Open-source graphics card available for pre-order

The Open Graphics Project is taking pre-orders for its first graphics card, with complete and fully open documentation and open-source drivers

After four years of development, the Open Graphics Project last week made available for pre-order its first open-source graphics card.

The Open Graphics Project (OGP) and its commercial sponsor, Traversal Technology, aim to bring to market a graphics card with complete and fully open documentation and open-source drivers.

The project was inspired by the chronic difficulties experienced by open-source software suppliers in finding compatible hardware — in particular, compatible graphics hardware — according to the project's leaders.

"One of the major challenges for free software is finding compatible hardware," Traversal said on its website. "The OGP was started in response to poor support from graphics vendors." Graphics hardware generally uses proprietary designs, making it difficult for open-source developers to create compatible drivers.

The problem is greater for open-source operating systems with smaller user bases, and thus smaller development communities, such as some variants of the Unix-like operating system BSD, or with hardware architectures that are not normally supported by graphics companies.

"Open-hardware projects like the OGP ensure that no-one is left without the ability to make the hardware they purchased work — whenever, wherever, however they want it to," said Traversal on its website.

The initial product, OGD1, is intended as a prototyping tool, according to the project's co-ordinators. The board could be used to develop an initial version based on an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) board, the next step towards making a commercial product, according to Traversal.

The product is also to be used as a fund-raising venture, intended to help with the estimated $2m (£1m) cost of beginning ASIC production, Traversal said. "To bootstrap our other open-hardware efforts, we need a source of revenue. That revenue will be directly invested into more open-hardware products," Traversal stated.

The product is selling for $1,500, with a $100 discount for the first 100 orders. Traversal said the target of 100 orders must be met before production can begin. Traversal and the OGP said they are planning to release full documentation for the product under open-source licences, as well as open-source versions of all related software, such as drivers.

The OGD1 has two DVI connectors, S-Video, 256MB RAM and a 64-bit PCI-X connector. It is based on a Xilinx Spartan-3 XC3S4000 field-programmable gate array (FPGA). A FPGA is a reprogrammable architecture, meaning the developer can customise the hardware for a given type of workload. This means the card could be used for other purposes besides simply processing graphics, Traversal said, suggesting that computational workloads could be offloaded to the card.

Hardware designers could use OGD1 as the basis for an end product, while developers could repackage and resell OGD1 with custom software and other modifications, the project suggested.

Traversal noted that graphics card maker ATI has begun releasing programming documentation for its graphics processing units (GPUs), but said that the documentation is still insufficient for certain types of uses or for writing drivers for hardware platforms that are not already supported.

Traversal said it has developed the logic and drivers needed for the card to function as a normal graphics card but is not authorised to release all the software, due to licensing restrictions. The company said it is finishing work on open-source versions of the needed drivers and logic.

The card was designed by Traversal engineers Timothy Miller, Andy Fong and Howard Parkin, who have experience developing graphics hardware used in air-traffic control systems and military installations, the company said.