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Using Open Source Designs to Create More Specialized Chips

Linked by Paul Ciano on April 19, 2018

Klint Finley, Wired:

The embrace of open source isn’t about altruism. Facebook started using Hadoop because there was no commercial off-the-shelf software that met the company’s needs as it grew. Because Hadoop is open source, Facebook could customize and extend it to solve its specific problems; sharing its changes allowed others to innovate further, making the software better for Facebook and all other users. Collaborating on freely available code enables companies and programmers to pool resources to solve common problems and avoid reinventing the wheel. Companies build competing products and services from these open source foundations that they might never have been able to build otherwise.

But the open source revolution has been slow to come to the hardware world.

Chip maker Nvidia and storage company Western Digital have both announced plans to use RISC-V chips in their core products, and dozens of other companies have joined the RISC-V Foundation, including Google, Tesla, and chip giants like IBM, Samsung, and Qualcomm. RISC-V isn’t the first open source chip architecture, but it’s unusual for such a project to attract much attention outside of academia.

Chip makers could, for example, collaborate to solve sticky problems like Spectre, the nightmarish security flaw that affects virtually all computer and smartphone chips. “The problem with proprietary architectures is that you have to work for the company, whether that’s Intel, AMD, or Arm, if you want to improve on the designs,” Patterson says. “The Spectre problem is a difficult challenge in computer architecture, what we need is everyone working on it.”

Linux is a helpful comparison. The Linux kernel is the core of the operating system that translates the basic input from your keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen into something that software can understand. It is the heart of Red Hat Enterprise Linux as well as Google’s Android operating system for phones and its Chrome operating system for PCs. Those operating systems are used for different purposes, but using the same kernel saves Google and Red Hat from figuring out how to support a plethora of hardware on their own. Likewise, companies could build different types of chips using the RISC-V instruction sets as a base.

Paul Ciano

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