Keeping It 100: RISC-V Reality Check
December 05, 2023
Hype about the RISC-V market has been rising consistently since the first board was released in 2015, but developments over the last 18 months merit closer examination, and we’ve been digging in.
Last year, Intel made a big noise about launching a RISC-V development project, dubbed Pathfinder. That project lasted less than a year before it was cancelled. Since, Intel has reportedly been recommending customers use third-party RISC-V tools in future CPU designs. Meanwhile, analyst firms are putting the market size in the half a billion dollar range with big predictions for growth (standard grain of salt there), based mainly on autonomous vehicles, IoT implementations, and the self-feeding hype cycle of adopters. At the recent RISC-V Summit in Santa Clara, CA (check out our coverage here), big players like Meta made big moves into the space, but there’s still some skepticism.
RISC-V has a ton of advantages (just ask anyone who’s already on board), but it’s not yet a golden ticket to the microprocessor promised land. There are solid reasons that it’s not already the de facto standard for deployment at scale.
The first big problem you’re likely to run into is not new to frequent waders in open source waters: lack of support. After the RISC-V Summit in Barcelona earlier this year, Agam Shah wrote in The New Stack, “the developer support is pitiful. RISC-V International... talks more about hardware, with software a distant second in priorities.” Now, since that statement, the organization has brought on new members that are focusing on software, most notably for data centers and AI implementations.
Still, new entrants should be prepared to do a lot of the support work if they run into problems. The solutions are out there, but you’re likely going to have to rely on forums and GitHub threads to find troubleshooting help, especially on the software side. That is, unless you’ve opted to work with a provider that’s going to offer you a toolset and support through the development and systems integration processes.
There are many negative perceptions you’ve likely heard about RISC-V architectures. Many of those are common to open architectures of all kinds, as you might imagine. These might include: it’s not as secure, it’s too fragmented, or it won’t be capable of the highest-level performance or robustness.
As is often the case, these objections are subjective and are dependent on the build and the needs of the project. In point of fact, they’re usually not true for ISA builds that leverage recognized RISC-V partners and providers. David Patterson, vice-chair of the RISC-V International Board of Directors published a blog addressing many of these (and more).
Shawn Prestridge, US FAE team leader, IAR Systems thinks there’s value in the skepticism, though. “I think one of the big problems that RISC-V has at this point is most of the people who are looking at RISC-V are startups or R&D groups in large companies trying to validate the hype,” he said. “We’re just not seeing the market penetration.”
Partners in RISC-V
Call it hype or market growth, many of the major software and hardware vendors are now offering tools, chipsets, cores, and software bundles for use in RISC-V ISA projects. They are most often making these products available as sets and bundles to lower the barriers for entry into the RISC-V space, shorten development time, and decrease risk.
Tim Morin, Technical Fellow, Microchip Technology says that a developer just entering RISC-V really should consider a partner. “If a developer has a good sense of a system architecture because they’ve done that system level integration, they have a mental model already, but RISC-V is new, and they won’t have that instinct for how it works yet,” he said. “If you're going to be spending money on a CPU core, which will likely be the center of what you’re building, you want to work with someone you can trust.”
So, who are the key partners to look at? Beginning with hardware, it’s impossible not to open with Western Digital. It’s shipping more than a billion RISC-V cores every year at this point. Similarly, SiFive is one of the first names that many developers and systems integrators think of when looking to work with RISC-V, even after the recent upheavals at that company. Andes, Codasip, Microchip’s Microsemi portfolio, NXP, Renesas, and Semidynamics are some of the biggest players right now, and these major companies are often offering software suites, too.
On the pure software side, there are even more options and opportunities to partner. AMD has announced that it is offering graphics drivers in addition to all its other RISC-V software. GreenWaves Technologies is layering AI into its RISC-V suite with its GAP8 APs targeted at IoT devices and is a major contributor to the open-source platform PULP, upon which it bases the GAP8. Enterprise heavyweights Synopsys and the Siemens-owned OneSpin Technologies, each have built verification and validation platforms, although Synopsys is also keeping its hand in the hardware side.
IAR and Imperas are fielding some of the most robust suites of software tools, each putting out frequent updates and new features for debug, simulation, validation, and verification. Imperas’ virtual platform suite is widely adaptable and customizable, working with most of the hardware players we mentioned above. IAR offers full workbench suites, complete with technical support to act as an open field for play and work.
So, What to Do?
One of the biggest RISC-V news items coming out this year was about an alliance of five of the biggest microchip makers that is set to drive RISC-V growth.
This RISC-V alliance will get its funding and know-how from partners Bosch GmbH, Infineon Technologies AG, Nordic Semiconductor, NXP Semiconductors, and Qualcomm Technologies. The new company will work as a "single source" of reference designs for new RISC-V chips for the wider industry to use. Initial applications will focus on automotive solutions, Qualcomm said, while an "eventual" expansion in the mobile and IoT businesses is already being planned.
The new partnership aims to push the royalty-free RISC-V architecture as a viable (and inexpensive) choice for next-generation hardware development. It is based in Germany, with a stated mission to turn RISC-V into a proper cutting-edge technology for new devices and microchips.
With all this in mind, the commonsense approaches still apply. Don’t jump in without doing your due diligence, but there are lots of advantages to adopting or switching to RISC-V, and those are only growing. If it’s a fit for your project, then you might find yourself an advocate.
It’s important to remember that RISC-V is an option, one that might make sense for a given project or product, but it’s not a panacea. With that in mind, innovation in optimizing computing speed and power is growing ever more needed.