How free and open-source silicon chips are becoming a reality

Don't get fooled: a silicon chip is not open just because it implements an open-source instruction set like RISC-V

Advertorial In our PCs and smartphones there is a "processor inside". But what is inside that processor? As of today, most microprocessors and silicon chips in general, are black boxes whose design and layout are secret, even when the manufacturer implements an open-source Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) like RISC-V.

A free and open-source silicon chip instead is a chip which is open in its entirety: from the high-level specifications down to the silicon layout. Its design is free as it allows everyone the freedom to study and improve it. An open-source chip is also publicly auditable which allows for increased security because there's no place to hide hardware trojans or unwanted features without being noticed.

These aspects are crucial because our society heavily relies upon silicon chips: our electronic identification card (eIC), our transportation infrastructure, the power grid, the internet, Artificial Intelligence (AI), pacemakers and other life-critical devices all function thanks to integrated circuits.

Because of their complexity, modern silicon chips are designed using sophisticated Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software. Mainstream EDA vendors however can impose restrictions on publishing designs generated using their tools. As a consequence, open-source silicon chips are generally synthesized by EDA software which is open-source and free from legal constraints.

Moreover, given the technological details encoded in the chip layout (such as the shape of the transistors), open-source chips must be fabricated in foundries which have agreed to release their technology details, namely their Process Design Kit (PDK), under an open-source licence (open-source PDK). This can mean less of a legal burden, no vendor lock-in, and lower design costs for everybody involved. Open-source silicon can also mean more geopolitical fairness since some parts of the value chain are dominated by a few actors and by non-transparent discount policies over outrageously expensive licence fees.

Five years ago just the idea of an open-source chip appeared impossible or crazy, even to experts. Yet, in 2019 a microcontroller designed entirely with open-source tools was announced at the first Free Silicon Conference (FSiC2019). A few months later Skywater released the first open-source PDK (130nm), followed by other open-source PDKs from IHP GmbH (130nm BiCMOS) and GlobalFoundries (180nm).

Even though the free and open-source silicon movement is still in its infancy, it could grow to be as important as free and open-source software like GNU/Linux, which is ubiquitous today and generally considered to have fostered considerable innovation.

If you are interested to hear more don't miss the next Free Silicon Conference (FSiC2023) which will be held in Paris on July 10-12. The conference is co-funded by the European Union through the "Go IT!" Coordination and Support Action.

This article is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Commission. Neither the European Union nor the European Commission can be held responsible for them.

Sponsored by the Free Silicon Foundation (I) ETS through the European Union "Go IT!" project number 101070660.

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