Tuesday, June 4, 2013

initial begin

Software is built up by layers and layers of abstractions, which has the pleasant effect of hiding all the underlying madness that computer software is built upon. If we still would be fearless enough to take the long and winding road down a user facing application, through the libraries, operating system and drivers, we would eventually end up at the register map. This is an impenetrable wall even for most of the hardcore close-to-the-metal low-level-driver gurus. This is the boundrary between the chips and the instructions that are meant to make the chips do something useful. This is however not the final frontier. Some fearless souls, calling themselves FPGA/ASIC designers, Digital Design Engineers or Hardware Developers have decided to take the spirit of Open Source and Free Software beyond the wall and into the realms of the silicon. In the Open Source world, hardware is generally considered Open Source friendly when there exists a documented register map and perhaps some use cases, so why do more? Well, for us on the hardware side, we want a little more than that. Hardware can be just as buggy as software, and working with closed-source IP cores are generally a pain. This ranges from the obvious problems that you can't debug your code properly to the insane license agreements and in many cases strange restrictions that the license holder can impose on the development environment. While these are all very practical reasons for doing all this, I think that the driving force for most of us is that it is pretty damn fun!

I, myself, come from a background of having worked professionally with FPGA and ASIC as a consultant for five years now, and been involved with software and hardware since my first stumbling peeks and pokes in QuickBasic in the mid-nineties. Over the years, I have enjoyed the great success of Open Source Software and contributed back to a bunch of different projects. In 2010, I got involved in the OpenRISC project, through my employer at that time. These last three years working on the OpenRISC project in my spare time, I have found myself in company of extremely talented people who are not afraid of learning new things or take on overwhelming challenges. Combined with a large ecosystem of IP cores, toolchains, operating systems, test suites, documentation, development tools and basically everything else you expect from a processor architecture, this has come to be a huge and very interesting project.

The main reason for starting this blog is to shed some light on all the things we are working in the digital domain of the Open Source ecosystem, and in particular the OpenRISC project. Searching around the internet, it turns out that the amount of written information is sparse. Apart from our ever-growing official OpenRISC page that holds our ever-growing wiki and links to most things related, Sven Andersson has written a series of articles about his experience with the OpenRISC as a newcomer to the scene. This has provided us with great feedback for how we can improve and streamline things, as well as getting many people interested in trying out this mythical CPU creature. Franck Jullien has also written some articles on his blog about his work with some cool debugging features for OpenRISC. Another resources that has served well over the years are a series of application notes from Embecosm on SystemC modelling, GDB protocol implementation and C libraries, written by long-time contributor Jeremy Bennett. Many of those articles has found use also outside of the OpenRISC world. There are probably many more articles that I have forgotten about, and it would be great if everyone who feel left out can come forward so that we can collect a definite list of all related articles. In addition to written articles, many of us like to show up at conferences to talk about what we do in the project, hang out and hack on things. Julius Baxter and I have held presentations (here and here) and a workshop at FSCONS and visited FOSDEM last year. 2012 was also the year that we held the first (hopefully annual) OpenRISC Conference, which was a great success. Sitting through the presentations, it was clear that the project is growing and that an impressive amount of work is being done by extremely talented hackers.

While all of these articles and presentations has given us a chance to show what we are doing, there are still a lot of really cool development that goes unnoticed for the unitiated. I hope to get some time to write about all the fun stuff that is going on, and most of all, write about all the fun stuff that I am doing.

Most of my own work isn't directly related to the OpenRISC CPU itself, but on the infrastructure that surrounds it. I'm maintaining an ethernet MAC, has started an extremely low-volume mailing list on the Wishbone bus (which is the bus that OpenRISC as well as a few other Open Source CPU:s use to connect to other IP cores), done some C library hacking, fixing bugs, reminding other people about forgotten patches and fixed bugs and been around to companies, conferences and schools to talk about using Open Source IP cores in their workflow. Since about two years my main focus has been on creating a platform for simulating individual cores as well as simulating and building systems based on the many fine IP cores that are available at OpenCores and other places. The project is called orpsocv3, or the OpenRISC Reference Platform System on Chip version 3, and is planned to replace our current platform orpsocv2. orpsocv3 is packed with functionality that will hopefully make development easier compared to the existing system, and will hopefully be prominently featured in coming articles. The code is still in an early development stage, but you can check it out here if you want to to see for yourself what all the cool kids are talking about. To avoid the infamous scope creep, I'm resisting the urge to write more about orpsocv3 now and instead conclude that proper introductions have been made and we can go on to the technical stuff for the next post.

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