Open-source microprocessor

Open-source microprocessor

In future, it will be easier and cheaper for developers at universities and SMEs to build wearable microelectronic devices and chips for the internet of things, thanks to the PULPino open-source processor, which has been developed at ETH Zurich and the University of Bologna.

Software source codes and hardware designs tend to be closely guarded trade secrets. Not so with open-source products. For instance, the code of open-source software is freely available to all: the best known example is the Linux operating system. Not only are interested developers able to use the software, they can also further develop it and adapt it to their own needs.

Open-source products also exist on the hardware side. Examples are open micro-controller boards such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi, of which blueprints are publicly available. However, these boards are based on commercial chips, whose internal architecture is not open-source. A few days ago, scientists at ETH Zurich and the University of Bologna, led by ETH Professor Luca Benini, open sourced the full design of one of their microprocessor systems – in a way that maximises the freedom of other developers to use and change the system, says Benini. “It will now be possible to build open source hardware from the ground up.”

“In many recent examples of open-source hardware, usage is restricted by exclusive marketing rights and non-competition clauses,” says Benini. “Our system, however, doesn’t have any strings attached when it comes to licensing.” The arithmetic instructions that the microprocessor can perform are also open source: the scientists made the processor compatible with an open-source instruction set – RISC-V – developed at the University of California in Berkeley.

A prototype of a smartwatch in the laboratory of Luca Benini — this shows a commercial processor, not PULPino. Credit: ETH Zurich / Frank K. Gurkaynak

Processor for wearable microsystems

The new processor is called PULPino and it is designed for battery-powered devices with extremely low energy consumption (PULP stands for ‘parallel ultra low power’). These could be for chips for small devices, such as smartwatches, sensors for monitoring physiological functions (which can communicate with a heart rate monitor, for instance) or sensors for the Internet of Things.

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