The advent of processors based the RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) is not just exciting for engineers and designers—open source hardware benefits procurement, experts said.
“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 RISC-V ISA is based on established reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles. It can be implemented, cost free, for a vast range of applications -- anyone can design, manufacture and sell RISC-V chips and software.
For engineers, the open standard collaboration inherent in RISC-V provides opportunities 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 EPSNews sister publication EBN.
RISC-V has the advantage of being a long-standing effort supported 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
Open source hardware is creating a ripple effect, not just in design, but also in procurement. “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.”
At the same time, 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 organizations 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, new products will appear on many bills of material (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, said Swift. “Procurement will have the job of sort out and identify the best supplier. They’ll need to look at whether these emerging organizations will be able to provide the support they need.”
For some organizations, designing and implementing specialized chips with very little capital is a real possibility. Other organizations can work with IP development companies. “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 reduces the risks associated with a proprietary processor design. “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 enhances flexibility—and competition, he said. “You actually have a fairly different negotiating position than that portion of the industry has had in the past.”
At the same time, prices on these devices may not decrease dramatically. OEMs will be able to source chips that do more of what they want without the hefty premium associated with specialized products. “Over time, designers will have more choices,” said Tim Morin, director of strategic marketing in Microchip’s FPGA business unit. “As a chip maker, we can provide uniqueness in our product offering and a superior solution, which tends 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. “
For more in-depth insight into technical and business aspects of RISC-V, check out these other articles in this AspenCore Special Project:
RISC-V on the Verge of Broad Adoption: RISC-V’s open instruction set architecture (ISA) aims to redefine how processors get designed by enabling an ecosystem that supports both standardized and customized CPUs spanning a broad application space. Solidifying specifications, increasing adoption, and growing software and development support are helping clear the path to that goal.
Creating a custom processor with RISC-V: The RISC-V instruction set architecture is an open framework that allows design of a customized processor that can leverage tools and software libraries created for the standard versions.
Introducing RISC-V and RISC-V tools: It seems like everyone is talking about RISC-V processors these days, but what exactly is RISC-V and what tools are available to designers?
RISC-V Climbs Software Mountain: The open-source architecture faces a long road through software standards from its beachhead as an SoC controller to use as a host processor.
Can Arm Survive the RISC-V challenge? Arm offers limited flexibility compared to RISC-V or MIPS. No one wants to spend months negotiating license terms under today's cost and time-to-market pressures.
SiFive Sees Big Year for RISC-V: Startup expects many design wins, new players
Can MIPS Leapfrog RISC-V? MIPS will become a bona fide open-source ISA. But given that MIPS will offer “commercial-ready” instruction sets with “industrial-strength” architecture, hardware developers MIPS would attract are bigger and more mature companies, including current Arm licensees, according to Wave.