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'Power to the People'

From the dawn of the semiconductor until the late 1980s it was commonplace for software to be completely open source.

When you purchased a device, not only did you have the best Bakelite clad hardware, but also complete access to the code that made it run, allowing you to fine tune the product to its intended purpose.

As computers became smaller and found their way into more walks of life, software became big business. As the value of the industry exploded so too did the rise of a curtain of code secrecy. Much of the source code that many designers and engineers were used to seeing found itself behind costly paywalls or held onto by device manufacturers.

Since then, open source has seen a resurgence, with Linux’s creation in 1991 as an open-source operating system to the founding of the Khronos Group, creating open standards for graphics APIs, and most recently with the RISC-V open access CPU architecture. This open availability of coding has grown alongside the ever-changing and ever-expanding digitization of our lives.

But how does open-source software factor into the existing business model of many IP vendors and semiconductor OEMs and will we see open source growing in its prominence as an offered service?

Many hands make light work

Semiconductors are becoming vital to more and more industries. For example, as display technology becomes more affordable than mechanical dials and interfaces, industries are witnessing a meteoric growth in demand for semiconductor technology. This ever increasing diversification of semiconductor technology into smaller and more niche applications poses a problem for many semiconductor OEMs that open source can help to solve.

With thousands of unique industry customers, 1-to-1 technical and service support is almost impossible to provide in a timely and cost-effective manner, so many of these smaller industry segments are turning to open source software to take the lead themselves and develop highly specialised systems and interfaces. This in turn frees up OEMs to go about what they do best improving their semiconductor products for the next generation.

Another area that has seen a blossoming of open-source work is Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI, sitting on the cutting edge of computer science and semiconductor technology is changing all the time. With growing understanding and breakthroughs being made every day, open-source programming is the only way to keep pace. Paddlepaddle, Kittisieg and many other AI languages are developed in consortium to keep up with the ability of Neural Network Accelerators to crunch data and to keep on the edge of evolving science.

For a proprietary system to be developed in this area would mean a lengthy product development cycle, so that come launch these solutions would already lag behind.

Most importantly, open-source architectures can be invaluable to entire semiconductor segments for one simple reason – competition. One of the best examples of open technology generating healthy competition is the Khronos Group and their work in creating open-standards for graphics extensions to be used across the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) sector.

Imagination has been an active member of the Khronos Group for almost 20 years and in that time alongside other OEMs and IP vendors, has collaborated in the development of many of the extensions in use today such as OpenCL and Vulkan raytracing.

With IP vendors and OEMs all conforming to and supporting a set of open-source standards, they can focus on innovating in their hardware, and keep their focus on providing the “secret sauce” for their customers. It is great for semiconductor customers too, because having a range of options that can support standard operating instructions, gives choice, and keeps manufacturers from being able to dominate the market and force up prices.

Open-technology looks like a vision of a perfect software Utopia, and for some that is the case, but like all things, there is no one size fits all solution.

Putting the control in quality control

For the myriad niche industries embracing a digital future, a heavily open-source workflow is the way to go. But what of the established semiconductor consumers, should they look to open-source as their shining saviour?

The automotive sector is a huge consumer of semiconductors and with increasing pressure to electrify, will only eat up more of the semiconductor market share. Many of the future and current applications of automotive silicon are in safety critical systems. An increasing demand for ISO26262 compliance and the need for ASIL certified systems is creating a requirement for the entire supply chain of silicon products to be traceable and accountable.

The recent certification of Imagination and the B-Series GPU is an example of where an IP vendor’s processes as well as their products need to be verified. With open-source software, by-design it is developed in widely spread-out networks where many people and organisations have access and editing rights making the process of accountability a lengthy one.

Alongside the need of many customers for accountability there is also a need for clearly defined Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and timely product support. Looking back to our automotive example, if a fault is identified in the software or hardware once a vehicle is on the road or in production, a robust support network provided by OEMs and IP vendors is essential.

We have seen recently how a chip shortage can cause long delays, and an issue in software at any point could do the same.

The ecosystem spectrum

We have looked at the two ends of the software ecosystem spectrum, from fully open-source to the completely proprietary, but most customers would benefit from a solution somewhere in the middle. IP vendors and OEMs need to open their eyes to this future.

The best open-source code in the world still requires bespoke APIs to allow it to correctly interface with hardware, which is still seldom open-source in many industries. This puts the onus on IP vendors to become experts in the field of open-source development and lead the charge on emerging frameworks.

By being involved in consortiums and development groups, IP vendors and OEMs can ensure they have day one compatibility and can approach customers with a well-tested and supported ecosystem with open source and open standards at its foundation.

Customers in this new hybrid model will benefit from the value added by a forward-thinking IP and OEM partner saving them development time and money. It also provides the added safety net and assurance that SLAs can provide. They now have a product that can take full advantage of the rapid innovation of open-sourced software architectures but have the peace of mind that these changes will be fully supported and rapidly integrated into the semiconductor products of the future.

Only a Sith deals in absolutes

Semiconductors are making their way into everything. In the ever-expanding patch work of industries using semiconductors, IP vendors and OEMs need to offer everything they can to support their customers.

Open source can’t be regarded as a speed bump in monetising products and needs to become a fully integrated piece of IP vendor and OEM offerings. Those offering proprietary solutions and leaning completely into supporting and developing their products around an open source framework set themselves up as the ideal partners across the spectrum and will reap the benefits both in terms of business acquisition and most importantly customer satisfaction.

Author details: Ploutarchos Galatsopoulos is Director of Software Product Management, Imagination

Ploutarchos Galatsopoulos

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