Open hardware, sometimes called open source hardware, isn’t actually brand new, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it is. The Open Compute Project, a global community of engineers looking to bring the same kind of creativity and collaboration to hardware as you see in open source software, has been around for over 10 years. But for those immersed in the software world, it’s easy to overlook the way open source principles have been changing the hardware world.
What Is Open Hardware?
In case it’s non-obvious, it makes sense to start by clarifying what open hardware even is — it refers to open sourcing the designs for hardware components, so that anyone can manufacture hardware according to the open designs. Like with open source software, individuals or companies can make changes to open hardware designs, they can incorporate them into larger projects and republish their altered designs.
This does limit the open hardware in the popular imagination in a way open source software is not limited — anyone, even those who are not technical, can download and use many open source projects successfully. Open hardware, though, requires the ability to create the physical artifact based on designs before it becomes real-world useful for the masses.
While the Open Compute Project didn’t start yesterday, it is only 1/3 as old as the Linux Foundation. But while open hardware is less well-known, especially outside the hyperscale community, it has been growing exponentially recently.
Why Does Open Hardware Matter?
With open hardware, “The biggest advantages are cost, for one, and flexibility,” said Ali Fenn, president of ITRenew, a company that specializes in helping companies reuse hardware. “There’s no lock-in, no dependence on an OEM-specific firmware version.”
Relatedly, Fenn said, “A huge (advantage) is that open enables recertification, enables second lives and enables a richer style of lifecycle management and how we maximize their value in the aggregate. This could never have been done with proprietary.” The ability to reuse hardware ends up not just helping with sustainability efforts, but also costs — reusing and repurposing hardware dramatically reduces the total cost of ownership. It’s not possible, however, using proprietary designs.
The ability to sidestep lock-in has a particularly important consequence in light of chip shortages and supply chain challenges. With open hardware, companies can easily tweak device designs to incorporate available components and aren’t nearly as reliant on a single supplier.
Companies Are Taking Note
RISC-V is a free and open source standard instruction-set architecture (ISA) for computer chips, and RISC-V International, the foundation behind it, has been around since 2015. As Calista Redmond, RISC-V’s CEO, said during a talk at the Linux Foundation Member Summit, “this is about creating commercial success, changing the game and disrupting the status quo for semiconductors.”
The growth of both RISC-V’s adoption and membership in RISC-V International’s foundation have grown exponentially recently. Membership in the foundation doubled in just the first six months of 2021, and includes chip manufacturers, software and firmware companies and the makers of connected devices. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of hardware designs incorporate the RISC-V open ISA, including 40% of CPU designs.
Part of the increased demand for open hardware has to do with just an increased demand for hardware, period. As more and more connected devices hit the market, there are more places to incorporate open hardware. “Let’s think about that 50 billion connected IoT devices by 2030,” Redmond said. “This skyrocketing opportunity means we’re putting microprocessors in corners we never imagined.”
Creativity and Collaboration
Open hardware doesn’t just provide hard business value — one of the primary drivers in the open hardware movement is about bringing the sprint of creativity and collaboration that’s a core part of open source software development to the hardware world. “There a mindset and an ethos that the open source software movement enabled that is very much driving the open hardware opportunity,” Fenn said.