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Is RISC-V the Future of Chips?

RISC-V is an open-source, royalty-free instruction set architecture (ISA).


RISC-V is disrupting the chip industry in several ways

The chip industry has long been dominated by a few key players of proprietary instruction set architectures (ISAs) with Intel and ARM leading the way, having made up nearly all CPUs deployed globally in recent years. However, RISC-V is gaining ground as its open-source chip architecture offers several advantages over proprietary ISAs. It's lower costs and greater access is driving a new era of customisation, providing companies with the flexibility, extensibility, and scalability they need to power the most compute-intensive applications.


What is RISC-V?

RISC-V (“risk-five”) is an instruction set architecture (ISA) rooted in reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles. It was conceived by developers at the University of California Berkley in 2010. Unlike the most commonly used ISAs which are proprietary and require a license and fees for their use, RISC-V has been made available under an open-source license. To further bolster the open-source ISA, the RISC-V Foundation was convened in 2015 to form a “collaborative community of software and hardware innovators based on the RISC-V ISA” and manage its development.


RISC-V Characteristics

  • Demonstrates a validated ISA and adheres to established RISC design principles
  • Executes instructions within a single cycle
  • Adopts a load-store architecture
  • Showcases an uncomplicated, consistent, software-centric design (compact, unchanging core supplemented by modular standardised extensions)
  • Possesses a modular, stratified, and expandable structure, granting freedom in both software and hardware within the architecture
  • Displays adaptability and scalability (suitable for microcontrollers, personal computers, and supercomputers)
  • Provides 32- and 64-bit variations and expansions to accommodate floating point instructions
  • Receives support from a variety of language compilers (e.g., GNU Compiler Collection) and the Linux operating system
  • Offers an array of hardware support, ranging from microcontrollers to systems on module, systems on chip, and field programmable gate arrays
  • Enhances the design-to-market timeline by encouraging collaboration and open source IP reuse


RISC-V Applications

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Augmented reality
  • Automotive
  • Cloud servers
  • Computer devices and controllers
  • General purpose processors
  • Internet of Things
  • Machine learning
  • Medical
  • Network edge
  • Virtual reality

The open-source nature of RISC-V offers several advantages over proprietary ISAs. For one thing, it’s free. This can save companies millions of dollars in license fees, which is especially important for earlier-stage companies and secondly it’s sanction-free: Being open-source, RISC-V is also not affected by export restrictions. This makes it appealing to companies, especially in China, that have been affected or fear being affected by those restrictions.


The impact of RISC-V on future electronic components

Being open-source ensures RISC-V is available to all, irrespective of size or financial status. This inclusivity has sparked a surge in RISC-V chip designs emanating from a diverse array of companies, fostering innovation and heightened competition within the chip sector.

  • RISC-V is disrupting the chip industry by providing an alternative to proprietary architectures like ARM and x86. With RISC-V, companies are able to develop and manufacture their own chips without paying licensing fees to ARM or Intel.
  • RISC-V’s performance and power consumption advantages are significant, offering better performance and energy efficiency than traditional solutions.
  • RISC-V’s flexibility and modularity make it ideal for use in a wide range of applications, from low-power IoT devices to high-performance servers. Also with highly customisable IP cores, RISC-V designs can be tailored to meet the specific needs of any application.
  • RISC-V enables companies to get their designs to market faster, because it simplifies the instructions given to the processor to accomplish tasks and provides the flexibility to create thousands of possible custom processors.
  • RISC-V ecosystem is growing rapidly, with a large and active community of developers and companies working on RISC-V designs, software, and tools.

The open-source characteristic of it means it comes at no cost, a particularly valuable aspect for start-ups. Secondly, its open-source nature grants immunity from sanctions, rendering RISC-V impervious to export restrictions. This attribute holds considerable allure, especially for companies, notably in China, that have experienced or anticipate the impact of such limitations. As manufacturers and innovators continue to adopt RISC-V, acknowledging its many advantages, a surge of applications using this flexible and scalable architecture can be anticipated.

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