Open source silicon project innovates chips in communications networks

A group of organizations involved with semiconductor innovation intends to form a new open source project, the CHIPS Alliance, which will be hosted by the Linux Foundation. The project will focus on developing open source code relevant to the design of silicon devices, which could include a variety of communications devices such as baseband units, network switches or edge computers.

CHIPS, which stands for Common Hardware for Interfaces, Processors and Systems, will accelerate the creation of more efficient and flexible chip designs for use in networks and devices. The initial founding organizations are Esperanto, Google, SiFive and Western Digital.

The CHIPS Alliance is committed to both open source hardware and continued momentum behind the free and open RISC-V (pronounced risk-five) architecture. RISC-V is an initiative to create an open instruction set architecture. Some chips, such as Intel’s x86, use complex instruction set computing (CISC) architecture. And some chips, including many Arm-based chips, use reduced instruction set computing (RISC). The RISC-V group adopts the RISC nomenclature, adding the Roman numeral V. RISC-V hopes to enable a new era of processor innovation through open collaboration on an open source instruction set.

Since RISC-V already exists, why does the world also need CHIPS?

Zvonimir Bandic, senior director of next generation platform technologies at Western Digital, said RISC-V is working to standardize instructions sets, but the CHIPS Alliance’s mandate will be broader. Of CHIPS, Bandic said, “Although it’s very much RISC-V friendly and oriented toward RISC-V projects, in principle it can focus on other elements as well, or other hardware.”

Bandic said open source hardware is a new frontier. “There have not been enough efforts involving large companies and academic institutions due to unclear legal conditions and the challenges of hardware design tools constantly adding new IP,” he said. “The CHIPS Alliance is meant to be an organization to resolve those problems and allow large entities to work together on open source hardware projects and share resources.”

There is already a flourishing open source hardware project—the Open Compute Project. But Bandic said, CHIPS is concerned with a “much lower level” than the hardware work being done by OPC.

Google is one of the initial members of the CHIPS Alliance, and Amir Salek, senior director of technical infrastructure with Google Cloud, said in a statement, “We are entering a new golden age of computer architecture highlighted by accelerators, rapid hardware development and open source architecture and implementations. Google is committed to fostering an open community of collaboration and innovation in both hardware and software.”

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For its part, the Linux Foundation is known for its plethora of open source software projects. But Mike Dolan, VP of strategic programs at the Linux Foundation, said “The same collaboration model applies to the hardware in a system, just as it does to software components.”

The CHIPS Alliance will follow similar governance practices as other Linux Foundation projects, which will include a board of directors, a technical steering committee and a community of contributors who will work together to manage the project.