Tackling the challenges of RISC-V

Tackling the challenges of RISC-V
Interviews |
Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, talks to Nick Flaherty of eeNews Europe about the challenges facing RISC-V ahead of a major community meeting in Paris next week. The RISC-V Foundation was founded in 2015 with 29 members, and RISC-V International, based in Switzerland, now has over 2000 members in…
By Nick Flaherty

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Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, talks to Nick Flaherty of eeNews Europe about the challenges facing RISC-V ahead of a major community meeting in Paris next week.

The RISC-V Foundation was founded in 2015 with 29 members, and RISC-V International, based in Switzerland, now has over 2000 members in more than 70 countries. Members are meeting in Paris next week for RISC-V Spring Week 2022.

With all these members, one of the challenges is the risk of fragmentation, RISC-V is an open instruction set for microcontroller and microprocessors where is easy to add extensions, but this can lead to many different versions that could be incompatible. RISC-V International has over 60 tasks groups, rising to 75 this year, working on different areas including the extension definitions, application reference designs and the tool ecosystem.

“One of the things that’s important for us is to find the areas of common ground early and often to bring those into the task groups,” she said. “If four different companies spot the same gap [in the market] how do we get them into the same boat to pool resources? Lets not monetise the base building blocks, there’s plenty of space for them to add their secret source on top.”

“The stronger we can make the organisation and the discipline in creating those extensions, the lower the risk of fragmentation,” she said.

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“We need to continuously have interested stake holders in each of the avenues, in the stack and the underlying hardware, with reference implementation ideas for particular industries,” she said. “Then you can build in the direction of other referenceable pieces such as standards, safety, and so on.”

One of the areas currently driving interest is artificial intelligence and data centre accelerators, said Redmond, who joined the Foundation in March 2019 after 12 years at IBM, most recently as vice president of the IBM Z ecosystem for data centres and AI.

“There are many different corners of growth – there’s  a lot of things we are trying to borrow capacity from high performance computing (HPC) and enterprise and cloud processing. They are looking for the competitive differentiator,” she said. “If you start to bring in RISC-V through the side door with non-critical applications such as AI augmentation, that’s an exciting frontier.

This has perhaps overshadowed the development of cores for embedded microcontrollers.  

“We’ve been engaged quite a lot in some of the real time operating system (RTOS) plays and worked closely with the major RTOS suppliers including Zephyr,” she said, “In the Internet of Things (IoT) its some of the bigger processing coming out now that’s capturing attention.”

The takeup of the technology is equally split between the US, Europe and Asia, she says.

“I wouldn’t say Europe is at bleeding edge of RISC-V adoption, but automotive companies and research institutes have been incredible with huge public and private support. ETH [in Switzerland] and the Barcelona Supercomputing centre [in Spain] are the underpinning foundation organisations,” she said.

“Today we continue to see about a third US, Europe and APAC consistently over time. We are beginning to grow steadily into the more areas such as India and Japan, but that’s been slower than China which is picking up rapidly,” she said.

Trade sanctions

She does not see an issue with the trade restrictions between the US and China, despite the restrictions on shipping design tools from US companies into China. The open source nature of the technology is a key advantage.

“There is zero geopolitical risk,” she said. “The great things about open source technology is it’s not controlled by any one company so you are not beholden to any one company or the licensing or design constraints. So when you go with RISC-V there is freedom and flexibility, there is not the supply chain issues you see in other situations. Those sanctions have an effect on proprietary things, not the open things. And we strictly adhere to all such laws – no confidential proprietary technical information is allowed, even the development  the public domain,” she said.

“Having so many vested stakeholders means that everyone needs to make those decisions in the best interests of the organisation, its not just the decisions of one commercial party,” she said. “We have some of the strongest open source contributions from our development partners based in China.”

Sovereignty

The push for sovereign capability in microprocessors in Europe is also a key driver, she says. “Look at the open hardware grants from the European Commission. It is great to engage Europe as a global open source citizen to help European companies to have supply chain options and partner options.” European companies such as Imagination Technologies, Codasip and Imperas have also been championing the technology. European projects also see RISC-V being used for a sovereign supply chain for space applications.

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At the same time, Intel’s Foundry business has joined the organisation to offer companies access to the technology. But there are still challenges.  

“It’s not perfect today,” she said. “There is work to be done and there are barriers that can still be flattened. Its important to think about the application workloads, and we are moving at an accelerated pace of architectural and ecosystem development. That is a challenge. We have 60 work groups and we could go over 75 this year. There is a lot to do and we need to keep that opportunity for collaboration across the ecosystem is important.

She points to the development of open source tools and software to support RISC-V as the leading challenge, followed by illustrating and supporting adoption at the high end and all things in between. Then it’s about having solid examples, reference implementations across industry specific such as automotive. “That’s very important,” she says.

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