it apart, though, were its extremely high
standards of openness and auditability.
Of course, all that came at a price; a fully
built workstation started at $17,600,
placing it well out of the cheap category.
The good/fast/cheap trilemma will
become less of a problem for open hardware as users gradually come to appreciate the value of privacy and security.
Alternatively, the prospect of bypassing
the trilemma altogether is beginning to
materialize in the form of open silicon.
AND OPEN SILICON
Several information security specialists have pointed out the difference bet ween “trusted” and “trust worthy”— the
former entails blind faith, whereas the
latter entails earned trust. Open silicon, which is the ultimate expression of
crowdfunded open hardware, is the only
path to trustworthy hardware. The first
open silicon chips won’t compete with
the processors used in modern laptops.
But they may be sufficient for more modest, but equally important devices, such
as a decentralized, verifiable, persistent
identity totem. The HiFive1 and Open-V projects are significant proof points,
and others will soon follow. The path to a
completely trustworthy computing platform will, of course, be a long one. Each
milestone along the way must be simultaneously good, fast, and cheap enough
to gain widespread adoption. Nonetheless, the first steps have been taken and
it’s sure to be an interesting journey.
[ 1] Barnett, C. Trends Show Crowdfunding To Surpass
VC In 2016. Forbes. June 9, 2015.
[ 2] Crowd Supply. Proclamation of User Rights; https://
[ 3] Eckersley, P. and Portnoy, E. Intel’s Management
Engine is a security hazard, and users need a way
to disable it. Electronic Frontier Foundation. May
8, 2017; https:// www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/05/
Joshua Lifton is Crowd Supply’s CEO. He received his
doctorate from the MIT Media Lab and holds a B.A. in physics
and mathematics from Swarthmore College, which is to say
he’s devoted a significant amount of his time learning how
to make things that blink. As head of Crowd Supply’s project
efforts, he is helping others do the same. Prior to Crowd
Supply, Lifton worked in a variety of technology settings, from
instrumenting thousands of audience members with custom
wearable computers for a Cirque du Soleil performance to,
most recently, serving as head of engineering at Puppet Labs.
© 2017 Copyright held by Owner(s)/Author(s).
Publication rights licensed to ACM.
to mass production is a long, expensive
undertaking. It remains to be seen if
the considerable support across a wide
array of communities will be sufficient
to make the Open-V a reality.
THE OPEN HARDWARE TRILEMMA
The aforementioned examples all hint at
a fundamental trilemma. When it comes
to open hardware, as with car mechanics,
you only get to choose two of the three:
good, fast, and cheap. Three projects in
particular illustrate this trilemma.
First, there is the Librem line of lap-
tops, which raised more than $1 mil-
lion based on the promise of protecting
user freedoms. The concept was simple:
Build modern, high-performance, af-
fordable laptops using only hardware
that doesn’t require proprietary soft-
ware to run. The concession they made
was to use Intel chipsets, which are
widely reported to be a threat to user se-
curity [ 3]. So, while the Librem laptops
are fast and cheap, they aren’t as good
(i.e., open) as many would like.
In contrast, the EOMA68 project
raised more than $200,000 to offer an
undeniably good and cheap computing
alternative in its $65 computer cards,
which run only libre firmware and software. Where the EOMA68 project falls
short is speed. Its ARM processor puts
it solidly in the category some deride
as “retrocomputing,” even if faster versions are already in the works.
To round out the trilemma illustration,
there is the Talos Secure Workstation,
which raised more than $500,000, but failed
to meet its $3.7-million funding goal. Had
the campaign succeeded and Talos been
produced, it would have been among the
highest-performance computer workstations on the market—sporting up to 256 GB
of DDR3 ECC RAM, 96 logical cores, and a
clock speed of 3.857 GHz. What truly set