Comms chips

Open Source Trend Overtakes CPUs

Open source may be ready to consume a category of products that has thus far eluded the trend: microprocessors.

Researchers at ETH Zurich and the University of Bologna have collaborated on the development of an open source microprocessor designed specifically for use in wearable devices and other small Internet of Things (IoT) things.

ETH Professor Luca Benini, who led the project, said, "In many recent examples of open-source hardware, usage is restricted by exclusive marketing rights and non-competition clauses," says Benini. "Our system, however, doesn't have any strings attached when it comes to licensing."

Two of the most prominent examples of open hardware are Arduino, which originally was based on an Atmel processor (others are now available), and Raspberry Pi, which is based on a chipset from Broadcom that includes an ARM CPU. Higher-level systems, such as servers, are becoming open source, and open source software is common.

The notion of open source microprocessors is not new. There was a brief moment at the turn of the century when several companies (e.g., MetaFlow, IROC Technologies) tried to make a commercial market out of the Leon-1, an open-source processor that mimicked the Sparc architecture. The Leon-1 was developed at the European Space Agency's Technology Center. There are organizations operating today, such as the Open Processor Foundation and OpenCore.com, that tend to focus on open source IP blocks, rather than on entire processors.

The basic question is how anyone can make money supplying open-source processors, but that was a question about servers, too, until the white box approach became viable. Open source microprocessors might not have been practical in 2001, but 15 years later, with foundry services getting cheaper all the time, a wider embrace of the notion of standard IP blocks, and potential for high-volume IoT applications, the conditions might be more conducive.

And should open source microprocessors gain traction at the low end of the market, that could open a path toward the higher end, driving down system costs along route. Linux is software, and software is different for a lot of reasons, but that's what happened with Linux and many other open source software programs.

The developers of the new open source microprocessor are dreaming of getting there, but their near term goals include offering their CPU for use to other research groups, and expanding the universe of open source parts. Cambridge University is among the other research organization are using the new open source microprocessor developed by the two European universities.

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ETH and Bologna call their processor PULPino, with "pulp" being an acronym for parallel ultra-low power. The PULPino is designed for battery-powered devices with extremely low energy consumption, according to the announcement from ETH.

The demo project is a smartwatch equipped with a camera, which can analyze visual information, with the aim of making the device able to visually identify where it is so that it can control surrounding electronics.

PULPino's architects said they want to work with other project partners to jointly develop academically interesting extensions to PULPino; these would also be open source, thus allowing the number of the hardware's functional components to steadily grow.

Development costs are reduced considerably with the open-source royalty-free design, which benefits SMEs as well as ETH, says Benini: "It could result in new research and development partnerships with industry to jointly develop novel chip components on the basis of PULPino." PULPino's developers are therefore planning to make their microprocessor more widely known to the open-source hardware community this year.

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

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