Introducing Pirmin & Laura
Pirmin Vogel and Laura James both joined lowRISC on May 1st this year. A few weeks in to their new roles, they each share thoughts on what attracted them to work at lowRISC.
“After having traveled around the world for 6 months, I finally started my new position as hardware/software engineer at lowRISC C.I.C. in Cambridge at the beginning of May. At lowRISC, we are working on open-source hardware/software ecosystems with a fully open-sourced, Linux-capable, RISC-V-based SoC being the ultimate goal.
“Having done my PhD in the Digital Circuits and Systems group of ETH Zurich, i.e., a research group that very early started to promote and push for open-source hardware, it was important for me to continue along the open-source path. Open-source hardware and software are powerful catalysts for education, research and industry. Studying the sources of the Linux kernel and its modules was absolutely key to get to understand the kernel’s memory management system and to get started with the design of kernel drivers required for my research. Moreover, building on top of the open-source Parallel Ultra Low Power (PULP) Platform allowed me to carry out my research in the first place. Not only could I rely on a large pool of silicon-proven hardware designs and software tools such as libraries, runtimes and compilers, but I was also able to freely modify, tailor and extend them to fit my needs, and ultimately to release my own research open-source as part of the Open Heterogeneous Research Platform (HERO), thereby letting my research being more useful to more people. As for the industry, it seems that the open-source PULP ecosystem has gained quite some traction since its start in 2013 serving both as a starting point for custom designs and also creating new business opportunities.
“At lowRISC, I am currently working on our RISC-V processor core Ibex. This core has its origins in academia – it has been designed by my former colleagues of the PULP team under the name Zero-riscy – and leveraging its design in a professional context offers challenges but also new opportunities. For example, it allows and requires to put a stronger focus on design verification but ultimately, it can prove also to the tough critics that open-source hardware is no longer just a toy but a serious alternative.”
“I’m delighted to be joining lowRISC. This is a really exciting opportunity for me on many levels - a chance to be part of a new wave of fundamental computing innovation enabling specialised silicon chips, to learn about the practicalities of shared engineering resource and IP at the hardware layer, and to actually ship some useful products (hopefully at reasonable scale). It builds on my varied career to date working to make emerging technologies a reality in real products and services, and in growing innovative organisations.
“lowRISC works on open source hardware at the silicon layer (and related open source software tools), and so builds on my longstanding interest in open stuff, and particularly the challenges of bringing open to new areas. Open source silicon isn’t a totally new idea, but producing products at scale with it is rare. Nonetheless, it’s important: openness means greater scope for audit and security; for efficiency (code and hardware designs can be reused, rather than reinventing the wheel), and for flexibility. With Moore’s law slowing down, new processors will be more specialised, rather than just smaller and faster. Instead, we’ll be designing silicon for more specific applications, and ensuring the designs are efficient and verifiable. Open source hardware makes this much easier - you can get more people working on a design to check it, and you can bolt together open modules for different bits of functionality knowing you understand what is in them (which you can’t do with a proprietary processor core which you’ve licensed - it’s just a black box). So open hardware at the silicon level is going to be important for the future of computing.
“lowRISC itself is still quite small (but growing), but the team size doesn’t reflect the range of people I’m working with day to day, because there’s lots of collaboration going on. Open source ecosystems have different kinds of organisation and activity in them; lowRISC is focussing on providing quality engineering resource and being a hub for collaborative engineering across other partners. (A bit like Linaro does for open source for Arm, whose work I’ve always been fascinated by.) It’s a community interest company, meaning a nonprofit dedicated to serving a broader mission not just itself. I’m looking forward to being part of changing how hardware is developed, making it fundamentally more collaborative and factoring in testing and maintenance sensibly.
“There are some really interesting challenges. For instance, you can’t be 100% open right now in silicon, because in an actual manufactured chip there’s a lot of analogue components as well as the open source digital bits, and those analogue bits are generally closely linked to the big foundries which manufacture silicon and are secret sauce today. Collaborative engineering should be cost effective and useful to companies, as a way of working on non-differentiating technology components, but it’s not always an easy sell or easy to make happen in practice. The same goes for opening up hardware IP - not always a straightforward case to make. How should the governance for this sort of work operate, and how do you make it work in practice? And of course we have the usual startup challenge, that we need to make reliable, high quality products, in a reasonable time, which people actually want and are willing to pay for.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish, and being part of the move towards open source silicon.
”(If you’d like to learn more about how I ended up here, I wrote on my personal blog about this role and how it fits with things I’ve been working on.)”
We’re thrilled to have Pirmin and Laura join the lowRISC team and if you’d like to be part of the open source silicon revolution, we presently have a number of openings and I’d encourage you to take a look at the jobs page.
Alex Bradbury, CTO and Co-Founder