Draft Libre-SOC Chip article

Revisions / History:

  • 11 May 2020 - version 2

So much more is possible within this very small chip. Not the fastest, nor the most powerful but the most radical for a new piece of silicon in the 21st century. The chip will be available to our members together with the expertise to use it.

The Libre-SOC project, with MarketNext, creates a first-of-its-kind Libre-licensed CPU with built-in GPU (3D) and VPU (Video) capabilities. It is open to anyone, any entrepreneur, anywhere in the world to extend it to meet the needs of their local market. This market was previously considered the realm of very large corporations only. Not having expertise hasn’t been an obstacle to having the vision because MarketNext has been able to provide very specific expertise to support this new member.

This chip can allow people to manufacture Smartphones, tablets & notebooks, single board computers for all sorts of industrial, embedded applications, entertainment devices, automotive & power management for new electric vehicle designs, interactive kiosks, public information systems, power and resource management. You can build intelligent behavioural networks for electric vehicle recharging & power-grids. One application could be to accelerate the evolution of the current internet to be better suited to developing economies, and providing access to management heuristics within that network.

It has been built so that countries and citizens regain Sovereign control over their computing technology. When the Quad-core version of the chip is ready, its cost in volume will be around $4 (74 ZAR, 302 INR, £3.22). It has a massive potential to change the status quo. We accept at the moment that things are manufactured in South Korea or China and then distributed all over the world. With Libre-SOC chips, suddenly, anybody with a small workshop can create sophisticated computing devices with much reduced legal and technical hurdles. We are building expertise which is valuable and we are inviting anyone to co-create empowering opportunities for the people who use it.

New MarketNext member Luke Leighton conceived this design, and, with the help of Mitch Alsup on the comp.arch newsnet group, got a crash-course education in chip architecture. Mitch is the designer of the Motorola 68000, 88120, AMD K9, AMD Opteron Series, and a lead architect on Samsung's recent GPU. He is also one of the few people in the world with working knowledge of the exceptionally powerful Cray CDC6600 - the inspiration for this initiative's core engine. Other invaluable team members, Jacob Lifshay, Yehowshua Immanuel, Michael Nolan and more, share the same goals and have been helping to make this chip a reality.

“We’re not trying to build the fastest", Luke said. "or the most powerful computer processor ever. It is the most radical design. It’s capable of a high degree of parallel processing. Also it’s the first ever Libre-licensed chip which has such a radical and ambitious architecture, with an extended instruction set that makes GPU instructions native. This means that all video and 3D processing is done far more efficiently inside the chip, dramatically simplifying software drivers and end-user applications as a hugely beneficial side-effect”. Fundamentally, free open source software is better, not just because it’s free as in free beer but also because it’s free as in free and fair elections. When a closed operation works, their development cycle tends to go through big internal iterations and the teams are contractually unable to talk to anyone. The 3rd party developers using that product who find errors and need help from the company meet stone-cold brick walls in the form of NDAs and "support contracts". With this design being conducted entirely in the open, developers do not need to ask permission. They can download the drivers and the full hardware design immediately. Mistakes are rectified faster, more elegant solutions are incorporated earlier, the open design process always creates better results which are more user & market friendly.

There is also an additional huge market for peripherals, interfaces, environmental sensors, human interface devices including virtual reality supported by future versions. By 2022, we expect to mass-produce a Quad Core 64-bit chip with a dual issue 800Mhz processor and a 320 pin package for under $4.

Libre-SOC is a system which has grown from following Libre principles. What it basically does is it extends the ethical FOSS (Free Open Source Software) principles into hardware. Presently you have to run open source software on hardware such as Intel or Apple. When this chip exists there will be no corporate stranglehold on any part of the whole stack.

This allows massive revenue transfer. We open closed markets and create product income for all members of the network closer to the point of use. The astronomical revenues kept in tax havens by corporations can now be shared by local communities all over the whole world.

Any patents will be based on the IBM patent pool concept, which is royalty-free for any user unless that user asserts litigation detrimental to other members of the user community.

So here is a system where MarketNext members can provide customer services, legal service, marketing services and crucial technical expertise. Although we can’t have complete control over how an open product is used, the core developers and MarketNext members, having current know-how, are by default the logical best route and will have first-mover advantage.

Within closed and proprietary systems, you have the so-called Peter Principle where people are promoted into a role above their ability and then they stay at that role, slightly above their ability. In an open system that can’t happen. In an open project you are not working with a project according to the abilities you had in the past. You’re contributing according to your best assets right now and we can avoid the massive mistake of closed systems.

For example: due to NDAs, proprietary and closed development teams are prevented and prohibited from reaching out if they need outside assistance. Libre and Open Projects, never having signed an NDA, if they need help, may ask on public forums such as comp.arch, immediately. More than that: again, with no NDAs, and operating entirely in the public eye, anyone may reach out, at any time, and volunteer their advice and expertise.

It will be practical and usable. We are doing this really fast because sharing knowledge is key to our growth. We hope to have our first device ready for October 2020 as a proof of concept test chip. We already have simulator builds and unit tests as part of the daily development plan. By August this year, we aim to have an FPGA (Floating Point Gate Array) build ready which is a hardware simulation and then we will really be able to test it. We will potentially have around 30 chips available for testing on 180nm. Those precious chips will be available to exclusive and strategic partners willing to help us achieve this ambitious goal.

A simple way to understand how the Open Source model works is for example with Linus Torvalds who was the spearhead of the Linux operating system. He is available to anyone in the world to help with their Linux project. But it works fine without him. He’s available for hire but not for employment. Typically such founders will be involved in projects which expand the use case and which extends the reach of the technology. Because of the openness and the visibility of this development, that expertise becomes available to more MarketNext members to share.

Libre-SOC has thrived by openly asking questions in public and receiving amazing support. The collaborators come so far from India, Russia, UK, Iceland, Canada, USA, Germany, Belgium and Taiwan. Now that it’s part of MarketNext we expect that collaboration to grow further.

There are many applications for this in the developing market and advantages from removing reliance on expensive imported goods and being able to manufacture more locally. This chip will be available cheaply to members and support and expertise will be available to members for how to take this and make this core component which has never been available before.

With Linux over the past few decades, there have been very stable incomes from this free project from support, education and training. It powers over 60% of all the worlds’ web servers. Now these are the first steps ever in creating an open hardware platform. The potential applications for this are highly expansive.

Whilst considerably simpler this creates more opportunity for those in legal services, human resource consultancy, education, science & engineering, public policy, and many other areas of our members interests.