After Moore’s Law, is Open Source Last Straw for the Chip Industry?

Moore’s law is passing the torch to open source hardware to keep technological progress going. But there are challenges ahead.
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The open-source hardware (OSH) movement is gaining serious momentum , and why would it not? An opportunity to level the playing field for everyone is always a good thing. More so, if it’s in the midst of a global chip war. The expectation is that open platforms like RISC-V will do to ARM and x86 what Linux has done to Windows.

OSH also comes at a time when Moore’s law is struggling to keep up. At the same time, there are also not enough incentives to migrate to smaller nodes because of the increasing cost, even when the performance is still up. American researcher Bunnie Huang, during a keynote address at a RISC-V event, showed the following chart:

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It depicts that rather than constantly pursuing the latest process nodes and not having the time to improve upon them (since it will be surpassed by an even faster chip in 18 months), working with one process node gives much larger time to make improvements and still be relevant. So, there is more time to refine ideas and create systems and platforms around them. This is why more and more people are thinking about open silicon.

But, it won’t come easy. The open-source software space is already feeling the heat with quality and security issues, legal and licensing complexities, as well as the lack of regulations for prevention against vulnerabilities. Similar questions are raised with open-sourcing hardware.

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Challenges to OSH

The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHA) defines open-source hardware as hardware “whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design”. This will allow companies to use open standards and platforms to create technology and products more efficiently, affordably and specific to their needs.

“You can already look to automotive, heterogeneous compute, security, and other areas as examples where an open platform allows an industry to move faster, to create more specific SoC and systems,” Keith Witek , COO at Tenstorrent, told AIM .

Open source gives way to creative thinking and innovation across different markets, geographies, ecosystems, cultures, skill sets, etc. But, there is a downside to such freedom. It can lead to a market clutter of chips of sorts which, Witek mentions, “optimises for the least common denominator or the largest average need.”

He further says, “open source solutions try to be all things to all users or alternatively averages all goodness to some means across all design parameters/characteristics, which will lead to suboptimal solutions in almost all uses and applications.” This is akin to saying: now that AI can write content for everyone, the chances of seeing good quality original content are rare.

According to Witek, “Phones want low power, servers want high performance, watches want small form factor, cars want safety, … trying to address all these dimensions in vague and broader ways or with the goal of satisfying all open source adopters/users with minimum diversity is often not the best way to create a technology platform that can win vs closed and targeted systems.”

As a result, open-source design can easily lead to the market fracturing into so many little pieces of highly-customised different technology and products where standards don’t exist. Additionally, with this, the real value of economies of scale for products completely erodes, and the quality of user experience suffers.

Consensus-building is needed

The challenge, however, not just pertains to what open-source hardware will end up doing. It also exists in the now. There is a lack of consensus between different open source standards. “The entities like RISE and RVI in the RISC-V world, for example, need to maintain some semblance of order in the open-source market.”

Unlike closed tech platforms like iOS or x86 processors where direction, decisions, and strategy can be made by one company or within one market segment, open architectures have different communities with different standards. RISC-V is one example. “So (naturally) there is a slowness in decision-making due to the need to do consensus building,” added Witek.

Microsoft research points out that in the case of open source software (OSS),  there are some restrictive licences such as the GPL, which authorises users to share modifications to the OSS as well as their proprietary work that uses the OSS. This led to the success of projects like Linux and GCC. On the other hand, there are less restrictive licences like LGPL and BSD that allow users of OSS to not reveal their proprietary components and Apache licence, which permits the use of the licensor’s patent rights.

Similarly, the researchers argue that there is a need to probe into the intricacies of licences in chip design. To give an example, consider a design that uses proprietary and OSH IPs. In this case, they explain, just synthesising the IPs together could be considered a derived work, possibly exposing the entire design to open-source licensing, counter to the licensee’s intent.

“A clutter of chips that cannot work together, be tested similarly, give consistent user experiences, have a similar feel, can leverage common IP/ecosystems, etc, will not emerge or thrive because they simply cannot be justified in terms of ROI, TAM, adoption, quality, etc,” said Witek in this regard.

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Ayush Jain
Ayush is interested in knowing how technology shapes and defines our culture, and our understanding of the world. He believes in exploring reality at the intersections of technology and art, science, and politics.

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