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Interview The CEO of the RISC-V governing body says she wants nothing less than “world domination” for growing open-source processor technology, but to do that the nonprofit needs membership from a variety of organizations, even those rooted in mainstream technologies. , proprietary architectures, such as the giant Intel x86.

In an interview this week with The registerCalista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, believes that membership, which comes in the form of paid subscriptions, is necessary to support the continued development of the royalty-free CPU instruction set architecture to better compete with the x86 and Arm ISAs.

“We need to have a level of funding to operate and manage our special rodeo,” she says.

Redmond, an IBM veteran, offers involvement in RISC-V International, which gives paying members an extra level of voice in the future development of the ISA, as a more equal playing field for technology companies than this which was licensed with proprietary ISAs, namely x86 and Bras.

“What everyone gets out of this is the collective vested interests of everyone involved to say, ‘My fate is not tied to one or five companies. Everyone invests together, so my level of risk is much lower,” she says.

When Intel joined RISC-V International in February, it became a premium member, the top membership tier that gave the semiconductor giant a seat on the nonprofit’s board of directors and the Technical Steering Committee, which determines new features and specifications for the ISA.

For those privileges, Intel and the other 19 premium members each chip for an annual fee of $250,000, according to the nonprofit organization’s website.

Redmond characterizes the interest of these early members as follows:

Besides Intel, other big companies with prominent memberships include Alibaba Cloud, Google, Huawei, Unisoc, Western Digital, and ZTE.

Core members also range from startups like StarFive, Ventana and Micro Systems to SiFive, the latest of which hopes to go public within the next two years with a RISC-V processor licensing business.

There are many more RISC-V International members at the “strategic” level, which still gives them the opportunity to influence the future development of the ISA, but not at the same level as the core members.

These members, which include Canonical, Nvidia, and Samsung, pay up to $35,000 for an annual subscription. Small organizations pay half or less.

But it’s not just companies that are members. RISC-V’s more than 2,400 members also include universities and government-related entities.

Just last week, the Indian government announced that it had become a premier member and revealed a RISC-V roadmap for local processors.

Another prominent government-related entity with premium membership is the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which participates through its Institute of Software and Institute of Computer Technology. The academy is on the U.S. Entity List of Trade Restricted Organizations, underscoring RISC-V’s unique position with its open source nature amid international tensions.

But Redmond says that, as with other countries, such as Russia, RISC-V International is “not obligated to prevent anyone from engaging and participating,” although the organization will make changes if necessary.

“If things go in the direction of heavier sanctions at the country level, we may have to pivot, but at this stage we respect things and [are] in very close contact to understand what other open source and global organizations are doing,” she says.

CEO has a nuanced view of what the rise of RISC-V will look like

For member companies that have historically been associated with proprietary ISAs, such as x86 or Arm, Redmond tells us that they are considering RISC-V to diversify their risk. It also provides these enterprises with another ISA to support their growing heterogeneous computing needs.

“It makes business sense,” she says.

In Intel’s case, Redmond believes the x86 giant’s involvement with RISC-V is helping to support the company’s revitalized contract manufacturing business, which has committed to making custom chips for others. using x86, Arm or RISC-V ISAs as part of a larger return. plan.

While Intel’s decision to support RISC-V could be seen as a conflict with the semiconductor giant’s traditional x86 business, Redmond admits that she doesn’t think RISC-V poses an existential threat.

“It’s not inside information, but I’m sure they’re not too worried about their x86 business. I mean, they’ve locked that down. They have so many customers who already have millions of dollars. People generally do not destroy existing investments,” she says.

However, Redmond sees an opportunity for RISC-V to win business in new and emerging workloads, and she believes that over time devices and computing infrastructure will increasingly move to the open source ISA. .

“Now, a generation or two later, as you continue to advance and evolve your portfolio, I expect many of them to move to RISC-V,” she says.

But Redmond has a more nuanced view of what a world filled with more RISC-V designs will look like. She doesn’t necessarily believe that x86 and Arm will fall into disuse. Instead, she suspects tech companies will increasingly see RISC-V, x86, and Arm ISAs as tools within the same toolkit. This will lead to a greater mix of ISAs used in devices and IT infrastructure, which is already starting to happen.

For example, Intel uses Arm core designs for some products, including its Mount Evans infrastructure processing unit. AMD relies on Arm for the hardware security of its processors and plans to integrate RISC-V in its future products. As Nvidia expands its use of Arm with upcoming server processors, it also uses RISC-V in its GPUs, as does Imagination, which supports the architecture.

“You start to view technology and hardware differently as commodities rather than blind allegiance,” says the CEO.

RISC-V can move faster than Arm

It’s important to note that RISC-V, for the most part, falls quite far short of powering traditional server and PC processors.

Patrick Little, CEO of RISC-V designer SiFive, told us in March that he doesn’t expect to see commercial processors using the company’s designs in PCs until late 2025, and server efforts will take longer than that.

It’s also worth noting that Arm has only just become a strong contender in PCs and servers over the past couple of years.

But Redmond says Google and other so-called hyperscalers are working on RISC-V projects “under the hood” and pointed out that ISA is also used in microcontrollers in storage devices from companies like Western Digital and Seagate.

It also highlights Alibaba Cloud’s XuanTie RISC-V processors, which have been released for networking devices, gateways and edge servers. [PDF].

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Another company, Esperanto Technologies, is testing its 1,000-core RISC-V AI chip with Samsung’s IT services arm and other companies, Redmond noted. We also know of another startup, Ventana Micro Systems, which builds RISC-V server chips.

Redmond did not cite any instances of PC activity. We know that SiFive launched a RISC-V development board for desktop computers in late 2020, for example, while Microchip offers RISC-V boards, people are recreating the TRS-80 Model 100 with a RISC- v. . it’s safe to say that various projects and products are underway.

She promises that we’ll see more examples of RISC-V server and PC implementations later this year.

“You’re going to see laptop this year. You’re going to see more data center implementation stories this year,” she says.

The CEO also makes a bolder promise: while it took Arm about 20 years to get to where it is today, she predicts it will take RISC-V about five years to make the same progress. . “Where are we on the adoption curve? We’re not halfway there yet, but we’re getting there very quickly,” she says.

The caveat, she adds, is that the five-year timeline is an “imprecise measure” because RISC-V International and its members must fill in some additional capabilities on the instruction set side as well as support. software to cover a wide spectrum. of nominations.

But what makes Redmond confident in RISC-V’s ability to gain traction over the next few years is the growing support the ISA has received from a plurality of organizations.

“The reason we’re getting there faster is that we have a bigger pool of shared investment in the community that’s driving this,” she says. ®


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Steven L. Nielsen