At the outset of Nvidia’s bold $40 billion purchase of chip design maker Arm, semiconductor engineers and executives viewed an open-source alternative called RISC-V as a potential backup option should Nvidia exert more control over Arm’s design philosophy. More than a year later, Nvidia’s deal has run into trouble, but the appetite for an alternative — such as RISC-V — has not waned.
Nvidia’s Arm deal has run up against one of the things that makes RISC-V attractive: techno-nationalism. The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that semiconductors are vital for a range of consumer goods but also national security. The U.S., for example, has a plan in the works to spend billions to ensure that the domestic capacity exists to manufacture a sufficient supply.
RISC-V also doesn’t have some of the problems that companies building around Nvidia and Arm do because it is open source: free of licensing fees, restrictions and reliance on companies such as Intel or Arm pushing research and development forward. Most importantly, no government has successfully intervened in its development so far.
RISC-V’s present and future path also doesn’t hinge on turning a quarterly profit to appease Wall Street. As a result, its technological future is shaped by other priorities as organizations and national governments are free to transform the underlying blueprints to suit their needs. And several, such as China, India and Russia, have decided to do so.
But RISC-V is unproven at scale, and is well behind rivals when it comes to the maturity of software built for its architecture. To dig into some of the considerations around adopting RISC-V and a host of other recent developments, Protocol caught up with CEO Calista Redmond at the organization’s RISC-V summit in San Francisco last week. In our conversation, Redmond discussed how widely the tech has been adopted and some of the reasons why startups, big business and governments are taking a chance on developing hardware around RISC-V.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What are some of the signals RISC-V is gaining traction in the marketplace?
The entire silicon industry has been disrupted by RISC-V. Some larger organizations like Intel are getting in the boat, they want to participate, as has Nvidia. The fundamental shakeup of RISC-V in the industry is being watched carefully by public institutions, [by] startup companies, [by] thousands of engineers.
Look at the job postings for RISC-V. We have a venture capitalist on our board of directors [Eric Li of Chengwei Capital] who does nothing but invest in RISC-V. $22 billion is the level of venture capital investment now [Editor's note: from 2020 to 2022, Deloitte estimates VCs will deploy that amount], which surpasses the $21 billion VCs put into this segment from 2005 to 2016. RISC-V can truly be a kingmaker, and that’s why VCs are engaged and involved. They are saying, “Look at the trajectory of companies like SiFive.”
During your keynote address at the RISC-V summit in San Francisco, you said that there are currently roughly 2 billion RISC-V cores in the world. What does that mean?
That data is anecdotal and probably low because it’s just what we hear about from our various community members. But it means we have crossed that inflection point. We're no longer just considered as an option. We're actually being moved into production and companies making a strategic hardware decision for a generation of hardware. You can’t change your mind every six months like you can with software, you’re pretty much locked in. That’s because of how long the development cycle takes.
So that level of investment, that level of confidence in RISC-V as a strategic underpinning [means we have] really crossed the chasm. RISC-V will be the foundational block of compute across the spectrum from embedded to the enterprise and everything in between.
What makes RISC-V different, and what are its benefits compared with other instruction set architectures? What are the tradeoffs using it versus x86 or Arm?
The really critical distinction is with a proprietary architecture [such as x86 or Arm], which is a black box in most cases. With RISC-V you have full transparency, and transparency is the base layer of a highly secure technology, whether it’s hardware or software. RISC-V is highly secure because everything can be proven.
Our ecosystem growth has been accelerating to the point where it's not going to take the decades that it did for other architectures to amass their ecosystem of software, tools and other resources to design and build with. That’s the piece we’re playing catch up on. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there very rapidly.
In some ways, folks have pointed to the other variables outside of the instruction set that you need to think about. What does my engineering team already know and love? They probably don't all know and love RISC-V, they probably have grown up on other architectures. That's where their wealth of experience and other customizations have been in. We have to make things portable from one architecture to another. And we've improved that dramatically.
Why is RISC-V important for the world, which already has two excellent processor architectures?
I’m not proposing that you go to your boss and say, "I’d like to throw out all the millions of dollars you’ve already invested in your existing product portfolio." That’s the day you hand in your badge. There are so many factors that go into an architecture decision. And ripping and replacing something you've already been doing for decades is not usually the place to start.
Where we see multinationals and startups and everything in between diving into the RISC-V pool is on new workloads, new capabilities, such as artificial and machine learning. If you add AI and ML to your enterprise data center, you don’t have a sunk investment already, and it’s worth taking a look at an alternative.
RISC-V doesn’t require you to take everything that’s in a pre-packaged black box, it’s an alternative that doesn’t require you to negotiate a proprietary license — which can take a good year and a half to two years — that requires you to take the whole package. RISC-V lets you choose something that gives you the design flexibility so you can get a differentiated product. Hyperscalers or cloud providers need to compete on the new piece that they’re bringing to an existing solution.
What about startups? Why would a young company take a chance on RISC-V?
There are more startups and design houses on RISC-V than any other architecture. So we already have become a formidable third option. They have no sunk investment. They’re not going to come at it with high volumes, with huge negotiating leverage. They need to start [with] something that has as few barriers to entry as possible but yet has tremendous growth opportunity. Internet of Things or embedded — those have been huge sweet spots for RISC-V startups, for example.
Look at the simplicity and the ability to actually modularly compose the solution you want rather than incrementally add on to a very large base, which profoundly simplifies and reduces the level of engineering might that you need to get to market. A lot of these variables go into a startup’s decision to take a RISC-V approach to a fast-growing green-field opportunity. For example, in automotive or autonomous vehicles, or consumer devices like chips in your toothbrush, or toaster or whatever, there are lots of these opportunities.
But there are those similar opportunities in enterprise in high-performance computing, and other scale-up type implementations.
One of the advantages about RISC-V you discussed was that it’s open source, unlike its rival major architectures. Why does an open-source architecture matter geopolitically?
The geopolitical nature of where technology has gone has been disappointing in some ways — but all [countries] want to have a great technical economy. Everyone wants to hold onto economic thought leadership on the global stage, everyone wants to be a leader, technology is getting a bit on the nationalist side of things. I’m not talking about any one country, either.
The tune has changed with things like open source, whether it’s software or hardware — it doesn’t matter. Folks want to use global standards, and globally open-source software and hardware because it has been an approach that brings nations together, and builds those bridges rather than tears us apart. And you see that time and again.
India has had a RISC-V strategy, the European Union is on board with its processor initiative. They’re heavily investing in RISC-V because it’s a running start — it’s a platform you can use to build your local technical economic leadership while also participating in global supply chains, global opportunities, global development partners and global markets. Russia is stepping up to that as well, and you see that in China too.