RISC-V is trying to launch an open-hardware revolution

Christopher Schodt
·Video Producer
·2-min read

There are processors in everything. I’m not even talking about the SoC in your phone or smart TV; but modern devices from cars to consoles are filled with tiny chips. These microcontrollers manage power supplies, interpret sensor readings, move data, handle network connections and a host of other services. The design of these processors, from the architecture to instruction set (the fundamental code that CPUs can execute) is all considered intellectual property, and half the time it’s secret. According to David Patterson, a UC Berkeley professor of computer science, the average device can have processors built by a half dozen different manufacturers or more.

Patterson would know. In 2018 he, along with former Stanford president John Hennessey, received the Turing Prize (essentially computer science’s Nobel) for developing RISC, the design philosophy that powers most of these chips. That work was in the ‘80s, but for the last decade Patterson has been working with another Berkeley team on RISC-V, a new concept for a fully open-source processor.

RISC enabled a revolution in small, efficient and low cost processors and helped create our modern connected world. But in the intervening years, a handful of companies have come to dominate the processor landscape. If you need a chip for a new device, your only real option is to hope you can find something close to what you want off-the-shelf from somewhere like Texas Instruments or Renesas. Fully designing a chip from scratch is so prohibitively complex and expensive that few companies have the resources to do it.

One of the big limiting factors here is that fundamental processor code; the instruction set, or ISA. Developing a new ISA is a huge endeavor, and a small few, like ARM and x86, dominate the chip landscape. What RISC-V does is provide a tested, functional ISA for whoever wants is. The ISA is also designed to be modified, with “extensions” that can add on functionality, letting engineers pick and choose what features they need.

Even with an ISA, designing a new processor is a huge undertaking, but many companies backing the RISC-V project, including giants like Western Digital, have been open-sourcing their chip designs as well, freeing them up for others to modify or use. Or new companies can contract with a firm like SiFive, a startup that is building custom RISC-V processors to order.

There’s still a lot of ways this project could go wrong — funding drying up, development issues, security flaws, to name a few — but if it succeeds, RISC-V could lower the cost of developing a new chip and help companies of all sizes to build exactly the processors they need. Check out our full video for more info.