These simple design rules could shake up the chip industry
But your laptop’s central processor silicon switches don’t inherently understand the word “for” or the symbol “=”. For a chip to execute your Python code, the software must translate these words and symbols into instructions that a chip can use.
Engineers designate specific binary sequences to prompt hardware to perform certain actions. The code “100000”, for example, could instruct a chip to add two numbers, while the code “100100” could instruct it to copy a piece of data. These binary sequences form the chip’s fundamental vocabulary, 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, used by Intel and AMD, and Arm, manufactured 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 application suitable for each instruction set.
Lately, however, 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 change that could radically change the chip industry. Proponents of RISC-V claim that this instruction set makes computer chip design more accessible to small businesses and budding entrepreneurs by freeing them from expensive licensing fees.
“There are already billions of RISC-V-based cores, in everything from headphones to cloud servers,” says Mark Himelstein, CTO of RISC-V International, a nonprofit organization that backs the technology.
In February 2022, Intel itself pledged $1 billion to develop the RISC-V ecosystem, along with other priorities. While Himelstein predicts that it will be a few years before RISC-V chips become mainstream among personal computers, the first laptop with a RISC-V chip, the Roma from Xcalibyte and DeepComputing, became available in June in pre-order.
What is RISC-V?
You can think of RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) as a set of design standards, like Bluetooth, for computer chips. This is called an “open standard”. This means that anyone – you, me, Intel – can participate in the development of these standards. Additionally, anyone can design a computer chip based on the RISC-V instruction set. These chips would then be able to 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 use.)
A group of computer scientists at UC Berkeley developed the basis of RISC-V in 2010 as an educational tool for chip design. Proprietary central processing units (CPUs) were too complicated and opaque for students to learn. The creators of RISC-V made the instruction set public and soon found themselves answering 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.