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Open Source Hardware: Chiplicity.io

Open Source Hardware: Chiplicity.io
by Daniel Nenni on 07-06-2017 at 7:00 am

 What’s new with eFabless? Let’s check in with CEO Michael Wishart (MSW) and CTO Mohamed Kassem CTO (MKK):


MKK: Chiplicity is an Open Source Hardware framework that provides IC designers with everything needed to design, verify, validate and prototype mixed signal ASIC products. The key word here is “products”. That means the framework has to be complete and compatible with the target foundry technologies and also has to include access to the key IP blocks especially those provided by the foundries.

You can think about it as a Hardware Development Kit for IC (an HDK for IC) with the toolbox and all the required foundry information to correctly design a manufacturable integrated circuits. Our objective is to simplify the path from an idea to a real testable silicon, and make this capability available to a wide community of designers worldwide – hence the name Chip-licity. By releasing Chiplicity we are placing the cornerstone for the community to design and share their work.

We begin the Chiplicity initiative with an open source chip called Hydra and the IP and tools to modify it and build your own. Ultimately, our Chiplicity solution will make community designed IC’s commercially viable across a wide range of applications. Some will certainly wonder how Chiplicity meets Open Source Hardware? The answer is we provide libraries of key functions and blocks (think about them like the PCB parts), a designer can use them to construct more complex functions. Of course there is different design challenges in integrating a set of IP’s into an ASIC but with the right application targeting these can be standardized and made simpler for the designer.

MSW: This is a very big deal for us and, we think, ultimately for the industry. Open source revolutionized software because the tool set and key components (e.g. compilers and libraries) were open to everyone. Various platforms like GitHub then emerged to facilitate broad sharing of code and ideas. App stores provided global distribution. Our mission is to replicate this in ICs – enable and organize a community and seed it with the all the critical elements to make, share, fork and commercialize community designed ICs. All in one place. We build on, support and extend progress in RISC-V, open EDA and other open source and community vectors. Open source is key – community contribution is essential.

What is the connection between community and open source?
MSW:We view both to be the complementary and essential building blocks of open innovation and we view open innovation to be the critical step that ICs need to embrace to keep pace with the revolution in smart hardware design. This revolution is growing out of the “maker” and “hacker” movements and has resulted in great products from entrepreneurial companies like Fitbit and GoPro. As our colleague Tim Edwards say “The IC world needs a parallel Maker-IC movement and a way to commercialize many of the results”. In addition, we are seeing interest from the academic community in using such platform for project-supported course work like those authored by Professor Phil Allen.

MKK: Some of the designs completed on our platform will be available under various open source licenses, some under proprietary licenses. We want to provide a framework to design and a marketplace to share, license and sell ideas. Ultimately, community will share in both risk and reward. Price and license are up to the community.

What is available on Chiplicity today?

MKK: You have everything now at your disposal to cover the full design cycle from idea to completed manufacturable GDS. We provide a set of library components in the marketplace – the Hydra open source chip, analog IP ready to wire, a standardized pad frame and a serial interface (SPI). The community member can “clone” these into their own work space on efabless’ MyLib repository and go to work. The final designs can then be promoted to the marketplace for sharing with others. We also provide an open source test board for the Hydra as part of the library components in the marketplace to validate custom analog circuit designs. Importantly, it all works. We have already used the framework to tape-out two chips with different analog content. It is now open to “you” to complete your IC and share it with the community. Community members also have the option to manufacture their design through efabless on shuttles with X-FAB.

We also provide a taste of where we are going with this. As part of our digital library, we include a “soft” RISC-V variant called PicoRV32 developed by Clifford Wolf.

What is on the roadmap?
MKK: As I was implying, by the end of the fall a community designer will be able to construct and verify more complex mixed signal ASICs for a variety of applications using microprocessor cores like the PicoRV32. They will have additional marketplace IP, both custom analog and digital. This will include more existing open source IP and new community developed analog blocks. The community member will be able to share or commercialize under a license of their choosing. We encourage open source but that will be up to the community member. We support one process node today, the X-FAB 350nm. We will also be adding other process technologies with 180nm next on our list.

What is the target market?
MKK: Basically we are democratizing chip design by connecting resources with ideas and by driving upfront costs to very low levels in return for revenue share. Put another way there is a host of unserved markets that Chiplicity should appeal to. It could be IC entrepreneurs with limited capital and great IoT IC ideas on analog-centric nodes. System and subsystem vendors needing custom silicon is a market that we are already seeing demand from. In the last six weeks, we have been approached by two companies with similar such requests. When we build momentum we would like to see our design community collaborate with product companies to identify and create unique products.

How do I get started?
MKK:Basically, it is very straightforward. You just register on our platform at efabless.com, it’s free and quick. Go to our marketplace, choose the Hydra IP and go to work. We have documentation to help you along and we will be offering a webinar in mid-July to provide more information.

Tell us about the team.
MSW: The idea is a brainchild of Mohamed’s and it is a direct extension of our community IP solution and marketplace. To make it happen, we combined the efforts of our chip, tool and web teams. Tim Edwards, of Open Circuit Design fame, implemented the his open source Hydra and pulled together various other IP blocks. Tim is a bit of a guru in the open source chip world and he is excited, to say the least, to see all of this becoming a reality. Greg Shaurette and Jeff DiCorpo made the marketplace functionality happen and Risto Bell provided the glue to pull it all together. We were able to build on the prior work in our digital flow by our key partners, Rajeev Srivastava, in Austin, and Mohamed Shalan, a leading academic in Egypt. Jay Shah, our intern did lots of the testing. It was a group effort with teams in six locations in four time zones. We actually embody our talk on community.

What Next?

MKK:We are encouraging community to get to work. X-FAB has a shuttle in November 2017 and we will offer special prizes and a free shuttle spot for two community designs that are completed by that time.

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