Hardware and software go hand in hand – one doesn’t work without the other. Despite being so closely linked, the two industries operate very differently. For the most part, hardware is produced in isolation and product designs are concealed by manufacturers, while software is created in a largely open and collaborative environment, available for anyone to use.
Javier Serrano, a hardware designer for accelerator systems at CERN, set out to change that. Three years ago, his software design colleagues were developing device drivers – the interface between a piece of hardware and software applications – with the Linux open-source operating system. Serrano noticed that they enjoyed being part of a community where they had access to high-quality products and could seek help whenever they needed it.
“I’m a hardware designer but I would love to work in that kind of environment,” Serrano said. He wanted to mirror the open software culture by creating a place where hardware designs could be shared, critiqued and modified by anyone, in a way that benefitted designers, manufacturers and consumers alike.
A year later the Open Hardware Repository was born. While it is not the first attempt at providing a space for hardware designers to share efforts, the repository is unique in that it is geared toward professional designers, primarily from publicly funded laboratories or academic settings, who create hardware for physics experiments. In the two years since its launch, the repository has hosted more than 40 projects, both from within CERN and from external designers.
Alan Langman, from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, was among the first to submit a design to the open hardware repository. His group’s project, dubbed Rhino, is a circuit board for radio-based technologies such as radar and radio astronomy. The repository will allow the technology designed for his group's needs to be used by other experiments all over the world.
“We received excellent, multinational technical review support and design guidance,” Langman said. “As a result, the first version of our board worked with only minor errors. The opportunity to consult with people from CERN and other top institutions has been priceless.”
Peer review is just one benefit of open hardware, Serrano says. Sharing information also cuts down on multiple efforts to create similar devices or solve the same problems. This leaves room for designers to focus on what they know best, rather than starting each project from scratch and debugging along the way.
“We have limited resources and a tight schedule,” said Joseph De Long, a technology architect at Brookhaven National Laboratory. De Long designs accelerator systems for the future National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS-II) and is an avid proponent of open hardware. “This initiative creates a group of developers with a common goal: improve the hardware that gets released,” he said.
This is not only a boon for designers, but an incentive for industry to become involved. Not spending resources on development lowers a manufacturer’s entry cost into a particular product. While one manufacturer can’t have exclusive production rights for an open hardware design, they can drive revenue by providing testing, support and guarantees.
“There are many opportunities for industrial partners to advance our innovations and profit from the value they add,” De Long said. Just last month, CERN accepted the first bid from a manufacturer to produce one of its open hardware designs.
The openness doesn’t stop there. Many devices designed at CERN are done so under the newly created Open Hardware License, which requires manufacturers to include all design and production documentation with shipments of open hardware products. The license ensures that anyone who buys open hardware devices can, in principle, modify or manufacture the design on their own. If someone modifies an open hardware design, they must include these changes in the repository and release them under the same license.
“The open hardware repository was a very specific idea. Although we were quite familiar with open source software, when [Serrano] brought the idea to us, it was the first time we looked into the open hardware movement” said Myriam Ayass, legal advisor for the Knowledge Transfer group at CERN and author of the CERN Open Hardware License. “We were very interested in the idea, and in doing it in a way that meets our mission and constraints,” she said. The open hardware movement fits in with the KT mission to foster collaboration and disseminate CERN-developed technologies as widely as possible.
In the end, the spirit of open source comes full circle. Software engineers – whose community inspired the open hardware repository – can write more efficient programs if they understand the guts of the hardware. Both sides benefit.
“Open hardware can learn a lot from open software,” De Long said. “The goal of open hardware is to have a place to retrieve solutions to our design challenges. We hope to ‘pay it forward’ and help create a source of tried and true designs that can be leveraged in new projects. In the future, we can focus our resources on the technology requirements unique to new machines while drawing from past experience.”
Read the CERN press release