The Technology First team at element14 is proud to bring you an excerpt from the latest issue XVII - coming soon to you. Here's an Op-ed by Vandana Lokeshwar, Joseph Alderson as part of our editorial retrospective


Open-source software, hardware and applications are undoubtedly some of the biggest ideas changing the electronic engineering industry. This democratisation of design and technology is inspiring a new generation of engineers – element14 team takes a closer look

 


Open-source as a concept is not new and in computing terms has been around since the 1950s. Looking back at the early part of the 21st century, there is little doubt that the open-source movement has already gained an enormous amount of momentum across many areas of life and will radically impact our collective future. From the free software movement that spawned Linux to the all pervasive Arduino platform, which finds its way into almost every corner of electronic engineering, there has been a change in the attitudes of individual engineers and even global corporations towards open-source.

 

Companies such as CircuitCo have taken the Arduino model of an open-source platform and applied it to high end ARM® Cortex™-A8 based Texas Instruments OMAP™ processors, ensuring that there is a whole spectrum of open-source support from 8-bit to 32-bit architectures. Other companies such as the US-based Digilent and Bulgarian Olimex have also embraced the open-source movement as a core aspect of their development kit and software range, producing Arduino footprint compatible boards such as the chipKITchipKIT and OlimeXino.

 

Accessible Architectures


It is in 32-bit architectures that some of the most exciting developments are happening in the open-source movement. Embest element14 are now introducing an ARM® Cortex™-M based prototyping platform known as CookieCookie. By combining the familiar Arduino footprint with supporting hardware and software building blocks which have been developed by Embest element14, the COOKIE platform aims to make 32-bit architecture as accessible as 8-bit architecture. Like the Arduino platform, the Cookie platform can be programmed in C or C++ and is supported by Embest element14’s IDE, Flash programmer and debugger (CoIDE, CoFlash and CoLinkEx respectively).


There is no doubt that the philosophies held by ARM and the open-source community are intertwined in some important aspects, though it can be difficult and daunting to break into a 32-bit architecture, especially compared with the easy and accessible IDEs so prevalent in 8-bit platforms. This is where the CooCox steps up to the plate, offering a set of embedded tools backed up by a strong community and open hardware under a Creative Commons BY-SA license which includes the schematic, bill of materials and PCB design files.

 

From Schematic to Secrecy


Other development platforms are also released as schematics, though the board layout itself is occasionally a closely guarded secret as companies put emphasis on the time and skill required to turn a schematic into a board layout. In spite of the auto-routers available in most CAD tools, it is often a human eye and human touch that are crucially important.


This is why Arduino clones which rely on the Uno and Mega footprints are so popular: the idea that greater advances come from building on firm foundations rather than developing from scratch is one deeply ingrained in engineering. However, for many engineers there is an inherent need to protect certain aspects of a design and boards such as the Raspberry Pi which have an open-source background also contain proprietary features.


Open-Source Education


It is in education that open-source hardware and software are often most widely embraced. Whether it is using gEDA for schematic simulation, or CooCox as an IDE, there is a vast constellation of tools available for teaching. With growing forums, from Stackoverflow and GitHub to our own element14 community, the support for open-source projects has never been as great or accessible, adding another dimension to open-source development. University courses are now frequently taught using boards such as the chipKIT Uno 32™ and commonly the original Arduino Uno, allowing students to take their first steps into Microchip’s PIC32MX or Atmel’s 8-bit ATmega328, though there is also increasing interest in teaching ARM 32-bit architectures. Affordable ARM®Cortex™- M series boards such as the Cookie, coupled with IDEs that are either free as trials from major manufacturers or completely open-source, have lowered the barrier to entry.

 

A new generation of engineers inspired by the open-source movement is already emerging and with a whole universe of open-source IDEs, debuggers, programmers and development platforms to support them we are witnessing a hardware revolution akin to what Linux achieved for operating systems. Just as Android presents the sleek face of tens of thousands of hours of combined effort worldwide and has become by far the biggest smart phone operating system, the humble beginnings of hardware projects that we see on Hack a Day and element14 may one day lead to phenomenal global advances.


Vandana Lokeshwar is Regional Technical development manager and Joseph Alderson is Technical Marketing engineer at element14