Thursday, April 20, 2023

These simple design rules can turn the chip industry upside down

Must read

Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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.

More articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest article