We’ve been wondering exactly how open source CHIP, the $9 computer, is. Turns out, it’s really freaking open!
These are the files you are looking for…
The initial launch of CHIP from the Oakland, California-based Next Thing Co. made big waves a few months back with its capabilities (1GHz R8 ARM processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of NAND storage, and WiFi and Bluetooth built-in) and crazy-low price (just $9, but international shipping pushes that higher for some). Ultimately, the team raised over $2 million dollars through crowdfunding and got the attention of Makers and mainstream media alike. Yet, much of the excitement surrounding CHIP has stayed focused on the low cost and technical specifications.
Today, Dave Rauchwerk, CEO of Next Thing Co. shared more details on their board, and we’re impressed with what we heard: CHIP is licensed as Creative Commons ShareAlike, the R8 data sheet is available, Next Thing Co. is joining the Linux Foundation, and CHIP is getting even more interesting than just a low cost board.
While inexpensive hardware is nice, and high clock rates move bits and bytes faster, these mean nothing without a robust software stack for Makers to develop in. To those ends, Rauchwerk and his team have partnering with Free Electrons, to add their embedded Linux engineering talents to the mix, and that partnership is beginning to show with today’s announcement of CHIP’s Linux support.
This is noteworthy. As of today, CHIP runs the 4.2 Linux kernel. That’s the absolute most current version of the Linux kernel and comes with all the latest and greatest features. Typically, embedded systems running Linux do not use the latest kernel. Instead, the kernel is downloaded and patched with software which enables the board to boot it.
Rauchwerk says this will not be the case with CHIP. He and his team are pushing towards mainlining all of CHIP’s code. That’s a fancy way of saying the they are working on getting their code for CHIP into the main branch of the Linux kernel. Their new relationship with the Linux Foundation will certainly help them accomplish this.
The biggest benefit of CHIP becoming mainline is to the users and developers of the board. All the latest features of Linux will be available to developers. You will not have to patch the kernel with custom board files — a laborious process — and it will be significantly easier for distributions of Linux to port their code to CHIP.
In addition to announcing that CHIP is currently running Linux with latest 4.2 kernel, Rauchwerk unveiled their software development kit (SDK).
Thanks to the way that Rauchwerk structured the shipping dates for CHIP, the first 1,000 CHIP boards are heading to kernel developers. While the kernel developer tier is simply a name, Rauchwerk is confident that many of these backers are in fact hardcore Linux kernel hackers. Releasing the boards to developers allows for any potential Operating System level issues that might arise on a new board to get sorted out before the majority of backers even get CHIP.
In fact, installing the SDK is quite straight forward. You grab a copy of VirtualBox 4.3( which is free), download and install an extension package to enhance VirtualBox, and then clone Next Thing Co.’s git repository.
git clone https://github.com/NextThingCo/CHIP-SDK
Once you begin the installation of vagrant, the software will pull all the necessary files from the Internet and configure the development environment. Compared to many development environment setups, it’s sort of magical.
“It’s not fair to the kernel hackers to make them do all this dev/ops” says Rauchwerk, “Here is an out of the box turnkey build system and hardware.”
The SDK is not the only new software from Next Thing Co. They released a version of U-Boot (which has been heavily modified to support the NAND onboard CHIP), a Linux build, buildroot, and scripts to flash CHIP with the custom Linux compiled by the SDK.
Today, Rauchwerk took steps to deliver on the open source promise he made to all his crowdfunding backers and we applaud the move. The most exciting thing about CHIP is not that it is the first $9 computer, but that it is the first truly Open Source $9 computer.