Creating open designs for complex computer chips

Christopher Batten

Open-source software – computer programs with source code that anyone is free to view, modify or distribute – is credited with speeding the pace of innovation. For example, open-source software helped Instagram launch with only $500,000 of seed funding.

But computer hardware designs are kept under wraps by the companies that own them, forcing anyone who wants to improve a computer chip to either build it from scratch or purchase costly licenses.

Cornell researchers are trying to change that, seeking to design open-source hardware that can be freely used and adapted. The task has urgency because artificial intelligence requires highly specialized computer chips, driving demand for new, inventive designs.

“We’re trying to build pieces of hardware designs that are flexible, verified, high quality and that people can download and use in their own designs,” said Christopher Batten, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Batten and Zhiru Zhang, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, were part of a team that designed a complex chip relatively quickly from open-source parts. Their research, “Fast Architectures and Design Methodologies for Fast Chips,” funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), was published in IEEE Micro.

Batten and his team also began working on Posh Open Source Hardware (POSH), part of DARPA’s five-year, $1.5 billion Electronics Resurgence Initiative. The goal is to create an open-source design generator that can be used to create extremely complex computer chips. With David Wentzlaff of Princeton University, Batten is working on two pieces of POSH, including a memory system.

“We want to jumpstart the open-source hardware ecosystem,” Batten said, “with the hope that more people will come along, build and contribute.”

- Melanie Lefkowitz

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