RISC-V is providing open standard innovation for the chip sector

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RISC-V is providing innovation for the chip sector.
Image: RISC-V

Typically, open standard projects aren’t designed for innovation but rather for collaboration. That is true for RISC-V, an open standard for chip instructions that was developed by University of California Berkeley researchers back in 2010.

The team behind it didn’t set out to design a standard that would lead to groundbreaking new technologies. Instead, they sought to create instructions that could be used by all chipmakers without the need for licensing deals.

Interestingly, RISC-V is now at the forefront of some exciting advancements in the chip industry. A recent RISC-V microprocessor developed by a small company called Micro Magic has beat benchmarks achieved by chips from both Intel and Samsung.

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Making Magic

Micro Magic isn’t a new company. It has been consulting for tech firms across Silicon Valley for 25 years. However, it certainly doesn’t have the chip design prowess of giants like Intel and Samsung.

That’s why its latest microprocessor is so impressive. Using the RISC-V standard, it reached a clock speed of 5GHz. For comparison, Intel’s flagship E7 Xeon server chip runs at just 3.2GHz. The Micro Magic processor also ran faster than Samsung’s high-end Exynos 4 chip found in many of its smartphones.

Making the chip’s benchmark more impressive is the amount of power it used to reach five gigahertz speeds. The Micro Magic chip drew just one watt of power at 1.1 volts. That is equal to less than one percent of the power needed by Intel’s Xeon processor.

David Patterson, one of the Berkeley researchers behind RISC-V, says, “It’s kind of amazing.”

Indeed, the advancement is noteworthy for many reasons. While the Micro Magic chip is only a prototype, it serves as a clear signal that the chip design business is changing thanks to projects like RISC-V.

Battling Bottlenecks

Aside from the performance demonstrated by Micro Magic’s chip, RISC-V opens the door for a variety of other improvements. That can all be attributed to its open standard nature.

Dr. Andry Huang, a chip industry veteran and business liaison for Micro Magic, says that RISC-V processors also help resolve bottlenecks. Chips that follow more complex instruction sets, like Intel’s CISC, can’t do so.

He notes that RISC-V has fewer than 100 instructions in its set compared to the 1,000-plus instructions found in CISC. That simplicity makes it possible to produce high-performance chips with a standard silicon wafer.

Ultimately, companies like Micro Magic can use what’s known as a shuttle run. This is a type of manufacturing that produces several types of chips at once from the same wafer. It helps smaller firms avoid the massive overhead costs associated with custom production lines and design licensing.

Such flexibility makes RISC-V chips a realistic choice in almost every aspect of the tech world. Patterson says, “All the products you can think of, all the way up to data center, there are people thinking very seriously about RISC-V now. There is a sense we have turned the corner from, ‘why would I ever use RISC-V’ to ‘why wouldn’t I use RISC-V?’”

Indeed, this open standard could shake up chip design in the coming years. If companies are able to routinely produce processors that outpace those of firms like Samsung and Intel, RISC-V chips could become commonplace within the decade.

That being said, Patterson warns that it will be hard to see the full impact of the standard. Since it isn’t mandatory to disclose the usage of RISC-V there is no way to gather a complete picture of its usage.

Regardless, this is a technology that’s worth watching in the years to come.

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