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Open-source hardware fuels server startup

Posted: 01 Nov 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:opengear? open-source? hardware? keyboard? video?

To build its server-management products, startup Opengear Inc. is bringing the open-source concept to hardware and software. But don't mistake Bob Waldie, Opengear founder and CEO, for a starry-eyed idealist.

"We're a classic, genuine commercial enterprise in the business of selling products to make money," Waldie said. "We don't have any particular sense of mission. We just see open source as a real sensible wayif you're a new playerto change the rules in a proprietary market."

The market in this case includes serial-over-Internet Protocol software and hardware for console management in data centers, as well as keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) over IP, a technology that allows remote control from Internet-connected systems.

The founders of Opengear have launched OKVM, a project that's developing open-source console and KVM management software, as well as an open-source PCI card designed for KVM-over-IP implementation on PC platforms. Since serial-over-ip and KVM-over-IP are established markets, Opengear believes the open-source approach will give it a competitive edge.

The company's open-source PCB design is what makes Opengear and OKVM distinctive. While open-source software is widely deployed today, open-source hardware is in its infancy, although there are several companies and projects working with open-source silicon IP cores.

"Opengear seems to be pioneering the open-source model into hardware," said Maria Winslow, author of The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source and an open-source strategy consultant at Virtuas Systems LLC. "The open-source software model has really made the playing field much more level and brought about a freer market. I think doing the same thing with hardware could be even more significant."

Opengear's Waldie said, "I don't think hardware people have generally had an awareness of the value of open source as a change agent." He added, "It's just a very powerful tool. I don't think it will take off with a rush, but I think there's a lot of opportunity for open-source hardware."

KVM-over-IP, Waldie noted, is a simple mechanism for remapping the keyboard, video and mouse inputs on a computer device remotely over an IP network. A system or network administrator can view the screen and control the mouse and keyboard of a remote target system by running Virtual Network Computing client software on the management system.

But there's been no open-source solution for KVM-over-IP in the past, Waldie said. The result has been expensive proprietary solutions. "It hasn't taken off outside data centers because there's been no price pressure," he said. "That prohibits it from being applied in smaller branch offices and distributed sites."

The reason there hasn't been an open-source KVM solution until now, Waldie said, is that it requires hardware. Most other open-source software relies on well-defined, standard hardware interfaces, but there isn't one available in this case. And there is a need for a hardware device that can plug into a PC and capture a video image that the software can transfer remotely.

"We could have done some proprietary hardware, but that would have detracted from the value of having other parties participate in this project," Waldie said. "The only way to make this a success was to step beyond the bounds of open-source software and open-source the hardware as well."

The OKVM project has thus designed a PCI KVM adapter built around the Jepico j-L201 graphics processor. This adapter captures PC screen, 1,280 x 1,024 RGB video at 75MHz into a host-accessible frame buffer; emulates the keyboard function at the target server being controlled; emulates the mouse function at the target server; and interoperates with an external multichannel analog or digital KVM switch.

The project has also developed console and KVM-over-IP management software built around uClinux, an extensible version of Linux. Both are written in C and can run on standard PC platforms.

Waldie said that Cyclades Corp., a provider of IT infrastructure-management solutions, has contributed to the project as well. "For an open-source project to become successful, it has to move beyond a one-company project," Waldie noted.

Opengear has begun shipping its OKVM developer's kit, which includes the software and a manufactured PCI adapter card. The schematics, BOM and Gerber files for the adapter are available as a free download from the OVKM project. Opengear's kit provides a way to get a manufactured board along with the open-source software.

Where's the money?

How can Opengear make money selling these kits for $250? The company won't, Waldie said. "Selling the kit is not commercially profitable," he said. "We're doing it so we can get more people involved in this, developing their own technology around it and contributing to it."

Founded in 2004, the 12-person company today sells console-management servers that are, Opengear claims, one-third the cost of competing products. These servers combine open-source software with proprietary hardware.

Opengear plans to make money by integrating the KVM technology into its server-management equipment. "We'll sell it as an integrated solution with console management and other high-level applications, so there will be proprietary value added on top," Waldie said.

While the PCI adapter could be considered a reference design, Waldie said, most commercial reference designs require the use of a particular vendor's silicon. That's not the case here.

The board schematics, in fact, can be downloaded with one simple licensing provision. As long as the board runs OKVM software, there are no restraints on its use, modification or sale.

In this respect, the licensing for the board is even more liberal than the GNU Public License used for the software, which requires those who modify and resell the software to provide the customer with the modified source.

While open-source hardware will take time to develop, Waldie said, it will ultimately extend down to FPGAs and silicon cores.

- Richard Goering

EE Times

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