RISC averse: Here's why Intel, AMD and Arm may have to up the ante to deal with Open hardware

(Image credit: SiFive)

I first came across RISC for the end user back in 2012 when I had the chance to review a MIPS-powered, Android based tablet which was an eye opener. So when, more than a decade later, the chance to interview Chris Jones, Vice President of Products at RISC hardware startup, SiFive, came up, it was too good of an opportunity to pass. 

SiFive has been in the news for espousing the RISC-V, the open hardware paradigm that could be described as the next big thing in compute. At a time where Arm and x86 (Intel and AMD) are under growing pressure from the market to execute faster in an increasingly fragmented market where your biggest partners could often become your mightiest competitors (hello hyperscalers), RISC-V has the potential to shuffle the market is a way not seen for more than a decade. The third force may suddenly become a much, much bigger player as AI comes to the fore.

Could RISC-V be the equivalent of Linux for hardware compute? Where is SiFive going? Will it go in the GPU market? What’s in the pipeline and what can be done to increase the momentum behind RISC-V? We answer these and more below.

Let's start with a simple one: what's the difference between OpenRISC and RISC-V (and how does SiFive make money?). 

RISC-V is an open instruction set architecture (ISA) that is unlocking a new era of computing innovation. RISC-V is governed by RISC-V International, which has more than 3,100 members across 70 countries collaborating together to define RISC-V open specifications and contribute to the RISC-V ecosystem. 

OpenRISC, which pre-dates RISC-V, is a project focused on developing free and open processors for embedded systems. RISC-V was developed as a more modern approach to offer unparalleled flexibility, extensibility, and scalability. RISC-V’s clean slate design makes it easy for developers to choose what extensions work for any given application and then tailor their design to meet specific requirements for power, performance, price, etc.

RISC-V was developed as a more modern approach to offer unparalleled flexibility, extensibility, and scalability

SiFive licenses its RISC-V processor IP so companies can innovate with the next generation of high-performance processors and bring to market differentiated, best-in-class products. Today SiFive has over 300 design wins from over 100 customers, which include eight of the top 10 semiconductor companies.

And while Intel did shut down the Intel Pathfinder for RISC-V program, the company is still interested in RISC-V. For example, SiFive and Intel are releasing a development board called the HiFive Pro P550 Development System (codenamed Horse Creek). The board will use a quad-core SiFive Performance P550 processor and is implemented on the Intel 4 platform. The board should be released in the next few months.

What's the most common myth about RISC-V you have come across and why do you think that is so?

One common myth is that RISC-V is only suitable for embedded products. While RISC-V has seen a lot of adoption in the embedded market, it’s potential is truly limitless. RISC-V’s flexibility makes it ideal for everything from edge AI to client computing to automotive, aerospace, and the datacenter. 

SiFive has already developed very high-performance RISC-V processors that offer far superior high performance compute density (power efficiency and small area) compared to the competition, and SiFive is continuing to develop even higher performance solutions for applications with the most complex computing demands. 

One notable example is how SiFive, through a partnership with Microchip, is part of NASA’s next generation High-Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC) processor. This HPSC processor delivers a 100x increase in computational capability and will be used for virtually every future NASA space mission, from planetary exploration to lunar and Mars surface missions.

The P670 is currently SiFive's most powerful product. It is aimed at its most logical competitor, the Arm A55 but what would its closest x86 match?

The P670’s closest competitor to Arm would be the Cortex-A77 or Cortex-A78, not the Cortex-A55. The P470 competes very favorably against the Cortex-A55 and is positioned and marketed as such. The closest x86 match would likely be the i5 7300.

Sifive will aggressively pursue performance gains to deliver best-in-class performance competitive at all levels.

SiFive's product map stops at the P670. What are your plans when it comes to even more powerful products (Xeon/Epyc/Power10-class)?

We have a roadmap beyond the P670 but it has not been publicly disclosed at this time. We will continue to aggressively pursue performance gains to deliver best-in-class performance competitive at all levels.

Are GPUs also part of the future product roadmap at SiFive (bearing in mind that Arm's IP extends beyond compute)?

We partner with leading GPU providers but have no plans to build GPUs ourselves at this time.

Speaking of GPUs, they have been in the limelight since November when ChatGPT went mainstream. Where does RISC-V (and SiFive) fit in that landscape?

SiFive believes that the rapidly changing AI landscape begs for more programmable solutions and that RISC-V vector machines are uniquely well-suited for both inference and training.

Right now, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to RISC-V's (and by extension SiFive) ambitions to become a third force in compute (along x86 and Arm)?

RISC-V is already the third force in compute with adoption increasing around the globe. Will over 10 billion RISC-V cores on the market today, RISC-V the momentum of RISC-V is continuing to grow quickly and nearly every semiconductor company has an active RISC-V implementation strategy. 

For RISC-V to continue this strong momentum, the community needs to further build out the RISC-V software and development ecosystem. One exciting milestone from last year is that the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) was ported to RISC-V, which lays the foundation for RISC-V solutions to power a wide range of Android devices from phones to smartwatches, TVs, and beyond. 

Additionally, it will be important for even higher performance RISC-V products to hit the market. SiFive is already working on solutions that will deliver the highest level of performance to meet that market demand. 

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.