How “open source” is the Minnowboard?

This week, Intel announced the Minnowboard, a small embedded development board akin to the RaspberryPi, BeagleBoard and similar devices. The point that grabbed my attention is that it’s being touted as an “open source computer”. The device is shipped running Ångström and is compatible with the Yocto project for building custom embedded Linux systems, but while there are many devices available that run Linux, the term “open source computer” is seldom bandied about. So just how “open source” is the Minnowboard?

The minnowboard viewed from above, with labelled external interfaces

The Minnowboard from above

For a start, the board uses Intel chips, which is usually a good sign that the drivers required will be open source, without requiring any binary blobs in the Linux kernel. Furthermore, the UEFI system is open source. This is the code which executes when the computer first powers up and launches the operating system’s boot loader, and making this open source allows hackers to write their own pre-OS applications and utilities for the Intel platform, an opportunity we don’t often see on consumer devices.

Update: Scott Garman’s comment below clarifies the situation regarding graphics drivers and initialisation code.  A proprietary driver is required for hardware accelerated graphics.

However, moving away from the software, there’s a clear message that the Minnowboard is meant to be “open source hardware”. There are of course competing definitions from groups like OHANDA and OSHWA as to what qualifies as “open hardware” and “open source hardware” – one we heard at Open Source Junction included that all components should be available from multiple sources which is never going to be the case here – but a reasonable metric in this case would be, “is one free to modify the design and make a similar device?”.

The language on the site certainly seems to suggest that this is the intention. The Minnowboard Design Goals page clearly states:

Our goal was to create a customizable developer board that uses Intel® Architecture and can be easily replicated. It is a simple board layout that lends itself to customization. The hardware design is open. We used open source software as much as possible. We used standard (not cutting edge) components that are in stock and affordable, to keep the cost down.

Also, the introductory video explicitly says that the technical documentation will be available under Creative Commons licenses allowing people to modify the designs without signing an NDA.
That said, this documentation isn’t currently on the website, the only reference is a notice saying that “By August 2013 we will post all board documentation, software releases, links to Google Group forums, where to buy, and information of interest to the community.” We’ll just have to be patient.

Update: The schematics, design files and bill of materials are now available on the Technical Features page of the Minnowboard website.

Minnowboard with a type-C lure expansion template attached.

There are 3 formats for “lure” expansion boards – the Type C template here shows the smallest.

Another vector to openness for the Minnowboard is the opportunity to create daughter boards dubbed lures. These are akin to Arudino shields and allow additional components to be plugged in to the main board to expand its capabilities. There’s already several designs taking shape, and there’s certainly the potential for a community to arise around creation of these lures.

What Intel have produced is an open platform with standard components and interfaces for prototyping and developing embedded systems. Unlike the RaspberryPi which is designed as a learning device, the Minnowboard’s design (once released) could represent a starting point for both hobbyist projects and commercial products, without any royalties to be paid to its original designers (except, of course, that you’ll need to buy your chips from Intel). From Intel’s point of view, this is clearly a move to gain traction in the ARM-dominated market of embedded systems. As far as calling it an “open source computer” goes, once the designs are published, I think they’ll have done a pretty good job to justify the term.

Images from Minnowboard Wiki users Jayneil and Prpplague, used under CC-BY-SA.

9 thoughts on “How “open source” is the Minnowboard?

  1. Andrew Back

    Note also that the Raspberry Pi, while being all sorts of amazing, is not open source hardware, and also with very documentation available for the SoC without NDA.

    I don’t have a problem at all with the Raspberry Pi not being open source hardware, but it is a little frustrating when it’s referred to as such, when it clearly isn’t.

  2. Scott Garman

    Hi Mark – you’ve written an excellent article describing the design philosophy and intent of the MinnowBoard. I’ve started uploading the design files to minnowboard.org and hope to have all of them online by the start of next week. See the “Design Files” section at the bottom of this page:

    http://www.minnowboard.org/technical-features/

    For the sake of completely open accuracy, there are a couple of compromises we had to make when it came to the openness of software/firmware. The UEFI firmware is an open firmware environment, but the platform initalization code (e.g, how the memory buses are initialized on boot) is a binary blob that we can’t open up. Unfortunately that’s an Intel business deicsion my team has no control over.

    The second issue is that the integrated graphics for this CPU requires the EMGD driver to work in accelerated/3d mode. You can make use of the open source framebuffer driver and have working video, but making use of hardware acceleration requires proprietary bits. This was one of the compromises we had to make to use an existing Atom platform. The good news is that upcoming Atom platforms will make use of Core graphics, which Intel offers open source drivers for, including hardware acceleration. So this effort should be seen as a starting point for many improved possibilities in the future (I can’t speak to any specific future product plans, but I think the future is bright for this).

    Scott Garman
    Intel Open Source Technology Center
    Technical Evangelist, MinnowBoard and the Yocto Project

  3. George Dawn

    Well you forgot that this board does include PoverVR GPU which means… at least GPU will need closed source driver and support will be crap

  4. Mark Johnson Post author

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks very much for your comments, great to have clarification (and transparency) on those points, especially over the graphics.

    Mark

  5. Gigi

    @Scott Garman i dont understand the difference betwen integrated graphics and Core graphics (adn u refer the upcoming atom cpu as the silvermont? if yes, then when they will be available? i also want a cpu with at least 2 cores)

    @George Dawn and @Scott Garman PoverVR GPU is the same as integrated graphics

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