RISC-V’s Open-Source Architecture Shakes Up Chip Design
In the past decade, many technologists have adopted the mantra that
software is eating the world. However, all of that software has to run
on something. And that something is silicon.
Unfortunately, the chip world has hit a roadblock with the fade-out of
The challenge of building circuits that require years of research and
development, combined with rapid advancements in software, is making
it more difficult for silicon designers to predict the future. Given
the multimillion-dollar stakes associated with new chip architectures,
every investment is a big risk.
Meanwhile, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Samsung have decided to build
their own silicon instead of relying on Intel, Qualcomm, or others.
Thus, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a new chip
architecture becomes even riskier, with less potential to win a major
These shifts have produced a boom of interest in a chip architecture
called RISC-V (pronounced “risk-five”), which was created eight years
ago at the University of California, Berkeley. RISC-V is the fifth
generation of the “reduced instruction set computer” type of
architecture. Just like the instruction sets for the ARM, PowerPC, or
x86 architectures, RISC-V defines how the computer operates at the
most basic software level.
But what’s so compelling about RISC-V isn’t the technology—it’s the
economics. The instruction set is open source. Anyone can download it
and design a chip based on the architecture without paying a fee. If
you wanted to do that with ARM, you’d have to pay its developer, Arm
Holding, a few million dollars for a license. If you wanted to use
x86, you’re out of luck because Intel licenses its instruction set
only to Advanced Micro Devices.
For manufacturers, the open-source approach could lower the risks
associated with building custom chips. Already, Nvidia and Western
Digital Corp. have decided to use RISC-V in their own internally
developed silicon. Western Digital’s chief technology officer has said
that in 2019 or 2020, the companywill unveil a new RISC-V processor
for the more than 1 billion cores the storage firm ships each year.
Likewise, Nvidia is using RISC-V for a governingmicrocontroller that
it places on the board to manage its massively multicore graphics
For years, giant tech firms have designed their own silicon to handle
special jobs associated with their equipment. With RISC-V, a tech firm
can now start with an instruction set and then invest in CPU
architects and other engineers to build out and test chips without
paying a huge up-front licensing fee.
For example, a startup in France called GreenWaves Technologies has
built a dedicated chip for the Internet of Things. The company chose
the RISC-V architecture because it wanted to avoid raising the crazy
amounts of money typically needed for chip startups. GreenWaves CEO
Loic Lietar said the company has raised €3.1 million (US $3.6 million)
and has already managed to produce a sample of its silicon.
This technology lowers the cost of creating custom chips, which means
more and more companies may elect to build their own. As for the
existing players, I don’t think RISC-V represents a bigger threat to
Intel than does the slow fade of Moore’s Law and former customers
deciding to build their own dedicated silicon. And I don’t think Arm
will necessarily lose licensing fees to RISC-V right away—but the
technology could bring on a wave of competitive silicon that hurts
incumbents in the long run.
Nathan W. Cravens | @nwcrav | p2pfoundation.net/Nathan_Cravens