Open architectures foster innovation because of the material is available with no royalty. Developers can adopt it as a standard for software and hardware specifications. The Open Source community has benefited tremendously from this when it comes to software development. On the hardware side, an open standard should also help developers build their own systems and solutions. All that developers will need are the instruction set to the hardware and they can build on top of it.
The RISC-V open standard ISA (Instruction Set Architecture) was developed by 325 companies (now up to 500 members) to come up with a system for building on top of processors. It is now run by a foundation that maintains the standard. The instruction sets are supported by vendors who develop compatible hardware. This creates a system design that allows software engineers to program code in firmware that is supported across a wide variety of devices that support RISC-V instruction sets.
The cost of development can run high. In developing closed architecture and proprietary systems, the developers can protect their trade secrets but the problem comes to integration. Such systems limit their market reach, unless they are the only producer. In that case it would be monopolistic and without other developers to compete with, there is little innovation in the products. These systems can also be very expensive for other developers to adopt as a standard. They would require licensing and royalty fees in order to be used by other companies. It is centralized and tightly controlled by the company who owns the rights and patents to the technology.
Open source solutions offer more space for developers to enter and innovate on products. They are not constrained by the intellectual property rights of the inventor. With the RISC-V, developers can follow a standard set of protocols for product development. It also fosters community since there are less barriers to entry. Developers of all types from different companies and industries can share the same space and collaborate in research and development. This results in a more organized way of building systems that is not restricted by a single entity.
According to one of the inventors of RISC-V, David Patterson (Google Distinguished Engineer):
“ … the original motivation was to experiment more with chip design because Moore’s Law, the prediction that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every couple of years, was slowing down.”
RISC system design (on which RISC-V is based) is also more energy efficient and optimizes instruction execution much better than its competing architecture on the x86 platform (e.g. Intel and AMD). This allows better battery life on devices due to lower power consumption and faster execution of operations for certain instructions to the CPU.
RISC-V supports both 32-bit, 64-bit and 128-bit instruction sets. It is based on the RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture, which emphasizes instruction optimization rather than specialized instruction sets. RISC-based systems allow a process to complete much faster by removing the complexity in the execution pipeline of the instruction set.
The developers of RISC-V (UC Berkeley) had the following goals in mind when they set out with the project:
- Create a RISC-based instruction set that can be supported on a multitude of devices, from embedded processors to cloud-based servers and from micro-controllers to supercomputers.
- Open source, available with no royalty cost applicable (license free).
- Provide a free-to-use development framework for the community, including tools, patches, updates and other software.
RISC-V uses standard naming conventions for their instruction sets. The name format is:
RV — Indicates the RISC-V architecture.
[###] — Indicate the width of the integer register file and the size of the user address space.
[abc…xyz] — Indicates the set of extensions supported by an implementation.
The RISC-V uses three privileged modes as defined in their Privileged Specifications. These are:
- Level 0 (U) — User Application
- Level 1 (S ) — Supervisor
- Level 2 (HS) — Hypervisor
- Level 3 (M) — Machine
The RISC-V has 32 (or 16 in the embedded variant) integer registers. When the floating-point extension is implemented, it has a separate 32 floating-point registers. The instructions address only registers.
The first integer register is a 0 register, and the remainder are general-purpose registers. Using a zero register makes for a simpler instruction set. For example:
move rx to ry
add r0 to rx and store in ry.
User-mode programs can access only those used for performance measurement and floating-point management. There are no instructions that exist for saving and restoring multiple registers. It was considered too complex and slows down operations.
Here are the main advantages of RISC-V’s architecture (From Electronics Hub):
- The performance of RISC processors is often 2 to 4 times than that of CISC processors because of a simplified instruction set.
- The architecture uses less chip space due to reduced instruction sets. This allows placing extra functions like floating point arithmetic units or memory management units on the same chip.
- The per-chip cost is reduced by this architecture that uses smaller chips consisting of more components on a single silicon wafer.
- RISC processors can be designed more quickly than CISC processors due to its simple architecture.
- The execution of instructions in RISC processors is high due to the use of many registers for holding and passing the instructions.
Hare some companies that have used the RISC-V in their products:
- Western Digital has started using RISC-V back in 2017. They are now one of the major contributors to the open standard architecture. They provide a RISC-V ecosystem family of processors that can be used with specific applications. Their product is called the SweRV core.
- Microchip has built what is the first RISC-V-based SoC FPGA that uses lesser power than conventional FPGA. It is called the PolarFire SoC and its main feature is it uses half the power required by other FPGA products. The design also takes into consideration reliability and security.
- Mobile and electronics giant Samsung has integrated RISC-V design in their Exynos chips modem chips. They won’t end with the Exynos though.
According to Junho Huh (Research VP Samsung Electronics):
“It was a risk to use RISC-V, but the company expects to introduce RISC-V across a large number of products in the future, including AI, security, and safety chips.”
The RISC-V defines a commercial product design for general to more application specific computing. Such open standard architecture brings together a community of innovators that can build and foster further developments in the design. Its closest competitor, in terms of architecture, is ARM. The main difference is that ARM does not provide their instruction set royalty free. ARM licenses its instruction set to companies like Qualcomm and Apple, while RISC-V is free-to-use and does not require any royalty fees. This is ideal for startups that have new ideas but want to get started building on something with a minimal budget.
Such developments in open standards for processor design will surely usher in more players in the space. It is already being embraced by larger companies, including Samsung. Its application in IoT, mobiles and industrial instruments is as lucrative as the retail market for personal computers. The standards will also remain under continuous development since it does not require the constraints of a paid development team. You have liked minded individuals working as a group to benefit all. The community is coming together in the project with more contributions coming in since there are minimum barriers to entry.