Report calls for European FPGA tools to boost open source hardware

Report calls for European FPGA tools to boost open source hardware

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

The European Commission has published a report on the impact of Open Source on the European economy, highlighting the need to boost open source hardware (OSH)

The report estimates that companies located in the EU invested around €1bn in Open Source Software in 2018, which brought about a positive impact on the European economy of between €65 and €95bn. Boosting the role of OSH could bring similar, significant benefits, says the report.

The study, written by Fraunhofer ISI and Oopen Source Europe, predicts that an increase of 10% in contributions to Open Source Software code would annually generate an additional 0.4% to 0.6% GDP, as well as more than 600 additional ICT start-ups in the EU. While open source software, particularly Linux, is well established, open source hardware (OSH) is significantly behind it says.

“A barrier to the development of Open Source projects is the availability of tooling, both in the physical sense (e.g. mills, lathes, presses, workspaces) and in the digital sense (e.g. design software, compiler toolchains, simulators, debuggers). In the world of Open Source Software, much of the tooling is either now itself Open Source Software (and therefore available free of charge), or is available at very low cost (e.g. Apple’s XCode development environment). In the world of open hardware, the same is not true,” says the report.

This needs open source FPGA tools and a non-proprietary bitstream format.

One area of research in OSH which could be investigated is that development of a standardised intermediate language for silicon chip development. The development in chip technologies has been inhibited by the heavy involvement of incompatible proprietary languages promoted by the various EDA companies says the report, although Verilog does act as a low level standard.

The implementation of a single intermediate language which subsequently compiles to Verilog would present an opportunity not only for designs to interoperate more freely, but for this to operate as a platform for greater language abstraction. It would also allow the development of more advanced applications of FPGA technology, such as systems which dynamically reconfigure their FPGAs in real time.

It points to successful open silicon initiatives such as OpenCores and OpenRISC in Europe, but the innovation tends to be further commercialised in the USA and China. “A centre-of-excellence initiative would tend to reduce this leakage of European innovation and encourage digital autonomy,” says the report.

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Specifically, it is recommended to launch a standard request (a mandate) to the European standardisation bodies to develop a European standard of a bitstream format to decrease reliance on individual vendors of specific FPGAs, and ways to increase innovation in the development of the underlying FPGAs as opposed to the code used to configure them.

The report also points to software configurable designs as a possible way forward for OSH, pointing to projects such as the Open Compute Project and MyriadRF which develop the hardware and then open this up to software.

This software defined infrastructure technology also has the potential to allow individual hardware units to be repurposed for multiple purposes, not only reducing Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), but also allowing in-place hardware configuration and reducing the environmental footprint of transporting the equipment and deploying personnel.

In the long-term, the findings of the study may be used to reinforce the open source dimension in the development of future software and hardware policies for the EU industry. The Commission has its own Open Source Software Strategy 2020-2023 to boot the region’s digital strategy with a special emphasis on the sharing and reuse of software solutions, knowledge and expertise as well as on increasing the use of open source in information technologies and other strategic areas.

Despite the detailed recommendations in the report, the main recommendations focus more on the infrastructure, such as clarifying the liability for individual developers of OSH, having the equivalent to open source software licensing and considering Open Source in future revisions of European copyright and patent legislation.

The report also recommends funding security audits of critical open source projects requiring specific security-improving changes with public resources.

The development of centres of excellence in OSH would consist of partnerships between academia, research institutions and the private sector.

The report is at

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