What does the open source concept bring us?

Compared to traditional software that charges a one-off fee or a recurring subscription fee, open source software goes in a completely different direction. And various business giants are embracing this new path.

Average users may be confused by the concept of open source, normally you have to pay for softwares on the market, no matter whether it is a game, a word processor, or an operating system, in the form of the traditional one-off charge or the popular Software as a Service (SaaS) subscription pricing nowadays. The software does not give you direct access to the source code, and all source code is encrypted before it is released to the market so that no one can  copy it easily. Some companies even resell source code patents from other companies as a way to make money. 

However, open source software is the opposite of traditional software: it allows others to use the source code of the software to create their own software for other purposes in a specific software agreement. Under the BSD License (as defined in the BSD License), some rights are reserved for others to learn, modify, and transfer to anyone regardless of your purpose. The software is distributed, often openly and collaboratively developed and improved in the interactive communities across the web. The representatives of these are Mozilla Firefox and Android.

Many large business organizations prohibit their employees from using open source software because the security level may not meet the requirements of the organizations, and a large number of security tests have to be conducted beforehand. However, the federal government of Germany, governments of Brazilian and various universities are actively encouraging their employees to use open source software. In addition to the lower cost of software, they also want to reduce reliance on software from foreign companies.

Open-source software is more and more recognized by large business organizations and is even considered as a golden egg. In July 2019, IBM paid US$190 per share, or US$34 billion, to acquire a well-known open-source operating system developer, IBM Corporation Red Hat to co-develop a next-generation hybrid cloud platform. In 2018, Microsoft spent $7.5 billion to acquire colocation GitHub, a service platform for a wide range of open source software sources, shaken off its perennial image of being relatively closed, and has emphasized the importance of the GitHub will “reinforce a free, open, and innovative approach to developers,” in the spirit of developers first, with Microsoft’s Each maintains its own independent mode of operation. Businesses now see open source as a tremendous resource that would revitalize the businesses itself.

“Joining forces with IBM gives Red Hat the opportunity to bring more open source innovation to an even broader range of organizations and will enable us to scale to meet the need for hybrid cloud solutions that deliver true choice and agility.” JIM WHITEHURST, PRESIDENT AND CEO, RED HAT

The concept of open source is no longer limited to the realm of software, RISC-V is an example of “open source hardware”. Likewise, commercial chip vendors such as ARM and MIPS spend a lot of money on CPU design due to their expertise in different areas. Given the huge resources invested, these suppliers have to charge high licensing fees for the use of their patents and copyrights in order to survive. They also sign confidentiality agreements to protect their suppliers’ rights before using their advantageous design files and command sets. However, these traditional protection techniques stifle the development of the public, low-cost, free and open source software compilers and operating systems. RISC-V was born from the premise of pioneering “open source hardware”.

RISC-V is a simple, completely open source architecture that allows anyone to design, manufacture, and market RISC-V chips and software for the benefit of the public. The RISC-V Foundation is supported by many technology giants without paying royalties to companies. Google, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Huawei, Alibaba, Fidelity and others have joined the RISC-V Foundation. With strong funding from the Indian Government, RISC-V has become the national instruction set of India. Microsoft has also taken the lead as the OpenPOWER Foundation to promote its RISC-V program. This year, the company announced that it has merged into the Linux Foundation and is developing its open source Power chip. In addition, the company has developed the Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) to enable PowerChip without the need to pay royalty.

Currently, large commercial chip suppliers such as ARM and Intel dominate the processor market for many tablet computers and smart phones. With IoT on the horizon, the demand for chips is increasing. The emergence of “open-source hardware” such as RISC-V and power chips is poised to bring competition to the chip industry, making the overall chip market more competitive. The economic benefits of lower development costs are enormous, and lower development costs help to drive the development of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, supercomputers, data warehousing and data warehousing, analytics and IoT technology development.

The “open source hardware” also addresses some current geopolitical issues. As the technology war between two major political parties, the U.S. and China, is intensifying, many global software and hardware companies suffer under the conflict of power. The ZTE and Huawei incidents in 2018 forced China to look for a new way out for its hardware.

In the words of the RISC-V Foundation’s China advisory board chairman, Fang Zhixi:

“A typical example is Loongson. A chip is still a commodity, no matter how high the performance is, if no one uses it, it has no value, so there must be a corresponding ecosystem to give full play to its value. There are many Chinese companies making x86, Arm, and IBM Power chips, and the second way is to follow others. In some specific areas, there are things that can be done with these instruction set architectures, but they are subject to the ISA’s intellectual property (IP) rights. The lack of intellectual property restrictions on “open source hardware” such as RISC-V makes it difficult to succeed.”

The lack of intellectual property restrictions on “open source hardware” such as RISC-V makes it difficult for China, India, and other countries that do not have the ability to control RISC-V to succeed. Countries that manufacture their own chips are able to develop their own chips on a common basis, reducing their dependence on foreign technology. This allows the development of technology in different places to be less adversely affected by geopolitical changes and conflicts.

The introduction of the concept of “open source” can also improve the corporate culture which is technologically closed, and enable users to make use of their open source technology to develop their own chips. Compare the functional part with other products, this enables different technology products to be publicly verified, increasing their transparency and market competitiveness.

The open source concept can bring us a more free, open and innovative technology development base, improving the technology R&D environment, and at the same time adding new impetus to the existing technology industry. It is foreseeable in the future that enterprises around the world will be able to break through the past business limitations, and the development of technology as a whole may benefit from this.

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一般的用家可能會對 open source 開源這個概念感到疑惑:正常在市面上的軟件,不論是遊戲、文書、作業系統,通常都是收費,由以前一次收費到現在流行的 Software as a Service (SaaS)定期訂閱收費模式。這些軟件不會讓你直接接觸到軟件的源碼,所有源碼都加密好才推出市面,以免其他人能夠輕易複製自己的軟件作其他用途。有些公司甚至透過購買其他公司的源碼專利,以作為賺錢的途徑。

“Org charts” comic by Manu Cornet

不過,開源軟件就是走傳統軟件的相反方向:它任由他人取用軟件本身的源碼,在指定的軟件協定下(如BSD授權條款)保留一部分權利,而允許他人以學習、修改和以任何目的向任何人分發該軟件,並常常在網絡的互動社群中被公開和合作開發、改良。最有代表性的軟件莫過於網頁瀏覽器 Mozilla Firefox 和 行動作業系統 Android。


開源軟件漸漸受大型商業機構認可,甚至視為金蛋。今年7月 IBM就以每股190美元、 總值340億美元收購知名開源作業系統的開發商 Red Hat,以共同開發次世代的混合雲端平台。2018 微軟亦花了75億美元收購代管眾多開源軟件源碼的服務平台 GitHub,以擺脫多年來相對封閉的形象,亦強調 GitHub 會「加強對開發者自由、開放、創新程度」, 秉持開發者優先的精神,與微軟各自保持獨立的營運模式。由此可見,商業機構現在已經視開源為一種使到其本身得以活化的龐大資源。

Joining forces with IBM gives Red Hat the opportunity to bring more open source innovation to an even broader range of organizations and will enable us to scale to meet the need for hybrid cloud solutions that deliver true choice and agility. - JIM WHITEHURST, PRESIDENT AND CEO, RED HAT


開源的概念亦已不限於軟件的領域,RISC-V就是一個 「開源硬體」的例子。同樣地,一般ARM和MIPS等商業晶片供應商因為設計CPU時牽涉不同專業範疇,所花的資源龐大,這些供應商自然要對使用其專利、版權的人士,收取高額的授權費用,才能得以生存。使用其具優點的設計檔案和指令集前,亦簽署保密協定,以保障供應商的權益。但這些傳統的保護手法,卻窒礙開發公共、低成本、自由及開放的源碼軟體編譯器和作業系統。 RISC-V 就在開拓「開源硬體」的前提底下得以誕生。

RISC-V 架構簡單、完全開源,允許任何人設計、製造和銷售RISC-V晶片和軟體而不必支付任何公司專利費之下,得到不少科技巨頭的支援。 Google、高通、微軟、華為、阿里巴巴、輝達等都加入 RISC-V 基金會。在印度政府的大力資助下,RISC-V 更成為印度的國家指令集。微軟亦以 OpenPOWER Foundation 的名義作為領軍, 推動其 Power微處理器架構發展,今年更宣布併入Linux基金會, 並以開源Power晶片的指令集架構(ISA) ,來實現無需支付專利費用Power晶片。

當前如ARM、Intel這類大型商業晶片供應商霸佔不少平板電腦、智能電話的處理器市場,而在IoT即將大行其道之下,晶片的需求更是與日俱增。 RISC-V、Power晶片等「開源硬體」的出現,正正能夠帶入晶片界的競爭,使得整體開發成本降低,在經濟方面有莫大的裨益,而開發成本降低有助推進如人工智能、超級電腦、資料分析以及 IoT 科技發展。

「開源硬體」亦解決當前一些地緣政治的問題:美中雙方的科技戰愈演愈烈,但在這些兩大政治勢力衝突底下,不少環球軟件、硬件公司遭殃。 2018年的中興事件以及華為事件, 更令中國不得不尋找新的硬件出路。

以RISC-V 基金會中國顧問委員會主席方之熙之言:

 一條就是關起門來自己做,典型的就是龍芯。因晶片還是商品,效能再高,沒人用就沒有價值,所以必須有相應的生態系統發揮價值。第二條路就是跟在別人後面,中國有許多公司做 x86、Arm、IBM Power 晶片,在某些特殊領域,用這些指令集架構確實可以做一些事,但受 ISA 所屬公司知識產權(IP)的控制,很難取得成功。

而 RISC-V 這類「開源硬體」 沒有知識產權的限制,使得如中國、印度等這類未有能力完全自製晶片的國家,得以在一定的共同基礎上,各自開發其晶片,減少對外來科技的依賴。這以使得各地的科技發展,能夠減少因為地緣政治的改變,而受到的各種負面影響。



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