issue of defining what a software patent actually is. You'd think it was easy, but it's not. Software patents sneak through by reference to the computers they actually run on (a software patent I have to hand starts "Two computers A and B each have a clipboard function..." - that's a European one, by the way). And even chip designs turn out to be a grey area.

I recently had the opportunity to meet some of the team designing the new UltraSPARC T1 processor ("Niagara") and saw first-hand what my friends up the road at Southampton University have been pointing out for years. While there's a good deal of skill in the instantiation, a silicon chip these days is "just" the compiled version of a software design. A chip like the UltraSPARC T1 is actually a huge Verilog program compiled to atoms instead of assembly language.

The reason I found all this out is that the team has decided it's time for the Participation Age to reach into the world of chip design. Nestling among all the other excellent announcements about low energy, high performance computers in today's launch event is an announcement that to me is quite revolutionary. SPARC is going open source.

Yes, you read that right. The Verilog source code, tools and more behind the UltraSPARC T1 (the "design point") will be released under an OSI-approved open source license next year - OpenSPARC - and a community will hopefully be forming to use that design point for any purpose that's interesting. I think that's revolutionary.

Of course, open source hardware doesn't work the same way open source software does. Because the "compilation" process is so heavy, the community won't be working on a single rapidly-iterated shared tree of source. It's likely to work more like the Jini community, with many co-operating community participants doing their own thing with a common baseline and then contributing back innovations and fixes based on their experience.

I'll be helping as much as I can to get this off the ground, and learning a lot in the process. It's heading into uncharted territory and there's plenty of opportunity to "learn through corrected error" but I think the new OpenSPARC community is the start of something big, the perfect complement to OpenSolaris.


Simon, As a verification engineer and consultant, I've been interested in the role open source could play in chip design from the perspective of hardware verification for awhile. I am interested to know what type of groups of people you think would be most likely to pick up something as massive as the SPARC design and verification environment? Will the run scripts, build environment, micro-architecture documentation, etc. be available or are potential users going to have to browse through the code on their own to figure out how to proceed? I've captured some of my thoughts on this issue on my blog. I'd love to hear more details about where Sun is going with this program, and whether or not Sun will continue to release code for upcoming processor designs. JL

Posted by JL Gray on December 06, 2005 at 05:37 AM PST #


According to the release, the package to be made open source includes

<blockquote class="cite">the source of the design expressed in Verilog, a verification suite and simulation models, instruction set architecture specification (UltraSPARC Architecture 2005) and a Solaris OS port.

Concerning the future directions, I'm hoping the OpenSPARC team will write some more about this - probably when they get the above package ready for consumption early next year.

Posted by Simon Phipps on December 06, 2005 at 06:28 AM PST #

Also the term 'Open Source Hardware' is used in Charles Stross' book Accelerando. I also started using it before I read the book sometime this year. I thought Hardware is already Open Source something that software needed to emulate but I guess the OSI contracts are the simplicity that is needed with less government 'Big Brother' involved. Also why can't we get rid of money, or upgrade it (not communism), since I think it might have been upgraded to the Internet and stats medium. No paper momey and no taxes. It's too frusterating.

Posted by Mark Madsen on December 06, 2005 at 11:38 AM PST #


I have a great feeling about how this project will grow and prosper, as well as how many great innovative new technologies will be built upon this one.

I am working with FPGAs from the early beginning in the field of building own realtime DSPs for microwave comunication, radar, video, acoustic and related fields concerning analog signal analisys, processing and synthesis. For all of the time, control and process steering processor was a system design bottleneck and an uneasy problem to solve, as well as oftenly required redesigning of all the system due to pecularities of the used processor.

For many years already it was a dream to create a working platform, an open alternative to awkward designed proprieatry PC-s and Mac-s, based entirely on a matrix of FPGAs, where all the required hardware and additional processors can be loaded as needed. Still the operational system and the central FPGA processor was an unknown (just with a slight bias to the Linux and some mc68xxx side).

Now it could actually become a reality by the joined efforts or Sun and open source developers community!

And, for sure, I will give all the best efforts helping to make this platfrom a strong solution for ultra fast realtime signal processing.

Posted by Edwards on December 06, 2005 at 08:39 PM PST #

Hi, i am a VLSI student; and excited to know that 'HARDWARE design (chip-design) can also go OpenSource'. Thanks to Sun and Open-Source community, this will be a not-to-miss oppurtunity for me to learn-the-maximum and contribute-to-my-best. Thanks. kishore.

Posted by kishore malani on February 16, 2006 at 04:59 PM PST #

[Trackback] 資料來源: OpenSouce Watch - British/Italian Open Source Processor to hit the market O’Reilly Rader - Open Source Hardware SunMink - Open Source Hardware? 日前,Simply RISC 公司公佈了 R1 處理器,成為第一間宣傳及推銷開�...

Posted by 知識產權關注小組 on September 22, 2006 at 02:34 AM PDT #

Open Source hardware!!! This is a much awaited proposition. It implies the developers are more in control of their projects . I can decide to develop my own architecture based on standards. Mankind is about to leap to the next level in technology.
Would there be standard bodies regulating the activities of OEM's, Vendors ,etc.

Posted by Adebayo Seun on July 08, 2008 at 10:53 PM PDT #

Hi, I am a student from China,I am doing a project about opensparc T1,I have some question to ask you.For I use windows operating system,so I do not know some of the command line descriptions of the opensparc dvuser guide.could you give me some docs or advises about how to do simulation syntheses and implementation to the FPGA. For I use edu web ,It is difficult to view your website.Could you give me the message to my email
Thank you very much

Yang Weijia

Posted by yangweijia on August 26, 2008 at 01:09 AM PDT #

Post a Comment:
Comments are closed for this entry.

Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


« August 2016