Is open source a viable or even lucrative business model? Unfortunately, the question itself isn’t often posed and many enterprises assume they must implement walled gardens and make everything proprietary. And while there’s undoubtedly a case for patents and private IPs, the STM32MP1 microprocessor teaches that the benefits of mainlining a board support package and opening schematics are too often underrated.
For a demonstrable example, let’s look at DH electronics, a system-on-module (SoM) maker based in Germany. The company, a member of the ST Partner Program, offers the DHCOR STM32MP1 – a solderable SoM that comes with up to 1 GB of DDR3 and uses STMicroelectronics’ (ST) power management companion device, the STPMIC1. DH electronics also makes the DHCOM STM32MP1, a SODIMM-200 module that includes Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and a second Ethernet controller.
The SoMs behind the development boards
What distinguishes DH electronics from the competition is its development boards. The DHCOR STM32MP1 is in the Avenger96, a PCB with a Wi-Fi module and an HDMI 1.4 port. Similarly, the DHCOM STM32MP1 powers the DHCON, a complete control unit with a screen and touch buttons. The latter’s modular architecture also enables customers to add expansions, such as a sub-gigahertz communication system.
Both development tools highlight the open philosophy that drives DH electronics. Indeed, the schematics of the evaluation boards are open source and the company upstreams its Linux drivers. To better understand their operation, the ST Blog sat down with Stefan Daxenberger, CEO at DH electronics, Robert Göllner, head of software development and Andreas Geisreiter, product manager.
“Very early on, we decided to be as transparent and open as possible. We believe in the idea that anyone could come and check out what we’re doing and we would still have a competitive edge. Open source is not only code sharing but a willingness to bring a certain know-how to a community and make a business around it,” they shared.
The trio then explained how this approach enabled them to get new customers. Prospective clients chose to adopt their STM32MP1 SoM because they didn’t have to spend time and human resources on the platform itself. The open-source philosophy and mainlined Linux BSP (board support package) mean DH electronics can more easily offer a wide range of services.
Indeed, contributing to the community means being able to use other tools already available. As a result, many customers focus on their application instead of worrying about the operating system, over-the-air update mechanisms and more. Additionally, the open-source direction allows DH electronics to provide long-term support for its products. Companies thus have the assurance that their STM32MP1 system will still receive updates a decade or more later.
How surmounting challenges paid off
Talking to DH electronics was enlightening because the team also shared their experience upstreaming their drivers. They explained that the process represents a significant investment, as mainlining your board support package and adopting the open-source model is not a trivial process. For instance, DH electronics has been partnering with Denx, a software engineering company that got its upstream process started before moving some operations in-house.
As the DH electronics team explained: “Upstreaming your code is complex because there’s a lot to learn before you can bring something meaningful to the community. Getting approvals takes time, especially if companies aren’t clear about what the community expects. That’s why we enjoyed working with a partner to get started. The good news is that things get easier as the process becomes familiar.”
While investments are substantial, DH electronics lauded the returns. This approach is attracting customers and developing strong relationships with companies like ST that are also upstreaming their drivers. In this particular instance, the work ST put into its OpenSTLinux distribution also contributed to DH’s initiative.
Upstreaming our code and promoting the importance of the Linux community encouraged DH electronics to jump on the bandwagon. And now, their experience has been so successful that DH electronics itself is asking its other partners to upstream their code and join the open community. Being able to benefit from one another means it is easier to keep devices up-to-date and provide a better product.
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