open source hardware

FPGA vendor Lattice acknowledges value of open source community

Many open-source projects target existing, commercial hardware without official support from the hardware vendor. Some of the most famous examples include Linux and the GCC compiler; which all started as third party projects.

These days both of these projects see significant support from large hardware companies and are used as the official tooling for many widely sold products. Both now see significant first-party contributions from hardware vendors.

Over the last three years, I have been part of the community developing open source tooling for field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These are programmable logic chips with great potential for “post Moore’s law” reconfigurable computing with many promising applications from consumer devices to datacentres.

In general, FPGA companies have not published the low-level details of the devices – unlike CPUs, where the instruction set is almost always public. The expectation is that everyone uses the closed-source vendor-specific toolchain provided.

As a result, to develop a complete open-source flow from design to device programming for most FPGAs, the low-level “bitstream” details must be documented by creating a large number of designs using the vendor-provided tools and examining the output. Claire Wolf did this for the Lattice iCE40 FPGAs five years ago in Project Icestorm. Subsequently, I created open-source documentation for their larger ECP5 FPGAs.

In both cases, combined with the low cost and simplicity of these Lattice parts, these projects have led to popular open-source flows for both devices. From this has sprung a number of open source development boards such as the myStorm BlackIce, icebreaker and ULX3S.

Vendors are now acknowledging the importance of open source

Whilst downloading a newly released Lattice SDK, I found there was a new clause in the license agreement prohibiting this bitstream documentation. Fortunately, this SDK doesn’t directly affect any of the currently supported devices, but it would have become problematic if all their tools sport this license in the future:

e. Licensee shall not distribute, copy, transfer, lend, incorporate, modify, use or sublicense the Software or any Modules for any purpose except as expressly provided herein or as otherwise permitted under relevant law, or in advance by Lattice in writing. In particular, no right is granted hereunder … or (3) for reverse engineering a bit stream format or other signaling protocol of any Lattice Semiconductor Corporation programmable logic device.

Thanks to lobbying from the community, it is great to see that Lattice has shown commitment to open source by promptly removing the clause after being contacted about it, going as far as to publish a message of appreciation for the open-source community on Twitter:

Thanks for pointing out a new bitstream usage restriction in the Lattice Propel license. It is not our intent to hinder open source tools. See re an updated license. We are excited with the open source community’s FPGA achievements and their potential.

This is a risk that Lattice has taken, but it is one that resonates well with the open-source toolchain developers and will hopefully yield good results for them in the future. It also shows the power of a strong open source community to achieve good results from companies and the growing awareness for the open source.

I hope that as time progresses we see more support for open source tools from FPGA vendors, perhaps even reaching a similar point to established open -source software tooling.

David Shah is a self-employed developer working on nextpnr, the open source FPGA place-and-route tool. His previous work also includes Project Trellis, open source bitstream documentation for the Lattice ECP5 FPGAs.

NMI/BCS Open Source SG Conference – London 10/5/2016

In partnership with the BCS OSSG and BCS OSHUG, this conference explores the increasingly vital role of Open Source as an enabler in the world of electronic systems. It will provide attendees with an informative view of:

  • The benefits and challenges of using open-source
  • Leading electronic systems organisation using open-source today sharing their experience
  • The breadth of opportunities presented by open-source, from application software down to silicon IP
  • Open-source capabilities from a range of leading suppliers

The event will be held on Tuesday 10th May at BCS HQ – 1st Floor, The Davidson Building, 5 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HA, [map] from 6:00pm to 9:00pm.

Note: Please aim to arrive by 9:15am as the event will start at 9:30 prompt.

This event is free to attend for both BCS Members and non-members but booking is required. Places are limited; please book as soon as possible.

Meet the Supplier Pitches

Provider of Open Source solutions or services? Give a 2 minute pitch!

Session 1: Challenges & Opportunities

Open Source: The Enabler for IoT Greatness (and Mediocrity)

Strip the layers of marketing fluff on the shiny new Internet of Things devices and you will find, in almost all cases, a slew of great Open Source projects powering these little gadgets, to perform their intended duties. Go up a layer and guess what — the cloud is full of Open Source too!

This talks uses IoT as a case study in explaining how Open-Source makes rapid iterations and complex interconnected things happen very quickly. While this all sounds great, we will also look at how certain approaches in “openness” actually cause more problems than they solve especially when it comes to interoperability between ecosystems.

Omer Kilic is an Embedded Systems Engineer who enjoys working with small computers of all shapes and sizes. He works at the various intersections of hardware and software engineering practices, product development and manufacturing. He is the Chief Hacker at Den Automation, an Internet of Things hardware startup in London.

Sailing the open seas

Deciding to operate a business with an ‘Open Source’ mindset, and looking beyond “why would you give everything away for free?”, there are interesting business models to be had. Those invariably come with challenges, but also have the benefits that are derived from maintaining a culture of openness. Boldport is a small business that open sourced their primary internal software tool, PCBmodE, and who releases all their hardware designs as ‘Open Source hardware’. We’ll discuss where ‘openness’ is challenging and where it has created opportunities, all with a hardware perspective.

Saar Drimer combines his obsessive doodling, love for circuit design, programming, and problem solving into Boldport’s products and services. As an engineer he’s learned to appreciate the value of adopting industrial design thinking and making it an integral part of his design process. He studied electrical engineering at UC Santa Cruz, and researched the topic of hardware security for his PhD at the Computer Lab, University of Cambridge.

Session 2: Practical Solutions

Red, Amber, Green: Free and Open-Source Software in the Supply Chain – When to Avoid, Tread Carefully and Embrace

Almost all software projects have an aspect of Open Source: and for very good reason. With reference to client case studies, Andrew considers how to maximise the utility of Open Source code, both in terms of the code itself, and engaging with the communities around it, and mitigating risk throughout the supply chain.

Andrew Katz is a UK-based lawyer specialising in FOSS and open content.

Prior to becoming a lawyer, Andrew Katz was a developer and has released software under the GPL. He advises individuals, corporations, foundations and public sector organisations on FOSS law issues, and is a visiting researcher at the University of Skövde, Sweden, and visiting lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London. He is a founder editor of the Free and Open Source Software Law Review.


Low Power to the People – take back Bluetooth Low Energy control! – London 19/03/2015

The BCS OSSG and the OSHUG are hosting three talks which look at Open Source wireless communications. The event will be held on Thursday 19th March at BCS HQ – 5 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HA from 5:30pm to 8:00pm.

This event is free to attend for both BCS Members and non-members but booking is required.

Programming BLE the hard way: bare metal programming of nRF51 BLE tokens for fun and profit

Bluetooth Low EnergyThe talk will start with a brief overview of the Bluetooth Low Energy advertisement protocol and how to implement bare-metal BLE on top of the ARM-based nRF51 chip – without using the manufacturer provided Bluetooth stack. The general development flow will be explored along with some useful examples, closing with some mischief that can be caused using this knowledge.


Open Source Chips and AGM – London 23/10/2014 1

Open Source HardwareThe BCS OSSG and the OSHUG are hosting three talks which look at the design of Open Source chips and Open Source tools and materials to support their design.

The event will be held on Thursday 23rd October at BCS HQ –  5 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HA and will be preceded by the OSSG Annual General Meeting.

This event is free to attend for both BCS Members and non-members but booking is required.

The timetable for the evening will be:

  • 17:30 – Registration & refreshments
  • 18:00 – AGM (BCS OSSG members only)
  • 18:30 – Open Source Chips talks (BCS members + non-members)
  • 20:00 – Sandwiches + Networking
  • 20:30 – Close