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Opengear Focuses on Open Source Hardware

Evolution of a Business Model

  • July 7, 2005
  • By Maria Winslow

It will come as no surprise to many that the notion of open source is not just for software. I recently spoke with Bob Waldie, CEO of Opengear, about his efforts to apply the open source model to hardware.

LinuxPlanet: Your background is in hardware, right?

Bob Waldie: Each business I have been in over the past 20 years has developed hardware solutions. But there's always been a wealth of software embedded in these hardware products. The R&D teams were always predominantly software, and the innovation in our products, and the value we delivered to customers, invariably is found in the software, even though we deliver it shrowd in hardware. So I'd say I have a hardware and embedded software background.

LP: What got you started thinking about the open source model for hardware?

Waldie: Our last two businesses [Snapgear and Moreton Bay Ventures] were built on Linux and open source software foundations, and we have been active contributors over the years in the embedded Linux space with projects like uClinux and Busybox. So I was acutely aware of the substantive benefits open source can bring to new business ventures.

When we started Opengear, our plan was to extend the open source frontier in the IT infrastructure management market. In this market our goal is to give system and network administrators secure out-of-band access into their infrastructure; so they can remotely diagnose problems, restore networks, reconnect servers and services etc. There's a small set of standardized interfaces and tools (such as serial consoles, IPMI, VNC, RDP, KVM) that are pervasively used here. And they almost all are underpinned by open source projects like conserver and openipmi. But there was no such open source solution for KVM-over-IP, and this is becuase there is no generic hardware layer that the open source software could interface to (like the UART that conserver talks to). To deliver an open source kvm solution, you need to deliver the software and some hardware objects it can run.

LP: Tell us a little about okvm.

Waldie: Well, we kicked off the okvm project with a mission to develop open source KVM over IP management software and some open source KVM hardware reference deisgns. The okvm project also has a strand that is linking in a serial over IP (i.e., console server) piece. So okvm enables developers to build their custom KVM and console appliances to meet most infratsructure management needs. The project is still at an early stage though we expect to have something functional released late this year. And we have built a batch of the open source hardware KVM boards (which we sell to participating commercial participants in the project at cost). At Linux World in San Franscisco in August, we'll have the okvm hardware and software running at the Opengear stand, if anyone wants to get a hands-on feel for the project.

LP: What license arrangement will okvm have for "open source" hardware?

Waldie: I must admit we are still exploring how best to license the hardware designs. One model is to make the design totally open so the 'licensees' can use the designs freely to develop proprietary derivative works (akin to the BSD software license). Alternatively we may want to link this free use of the hardware design, to also running the embedded okvm software, which is covered by a standard GPL license. This is along the lines of what the silicon vendors (the likes of ARM,Intel, Xilnk) have been doing for years. They all are prolific in offering reference designs, and they all have licenses where the licensee can use the designs freely--as long as it used with their chips!

LP: Where do you think we are now in this new model for hardware? Are we just getting started?

Waldie: At the macro level, there's a general "rethink" underway as to the value of protecting and hiding intellectual property. And this applies to hardware as much as software. Clearly we have come to a point where the quality of the intellectual property management systems is so poor, particularly the flooded patent system (with 300,000 odd new patent applications lodged here in USA each year) that it is counter productive. They are now the barriers to, not the protectors of rewards for, innovation.

At a more micro level individuals and firms now see the abundance of commercial success that the open source model has delivered to many firms. It is responsible for refreshing the software industry and delivering real value to customers... and I foresee they will soon start to apply this model to a host of other domains, hardware being one.

LP: Your company, Opengear, is involved with okvm, too. Tell us about that collaboration.

Waldie: We are involved but okvm is not an Opengear project. We did seed the project and to date have been the main commercial supporter, with a few of the Opengear engineers spending the bulk of their code cutting hours developing okvm open source code. However there have been a number of other developers making key personal contributions from day one.

We now have another major commercial player (in the infrastructure management market) committing engineering resource to the project, which I see as a leap forward for the project. The goal of okvm is to deliver an open source KVM over IP standard, and this will only come when we have a number of firms supporting the standard, and it is widely adopted. And the best way to do this is to get these firms all to participate in developing the okvm standard.

As an open source business analyst, Ms. Winslow assists clients in understanding the technical and budgetary impact open source software will have on their computing environments. Her recent book, "The Practical Manager's Guide to Open Source," guides IT directors and system administrators through the process of finding practical uses for open source that will integrate seamlessly into existing infrastructures, as well as understanding the costs and savings. Ms. Winslow is a frequent speaker and author on the topic of open source, and is a contributing editor of open source applications at LinuxPlanet and Linux Today. She can be reached at maria.winslow@windows-linux.com.

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