Friday, January 27, 2023

These simple design rules can turn the chip industry upside down

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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 to prompt the hardware to perform certain actions. For example, the code “100000” could instruct 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, also 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 app for each instruction set.

However, in recent times 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 shift that could revolutionize the chip industry. Proponents of RISC-V say this instruction set makes computer chip design more accessible to smaller companies and early-stage entrepreneurs by freeing them from expensive licensing fees.

“There are already billions of RISC-V based cores, in everything from earbuds to cloud servers,” says Mark Himelsteinthe CTO of RISC-V International, a non-profit organization that supports the technology.

In February 2022, Intel itself has pledged $1 billion to develop the RISC-V ecosystem along with other priorities. While Himelstein predicts it will be a few more years before RISC-V chips become widespread among personal computers, the first laptop with a RISC-V chip, the Roma of xcalibyte and Deep Computingbecame 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. In addition, anyone can design a computer chip based on the RISC-V instruction set. Those chips could then run any software designed for RISC-V. (Note that technology based on an “open standard” differs from “open-source” technology. An open standard generally refers to technology specifications, while “open source” generally refers to software whose source code is freely available for reference and usage.)

A group of computer scientists at UC Berkeley developed the basis for RISC-V as a learning tool for chip design in 2010. Proprietary central processing units (CPUs) were too complicated and opaque for students to learn from. The creators of RISC-V made the instruction set public and soon found themselves asking 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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