Open Hardware Workshop 2011 (Grenoble, FR) (mk2)

Posted by Andrew Moore

Open Hardware Workshop, October 2011 Grenoble

(mk2 with some corrections from Javier)

I had reason to attend the Open Hardware Workshop 2011 in Grenoble. (Waving the flag for NetFPGA and Raspberry Pi and because openhardware appeals to my inner maker and is very cool. (This post comes across a little dour - it shouldn't - I think this is hugely exciting.)

Motivated by the ideals of Open Hardware and exposed with a definition and everything (OSHW) (exampled recently by the CERN Open Hardware License), this workshop was held coincident with the big physics instrumentation conference ICALEPCS, lots of high energy physics people present.

While not the first license for open hardware, the CERN OHL has seeded some interest and contributes to the area being taken more seriously - the event was organized by Javier Serrano and this coupled with an open-hardware success story, Arduino, this workshop was the result.

An exciting gathering with people from a bunch of high energy physics and related people, a bunch of companies (some trying and some not trying OH) and a tonne of others like me (keen enthusiasts, regular enthusiasts or people that see 'this is important').

Javier Serrano gave an introduction to (his version of) the 'open hardware community' he started with a nod to the OSHW definition. There was a nod to specific goals by part of the open hardware community: with a heavy taste of GPL derived OSS-scented ideas, while it did seem a little naive at times, there were clear best-intentions and in particular the community (drawing on experience from OSS) recognizes that there has to be flexibility in specifics as well as a community that fosters support companies otherwise no one is going to have a commercial route.

Another aspect was the Open Hardware Repository - while not intended to be Sauron's eye - it is a fantastic resource for combining and sharing projects. A little unclear what license things are/must/should/could be under but a great idea.

Tomasz Wlostowski, gave a quick summary of the Open Hardware Summit held a few weeks earlier in NYC - and the best (hope) take-away was "The best is yet to come" an interesting justification was given relating to the slow-down in Moores law as it relates to the simple manufacturing speed ups (the assertion was this moved the leading edge away from simply being make-things-faster, and would be the chance for making-things/different/cheaper/flexible/interesting to flourish - this being the open door for the Open Hardware movement.) in contrast to the 'engineers' of the Workshop, the Summit had been all about community-raising and a much more consumer/social event. Notable cool things was the Instructables (what happens when you mix 13 year olds, constuction-kits and many rubber bands), and the ifixit (free manuals) website.

Myriam Ayass (legal advisor of CERN's Knowledge Transfer group) talked about the Cern OHL, in particular that it is going to version 1.2 (with a version 1.3 in the planning stages) and that this attends many issues with earlier versions. There is a mailing list for discussing the license and if you have a heart felt opinion - first make sure you have the latest copy and second join the discussion. It is clear Cern have their heart in the right place over this and don't mind the legal investment most of us cannot make.

My notes are that currently this is a PCB-focused license, the definition of hardware is a confusion and that a kicking question is 'so what is RTL/VHDL/Verilog/etc' - is that hardware covered by the OHL or something else?

This talk generated a huge bunch of questions ranging from "what does Cern OHL want to be: GNU-like (coveting openness as priority) or BSD/Apache-like (coveting dissemination as priority). " certainly less understanding from those present about what happens when licenses are combined, when licenses are unclear and far too much "well don't use that tool then" in response to tool-chain lockin. However, none of these people were idiots and now is the time to have an impact, mailing list details are off the Cern OHL site link

This was followed by a talk by the Arduino cofounder David Cuartielles. They make rather nice, very very cheap, do-dads (started life as a "how do I get my kid interested in CompSci/CompEng"). work in collaboration with Telefonica (including Pablo Rodriguez), among others. Very near ideas, but they face a real trauma - because they are signed up to "open" they are put at risk economically by the problem that once the PCB artwork of boards are released, the company has less than four weeks before clone boards appear. The arduino boards are considered (and perhaps fairly-so) as a potentially useful blob in the "Internet of things" (yeah I know - no working definition) sensor boards, various neat flashing light things, robot boards, all that sort of stuff, neat and nice. I hope Raspberry Pi can recycle the community of connectables this project has fathered.

Creotech (the second of four commercials that had talks), founders include an ex-CERNer and are working on instrumentation that plugs into a bus called FMC- something (FMC is a wider standard called  VITA 57) that is intended to allow compatible instrumentation packages, what this means for you and me is unclear but the motivating project for a lot of these people was either to stop having their lives/work ruled by huge transactions of money to "National Instruments" (and other vested interests) and to stop needless repetition rebuilding things that already existed - a particular density Msamples-per-second do-dad was one particular issues that it appeared many organizations had started and perhaps even completed at least 90% of their own in-house designs. Creotech was open hardware thinking, seemed fairly successful and had some respect.

In contrast National Instruments, ICALEPCS (but not the OHW) sponsor, did not. A talk that largely consisted of "Yah national instruments" did contain one seed of useful insight; the problem most any organization has (and the one National instruments can do) is provide a 25 year guarantee of lifetime replacement/operation/etc It was clear the speaker was having a pot-shot at the open hardware startups, but he also made courting noises and a question "what does your talk have to do with open hardware" summed up the chasm nicely (in short: not much or "we are still thinking".) The problems for NI are interesting, but an example is this: apparently (don't quote me on how good the toolchain is) the NI tool chain can target special NI devices that are both programmable and include a range of flexible bits- from hardware to firmware (FPGA) to whatever. The toolchain is assured, and tightly (conservatively) bounds what the programming can actually do - this all is rather critical if you (as NI) need to give assurances that not only will your kit work for 25 years, but the 'motor control unit that closes the small door preventing escape of the nasty gas' will actually do its job." The idea that someone can knock together some new code to run on the NI device brings out the NI lawyers in cold-sweats.

The issue of liability is interesting too, as it is a strong theme in the Cern OHL.

Seven Solutions a little more Creotech-like,are dabbling and sell an open board or two. They make an interesting and active hybrid model (propriety + OH)

and Instrumentation Technologies another instrumentation group that   is flirting with open hardware talked, time passed, talk finished.

Facebook (John Kenevey) talked about the Open Compute Project. Don't get too excited, its about building a design for machine rooms that is more universal and more wide-ranging than simply fits in 19" racks - the current definition.
Notable soundbits: Open compute is a white-box channel to the market that challenges supplier base and allows new entrants. A conclusion was that the dance between silicon vendors (CPU makers) and box-benders meant that the vendors are screwed and the customers are worse-than-screwed. People pitching OCP as a mechanism to get out form under vendor locking.
When you see the in-house machines of Google, and Facebook, and others, this makes a lot of sense.

Modularization is key, and facebook seem to be enjoying not caring about doing anything more than 'motivating' the actions and encouraging the open-source hardware community. It is clear they are sick of being held over a barrel by people that assemble machines (metal benders) and hope for some nice innovations... Facebook consider this part of their "GRID to Gates" (GRID in this case means the power-grid) initiative. Problems seem to be what does a standard smell like? do we have fans in the rack or in the units, what is the form and nature of power in the rack or the exchangeable units.. etc etc. Sadly the impact for the man in the street (or the machine-room fitter-outer in the room) will be 12 months away (my wild guess). The slides of this talk were not available (nor the recording) as there was some discussion (funny stories) about specific 'metal benders.

Following lunch we had several speakers talking about tool chains for (PCB) design: two tools got discussed: GEDA and Kicad, kicad looked very nice indeed and certainly looked better than some of the approaches common. Problems discussed including importing artwork and the general mumbles of agreement about libraries of package and pinout. For this writers perspective it seems a public definition of pinouts and packages is obvious and in the interests of the manufacturers - although probably not in the interests of various 'big package' authors (Cadence, etc.) Time will tell.

Projects discussed in the remainder of the day included

hdlmake, a concept to get away from the GUIS commonplace in build tool-chains, adds manifests to permit dependency trees, and seems for the most part like a good idea. (Also makes me appreciate the effort Jad Naous and others did on NetFPGAv2 to build the make as clean as it was.)

Icarus Synthesis engine - considered critical OSS for Open Hardware. obvious problems include propriety core-handling.

Open FPGA toolchain (Sébastien Bourdeauducq who did the Milkymist open video (effects) hardware. neat stuff trying to hack his way around obfuscated FPGA details - (with a lot of grumbles about how mean Altera and Xilinx are) but the guy was totally oblivious to the idea that people don't realize details about their FPGA because some knock-off company will start making 10cent copies of the FPGAs themselves. Ok I'm being unfair, Sebastien's position is "let's get started nevertheless and see what happens". I think this would appeal strongly to academics who want to redesign/modify/mess-with the RTL -> FPGA process.

Other things presented included: SOLEIL synchrotron instrumentation and the RHINO project.

RHINO is interesting, as an open source radio thing that came from the radar remote sensing group at the University of Cape Town born from CASPER (a project at Berkeley) and the interest in South Africa in the SKA project (SKA is at this moment a competition to build the next serious astronomy platform: either in Australia or South Africa), neat stuff. This project incorporates BoRPH and a number of other technologies to make it easier to use and consume.

From the discussion slides for the Open Hardware Community: (some questions without answers)

  • Can clients change mindset from build-in-house (a not-invented-here variant) and pay for support?
  • How can we deal with Tech Transfer departments that argue against OSH (even if the hardware is not core buisness)
  • How can we involve universities?
  • (How) can we pool resources?
  • (How) can we pool manpower for projects?
  • (how) can we pool money to pay companies (for the dull stuff)?
  • Who are the communities?

lots of talk, not many answers - this is a very young community, lots of idealism lots of potential.

Most-all the presentations and videos of the presentations and Q&A are available from the workshop, all under creative commons (of course)

General comment: This community is very interesting but right at the moment there are considerable dumb-language (lazy language) defaults that conflate commercial and propriety when they mean "open-source" and commercial and it may be an issue from "English as a second language"; I know this wounds commercial organizations (cast as bad guys) and in fact the intention is something else.

It was great - I will go again, if Javier lets me.