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    Tuesday, October 30, 2007

    It's a Bird, It's a Plane...It's a Proprietary Processor Architecture ! : If ARM's Microsoft, Who is Red Hat?

    How are third-party ARM-compatible processor cores like dodos? In both cases, there are none in existence and those that were alive were hunted down and killed (Here lies PicoTurbo...). Take a look around. There are no alternative vendors for your favorite processor core. That's because most of the proprietary cores are so well-protected that its almost impossible to meet the ISA spec and not violate a patent. This issue presents a problem. Processor cores are to ASICs what operating systems are to computers : a platform. Since those that control the platform make the rules and the money (just ask Bill), there's a pitched battle between the IP companies to dominate the market. While market shares of individual companies such as ARM and MIPS go up and down, proprietary processor cores as a whole dominate the ASIC landscape. At this point, you may ask yourself : What's the problem with that?

    • Freedom : Freedom to modify, share and improve processor cores and generally enrich mankind with your knowledge.
    • Safety : Safety in the knowledge that your chosen architecture is non-proprietary and, thus, is not controlled by any one entity. Further, its non-proprietary nature allows you to benefit from competition among vendors.
    • Money : The business model for processor cores companies is pretty standard. The developers of the core get a percentage of sales revenue of devices built on top of their core. If you adopt a free (as in beer and freedom) architecture, you save those dollars for yourself.
    Significant obstacles have to be overcome before any open architecture can match up to the proprietary ones.
    • Ecosystem : A solid ecosystem is essential to the success of any platform. Proprietary processors enjoy unrivaled ecosystems that are not even close to being matched by open architectures such as Sparc.
    • Support : Processor core companies know their cores inside out. They spend their lives developing and advancing processors and the associated tool chains. It's hard to find that kind of laser-beam focus and support in the case of open architectures.
    • Marketing : This is an important issue. There are no evangelists with deep pockets broadcasting the stability and maturity of open architectures. Linux has RedHat, IBM and Sun to toot its horn. What of hardware?
    • Image : The image of open source software took some time to go from hacker's science experiments to rock-solid enterprise applications. The image of open source hardware is yet to undergo a similar transition.
    The shortcomings of the open architecture can be overcome with the backing of solid profit-driven companies that align their business with open source processor architectures. Like I said, what we really need is a Red Hat of processor cores...

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