Electronics engineers and designers will enjoy a variety of benefits of the advent of processor options based the RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA). The supply chain and procurement department, though, has the potential of capturing a variety of sourcing benefits related to the nature of open source offerings as well.
“Open source does two things for you: it rationalizes price and motivates adoption and investment,” explained Keith Witek, senior vice president, Corporate Development, Strategy, and General Counsel at SiFive, a provider of commercial RISC-V processor IP. “If I charge you too much, you can leave and go to different vendor. I can’t lock you up with proprietary architecture or tools. And you feel like you can invest, because no one can take it away from you. RISC-V takes a big part in democratizing silicon.”
The basics of RISC-V
The RISC-V ISA is based on established reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles. Anyone can use it for all types of implementation, including development and commercial and open source implementations, without cost. That means that anyone who wants to can design, manufacture and sell RISC-V chips and software.
For engineers, the open standard collaboration inherent in RISC-V on processes creates and opportunity for innovation and efficiency in design. According to the RISC-V foundation, “the RISC-V ISA delivers a new level of free, extensible software and hardware freedom on architecture, paving the way for the next 50 years of computing design and innovation.”
Founded in 2015, the RISC-V Foundation now has 200 member organizations supporting the standard. “The foundation looks after the ISA itself, which is literally the list of instructions or dictionary of instructions that a microprocessor would execute,” Rick O’Connor, executive director of the RISC-V Foundation, told EBN.
RISC-V has the advantage of being a long-standing effort that is supported deeply by the technology, academia, and research communities. “This is the fifth generation of work being done,” said O’Connor. “UC Berkeley is credited with coining the term for RISC as a method of design back in the early 1980s.”
Open source changes sourcing
It’s clear that open source hardware will have a ripple effect, not just on design, but also on procurement practices. “Open hardware and standards make the procurement job both easier and harder,” said Art Swift, president of Wave Computing's MIPS IP business (another open-source standard). “In some sense, you always have multiple suppliers since there are lots of people building chips. That’s going to be great for procurement. It’s going to make a much broader playing field and much better opportunity for procurement to work its magic and get the best for the company.
With so many organizations exploring the potential of the RISC-V ISA, procurement departments will likely be faced with an explosion of new sourcing alternatives. “A large variety of products will emerge, as well as potentially more and different suppliers than have been seen traditionally,” said O’Connor.
The list of contenders in the marketplace will range from young startup organization to veteran chip providers such as Marvel, Microchip Technology, NXP, Cadence and others. “RISC-V has the promise of allowing a greater variety of products because of the simplicity of the architecture,” said O’Connor. “Further, it has the advantage of being able to tailor purpose-build machines that are architected to handle specific data sets very well.”
While electronics OEMs won’t necessarily upend their approved supplier lists, it’s likely that new products will appear on many bill of materials (BOM). “There may be new suppliers you want to consider,” said O’Connor. “There may be some interesting small companies doing something innovative and that’s probably worth looking at."
The key for the supply chain is to vet new suppliers carefully. “Procurement will have the job of sort out and identify the best supplier,” said Swift. “They’ll need to look at whether these emerging organizations will be able to provide the support they need.”
Further, at least for some organizations, designing and implementing specialized chips is possible, with very little capital or operating expense expenditure required. Other organizations can work with IP development companies to get help in creating the chips they want. “Available design methodologies and tools allow chips to be made at phenomenal speed,” said Witek, adding that this new reality is what started SciFive on the path of being an IP company rather than a chip company. “It’s more than just a better way of making chips. IT has the potential to better control the user experience of their products and put chips that meet their own needs to market.”
Better buying position
Further, a RISC-V based processor allows for organizations to avoid the risks associated with choosing a processor based on the intellectual property (IP) that is proprietary to a single vendor. “In the past, you were choosing a vendor which automatically fixed the supply chain,” said O’Connor. “When you choose RISC-V you are choosing an architecture without choosing a vendor and more to come. It really enhances flexibility.”
The lack of vendor lock in provided better opportunity for competition. “You actually have a fairly different negotiating position than that portion of the industry has had in the past,” said O’Connor.
At the same time, that’s not a promise that prices on these products will go down dramatically—rather OEMs will be able to get chips that do more or do more of what they want—without the hefty premium normally associated with specialized products. “Over time, designers will have more choices,” said Tim Morin, director of strategic marketing in Microchip Technology’s FPGA business unit. “As a chip maker, we can provide uniqueness in our product offering and a superior solution, which has a tendency to keep average selling prices (ASPs) up. It’s a good thing for both parties, though: manufacturers of chips get a return on their money and the customer gets an optimized solution.
As the electronics industry grows in size and scope, component shortages have become the norm. “Multibillion markets are created out of nothing in a year to two years, but the industry hasn’t improved its ability to get components we need,” said Witek. “Component makers are not getting components to market to meet the market’s need. Moore’s law isn’t dead, but it is slowing.”
RISC-V, with its low-cost of entry and designing ease, create an opportunity for OEMs and component makers to create more products with greater variety.
— Hailey Lynne McKeefry, Editor in Chief, EBN
For more in-depth insight into technical and business aspects of RISC-V, check out these other articles in this Aspencore Special Project.
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