Open source hardware puts licensing models to test

The open source movement is entering a new era with industry heavyweights like IBM and Sun Microsystems announcing that for the first time in their companies’ histories they will open source the documentation for some of their hardware.

IBM was among the first to do so in October 2004 when it announced the opening of the IBM eServer BladeCenter specification under the Berkley Software Design (BSD) license. In September 2004 IBM launched the OpenPower project to allow Linux developers to create, test and support Power 5-based OpenPower servers. The Linux server line was priced to compete with Sun’s UltraSparc chip and Intel’s and AMD’s x86 chip sets — Xeon and Opteron.

More recently, Sun made headlines in December when it announced it will be releasing the specifications — including the design, written in Verilog hardware description language — for its newest UltraSparc-based chip, the UltraSparc T1 processor. The specs will be made available through the OpenSparc project in the first quarter of this year, according to the company.

Toronto technology lawyer Rob Hyndman of Hyndman Law firm said the Sun announcement represents the next logical step in the open source movement and is encouraging for tech companies in terms of thinking about other ways of commoditizing the intellectual property that they develop.

“You can look at it as a marketing ploy by Sun to get their equipment everywhere — they’re a for-profit company,” said Hyndman. “But you can also look at it as an almost breathtaking first step in the development of a new business model and the natural extension of the open source software movement.”

Hyndman said examples of this are also emerging in other realms outside of IT such as biotechnology with the open sourcing of genetic code.

Eben Moglen, general counsel to the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a not-for-profit organization that promotes computer users’ right to use, study, copy, modify and redistribute computer programs, said the announcements are creating a new kind of environment of developers.

“There are a lot of people out there that can constitute a community for hardware design and construction in much of the same way that 10 years ago there were a lot of programmers around the world that could constitute a community for software design and construction,” said Moglen. The Foundation is set to release the first discussion draft of the new GNU GPL, which was last revised in 1991, at the International Public Conference for GPLv3 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in two weeks. Moglen, also chair of the Software Freedom Law Center and Columbia Law School professor, helped co-author the second version in 1991 and is facilitating the revision process for the upcoming release.

The Foundation’s GNU GPL, however, is not to be confused with the open source movement. In an e-mail to, FSF founder Richard Stallman explicitly states how the open source campaign was launched in 1998 to reject the what Stallman describes as the Foundation’s values of freedom and community.

“I founded the free software movement, a movement for freedom to cooperate,” Stallman wrote. “Open source was a reaction against our idealism. We are still here and the open source people have not wiped us out.”

Sun, which to date has veered away from the GNU GPL model, has yet to announce what licensing model it will adopt for the project but the company said at last month’s launch that it would be one that’s approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

“The issue with open source hardware is a little bit different than software in that the big advantage of the open source movement, aside from its community is that people can actually play with the source code,” said Brain Down, chief technical officer for client solutions at Sun Microsystems of Canada.

Hyndman, however, said one question about the Sun announcement that remains to be answered is what exactly Sun means when it tells developers to do what they want with the specs.

“They want to make sure people can optimize applications and operating systems for use with the chip, improve hardware that incorporates the chip so that other manufacturers can develop the chip and variations of it,” said Hyndman, who is also a CIPS member. “That suggests something quite far away from the GPL, which really would be an impediment to people who would want to commercially deploy what they did with what’s being open sourced.”

Sun has open sourced all of its software, with the exception of its core Java software, under the Sun Community Source Licensing (SCSL), which allows users to retain ownership as an entity over any enhancements they make to the software base.

Sun’s license and similar ones like BSD, which is the Berkley version of Unix, allow developers to license an enhancement they’ve made to the software whereas so-called “copy-left” models like GNU GPL require them to publish modifications and enhancements. There are, however, several variants of the BSD license, and as such BSD can’t be generalized as an alternative to GNU GPL, according to Stallman.

Milind Joshi, president of Toronto-based application developer Idea Technosoft Inc., said licenses like GPL can be good for some apps and development tasks but can limit a company’s ability to be innovative.

“BSD allows you to use (code) and not distribute it again,” said Joshi. “GPL is great because it ensures nobody can infringe on somebody else’s intellectual property.”

The number of participants in Sun’s OpenSparc project will, however, be significantly less than its current 10,000 registered OpenSolaris community members due to the high costs of fab centres required to produce silicon.

“Regrettably, you’ve got that two billion dollar price tag for the fab centre on the end of it,” said Down. “That’s really going to limit those that can play in that arena.” Down added that because Sun will be releasing the Verilog source code, the simulations and the operating system, smaller dev teams will still be able to make modifications to the Sparc chip’s design and run it through simulations to see if they get any improvements in performance prior to burning it.

Moglen, however, said there are many manufacturers out there besides the Fujitsus and Hitachis of the world that are able to produce the industry de facto 90 nm semiconductor.

“The world is drowning in foundry capacity at the moment,” he said. “Most of the foundry capacity is at pretty high levels considering 90 nanometres is considered run of the mill.”

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