If you’ve kept yourself abreast of the geopolitics surrounding semiconductor chips that has been evolving since the pandemic, you may be aware that China has requested that Alibaba and Tencent step up their development of chips based on RISC-V instruction-set architecture (ISA).
RISC-V is, as the V suggests, the fifth generation of an open standard ISA developed at the University of California in 1981. It’s open-source, completely free to use, and hugely versatile, providing a framework for the development of both hardware and software.
These qualities are reflected in the size of businesses taking advantage of the technology. Google has used RISC-V for security models in its Pixel 6 phones; other members of the RISC-V foundation include Samsung, IBM, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm. It has achieved, in other words, serious commercial clout.
While China’s interest is geopolitically pragmatic, as it looks to sidestep sanctions upon more prevalent Arm-based chips, the investment will bring the technology to the attention of those who had not considered it before. Semico Research suggests that there will be 25 billion RISC-V-based AI SoC’s by 2027, bringing in $271bn that year.
With another year of innovation and progress announced at the RISC-V Summit in December, the community is looking forward to a more intelligent, capable, connected IoT in 2023 and beyond. But what does that progress look like? And who, exactly, will benefit most from its adoption and popularity?
RISC-V was specifically designed to be open, modular and scalable, aiming to undermine more rigid and expensive ISAs that weren’t designed to accommodate modern compute workloads. It’s a far more adaptable technology as a result, which means more engineers both cooperating and competing to develop new technologies and applications.
For an SME, RISC-V offers a level playing field to companies who lack the financial firepower or leverage of major players to influence the direction of more closed architectures. Anyone can derive innovative and differentiated products from the RISC-V standard, potentially free from royalties or licensing costs.
The rapid fragmentation of the IoT into a “sum of niches” – smaller specialist applications with unique requirements, but with common technologies that comprise a huge market overall – makes the acceleration of development here hugely exciting.
But beyond the future of these technologies, there are also specific benefits to manufacturers and designers that choose to integrate themselves into the RISC-V ecosystem thanks to the open-source, community-driven aspect of the ISA.
There’s a cyclical element to RISC-V’s progress. The more software and toolsets that are made available on a specific ISA, the more inclined companies will be to opt to design or develop chips on it. And the more chips that take advantage of a specific ISA to do something efficient, meaningful, or innovative, the more likely it is that developers will look to that ISA for their own ends.
For RISC-V, not having to pay for an ISA makes this potential for progress even more attractive. By collaborating with other developers and taking advantage of the opportunity to make use of open-source IP, it’s possible to seriously drive down development costs while simultaneously reducing the risk of untested hardware or software, accelerating time to market. This is particularly pertinent for new businesses, who need to maximise the impact of every pound spent.
When it comes to another critical currency of innovation – talent - the commonality of RISC-V has the potential to make a business more attractive to new recruits. Engineers or designers who may be put off by the prospect of learning a new ISA could be swayed by the prospect of a familiar toolset that allows them to do their best work more quickly, ultimately smoothing their introduction to a company.
This all bodes extremely well for the advancement of the IoT. The ability to design increasingly cost-effective, powerful, compact processors for electronics across a myriad of applications, capable of delivering more complex functionality at the user end, is a prerequisite for meaningful progress.
It’s no surprise, therefore, to see demand for such technologies driving up the usage of RISC-V architecture.
Research from Semico has found that RISC-V expects the number of chips using its technology to increase by 73.6%, year-on-year between now and 2027 – which goes some way to explaining why RISC-V International CEO Calista Redmond wants “nothing less than world domination”, according to an interview earlier this year.
On the developer front, RISC-V offers the opportunity to customise designs as they go, building bespoke features that speak to exactly what an application requires. From a community perspective, meanwhile, each new device offers a window into the technical advantages of platforms benefitting from the RISC-V community, while retaining the frame of reference that they’re so familiar with. That shared knowledge, toolset, and perspective all accelerate growth.
The accessibility, affordability and ambition of RISC-V, and the potential results from an IoT and AI-centric perspective, make China’s interest understandable.
RISC-V represents a certain level of freedom when it comes to innovation: from licensing fees, from creative restrictions, from economic risk, and from unfamiliarity. The ability to give engineers the tools that they work best with, and then allowing them the freedom to develop and innovate, is a compelling case for the excitement surrounding RISC-V.
And as all of these benefits impact the individual engineer, they ripple out. As the architecture provides the basis for exciting new applications and developments, we move closer to the point at which RISC-V hits the mainstream, with potential industry-wide adoption heralding a new dawn for many sectors.
Author details: Mark Lippett is CEO, XMOS