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How RISC-V processor architecture is empowering new flexible innovation and design


24th November - Valencia.

The adoption of RISC-V is critical for many organizations to compete in the open era of computing. Research firm Semico expects the number of chips that include at least some RISC-V technology will grow 73.6 percent per year through 2027. This is largely driven by the demand for AI and machine learning but the prediction is for for RISC-V architecture to become standard for high performance computing.

At the moment however RISC-V will play an increasingly critical role in driving the future development of more innovative and efficient chips. RISC-V will be used increasingly for deeply embedded applications and as the main application processors in systems as the RISC-V software ecosystem matures.



Every processor uses a set of instructions to accomplish tasks called an instruction set architecture (ISA).  According to Deloitte, traditionally, processing cores—the best known of which are the central processing units (CPUs) found in computers, data centres, and phones—have been closed and proprietary. Proprietary instruction set architectures (ISAs) from Intel and Arm have made up nearly all CPUs deployed globally in recent years.  They are largely licensable and therefore fee based, while RISC-V, which is based on reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles, simplifies instructions to the processor and being open source and free of licensing fees, can be used by anyone to develop their own processors.

Electronic Design writes that although current RISC-V technologies can't currently compete with x86 offerings from AMD and Intel, there’s enough momentum for the open-source instruction set architecture to produce competitive hardware in the near future. And SD Times report that while RISC-V’s encroachment into the ARM space has mostly been with embedded systems to date, there is a reasonable chance that an open source, non-proprietary solution could be better long-term than the proprietary solution from ARM.  They state Microchip, has gone on record saying it made the move from ARM to RISC-V because it had lower development and licensing costs, better long-term outlook and more flexibility. In short, RISC-V better met their short-term needs, and particularly their low-risk, long-term needs.  

Deloitte maintain however, that large traditional chipmakers have little reason to worry that RISC-V will eat into their business in high performance and operational computing, as to change design is “only” a few million dollars at most. And in the context of a new chip design for a popular smartphone or other application where chip volumes are measured in the millions, reducing the ISA license cost alone is unlikely to be a material consideration.


The advantages of RISC-V

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 licence fees, which is especially important for earlier-stage companies. According to a 2020 study, more than 23% of new ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) and FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips from start-ups incorporated at least one RISC-V processor.

Secondly 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 having sanctions placed upon them. About a third of RISC-V organization members are from China, and multiple large Chinese companies have announced RISC-V chips already. The restrictions imposed in recent years have a strong bearing on x86 processors from the likes of Intel, AMD and Nvidia. This growing pressure on chip manufacturing in China has driven Chinese attention to the RISC-V platform.


Which sectors and use applications

In addition, a number of new AI chip designs appear to be using RISC-V. Another area of interest tends to be chips in Automotive and IoT which are less powerful than personal computer or data centre CPUs.  Success in vehicles could augur well for RISC-V doing well in other IoT markets. Supporting that potential, a leading RISC-V company and a leading automotive chipmaker announced a strategic partnership in 2021 targeting multiple auto applications with high-end solutions.

RISC-V designs are easier to modify than traditional ISAs, allowing for greater flexibility. They are also compatible with a wide range of applications. Companies use RISC-V cores for all of artificial intelligence (AI) image sensors, security management, AI computing, and machine control systems for 5G. Other companies are planning on using it for different storage, graphics, and machine-learning applications. 


RISC-V, the flexible challenger

While Deloitte, have stated that large traditional chipmakers have little reason to worry that RISC-V will eat into their business, this is not stopping major companies from developing their own tie-up with RISC-V architecture. Apple, for instance, are stepping away from ARM ISA in favour of RISC-V for their embedded cores, responsible for tasks outside of the operating system such as WiFi/BlueTooth, ThunderBolt retiming and touchpad control. These cores can be placed with custom IPs and can save licensing fees when custom RISC-V cores are used. And Google recently disclosed it was working with RISC-V chip designer SiFive to integrate the latter's 64-bit RISC-V application cores into its family of TPU chips, designed to speed up machine learning workloads. 


Strong software community ecosystem

RISC-V, as an open-source ISA has a growing software community that already provides vast software support, and this is expected to grow as RISC-V becomes widely adopted. For many companies, where the cost of supporting additional proprietary ISAs is too high they prefer to support the RISC-V ISA instead. It is an ongoing spiralling upwards cycle as the more tools and software that are available on an ISA, the more likely companies will be to develop chips based on that ISA. The more chips that are out there based on a specific ISA, the more likely developers will be to create software and tools for that ISA –an organic ecosystem.

Its community now includes Intel who see its planned investments and commitment to open collaboration on RISC-V will strengthen the overall ecosystem and drive commercialization of RISC-V. The strategic partnership will move the industry-leading RISC-V product line deeper into performance-driven and mission-critical markets.


The drive into high performance markets

Due to the popularity of RISC-V architecture in controllers and embedded applications, which are largely 16-bit and 32-bit, CTO of RISC-V International, Mark Himelstein has said that 48-bit instructions may be gathering steam in embedded computing. He added there also conversations on 128-bit instructions in the RISC-V community which may be a reality in the future.

Its involvement with Intel is also helping Ventana Microsystems lead the way into Data Centres by producing high-performance RISC-V cores and chiplets available through Intel Foundry Services (“IFS”) which is also progressing in , 5G/Edge, Networking, Storage, AI/ML, Automotive and Client market verticals. CEO Balaji Baktha recently stated “Rigid CPU architecture are of the past. The market requires innovation looking for unique ways to accelerate workload optimisation for Data Centres, and RISC-V is it!”


The growing demand for RISC-V knowledge in embedded engineers

With Arm announcing it is laying off 15% of its workforce, news around the embedded systems market seems to support the view that companies supporting RISC-V technology are gaining traction. The growth of new RISC-V companies such as Imagination Technologies and SiFive and the explosion of new applications using RISC-V technology means that there is a huge demand for talented embedded engineers with experience of RISC-V architecture. It requires specialists in the market to find the exact matching skills to support new projects, particularly in this, and other architectures. Specialists such as CIS have over 20 years’ experience of finding the most suitable resources whether it be onsite, remote or hybrid basis for embedded engineers. Make sure your next project is covered by the latest knowledge in RISC-V technology, call CIS on +34 963 943 500.