Published in PC Hardware

RISC-V gets weaponised

by on08 May 2017

SiFive building silicon

The RISC-V open-source architecture, created by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has been around since 2010.

Anyone can use it but so far no one has bothered, although there is some theoretical interest in the tech. The RISC-V Foundation, which manages and promotes the architecture, counts Google, Microsoft, Qualcomm, AMD, Huawei, and others among its 60 members.

The RISC-V design can be modified for PCs, servers, smartphones, wearables, and other devices.

Now a startup called SiFive is the first to make a business out of the RISC-V architecture.

They have converted the RISC-V instruction set architecture into actual silicon and created two new chip designs that can be licensed.

RISC-V shares the ethos of open-source software, with the community working together to share, advance, and modify the architecture.

Nvidia is expected to use the microcontroller-style RISC-V designs in its chips.

Companies like Google are developing chips in-house and could tweak RISC-V for servers, which could save them from buying Intel's expensive chips.

SiFive's new 32-bit E31 Coreplex processor design is targeted at IoT devices, wearables, and low-power devices. The 64-bit CorePlex E51 could be used in servers, network processors, storage devices, and edge computing devices.

Some other open-source chips like OpenSPARC have lingered around but are based on old designs. The RISC-V Foundation has aggressively promoted the architecture, especially at Hot Chips, an annual gathering of semiconductor professionals.

The RISC-V architecture is modular, meaning that independent co-processing circuits can be attached to the central RISC-V design which makes the RISC-V highly flexible.

The goal of SiFive is to monetise the RISC-V design but at a modest cost. The new chip designs can be licensed for a fixed price from SiFive, but the company will not charge royalties. That makes it attractive alternative compared to chip designs from ARM and Imagination Technologies, which charge licensing fees and royalties.

SiFive will make chips starting later this year. The company earlier released the HiFive1 low-power board based on its RISC-V chip. The boards sold in the thousands.

The company did not provide the licensing prices for the CorePlex designs, but ordering them will be straightforward, SiFive officials said.

Last modified on 08 May 2017
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