These simple design rules could turn the chip industry upside down

These simple design rules could turn the chip industry upside down

But the silicon switches in your laptop’s central processor don’t inherently understand the word “for” or the “=” symbol. In order for a chip to execute your Python code, software must translate these words and symbols into instructions that a chip can use.

Engineers designate specific binary sequences for the hardware to perform certain actions. The code “100000”, for example, could tell a chip to add two numbers, while the code “100100” could ask it to copy a piece of data. These binary sequences form the fundamental vocabulary of the chip, known as the computer’s instruction set.

For years, the chip industry has relied on a variety of proprietary instruction sets. Two main types dominate the market today: x86, which is used by Intel and AMD, and Arm, made by the company of the same name. Companies must license these instruction sets, which can cost millions of dollars for a single design. And because x86 and Arm chips speak different languages, software developers must create a version of the same application to suit each instruction set.

Lately, however, many hardware and software companies around the world have begun to converge around a publicly available instruction set known as RISC-V. It’s a change that could radically change the chip industry. RISC-V proponents say this instruction set makes computer chip design more accessible to smaller companies and budding entrepreneurs by freeing them from expensive licensing fees.

“Billions of RISC-V-based cores already exist, in everything from headsets to cloud servers,” says Mark Himelstein, CTO of RISC-V International, a nonprofit that backs the technology.

In February 2022, Intel itself committed $1 billion to develop the RISC-V ecosystem, along with other priorities. While Himelstein predicts it will take a few years before RISC-V chips become mainstream among personal computers, the first laptop with a RISC-V chip, the Roma from Xcalibyte and DeepComputing, became available for pre-order in June.

What is RISC-V?

You can think of RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) as a set of design standards, like Bluetooth, for computer chips. It is known as an “open standard”. That means anyone (you, me, Intel) can participate in the development of those standards. Furthermore, anyone can design a computer chip based on the RISC-V instruction set. Those chips could run any software designed for RISC-V. (Note that technology based on an “open standard” differs from “open source” technology. An open standard generally designates technology specifications, while “open source” generally refers to software whose source code is freely available for reference and use).

A group of computer scientists at UC Berkeley developed the foundation for RISC-V in 2010 as a teaching tool for chip design. Proprietary central processing units (CPUs) were too complicated and opaque for students to learn. The creators of RISC-V made the instruction set public and soon found themselves answering questions about it. In 2015, a group of academic institutions and companies, including Google and IBM, founded RISC-V International to standardize the instruction set.

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