RISC-V keeps its head down amid global chip war

Open-source spec appears nation-neutral, but for how long?


On the one hand, it's all positive on the RISC-V front, with its open-source ethos driving folks around the world, from the US and Europe to China and Russia, to collaborate on improving and boosting the specification.

On the other hand, the borderless nature of the emerging instruction set architecture – which is royalty-free to implement – could open another front in the chip arms race between the nations. Countries want to create homegrown processors and accelerators amid sanctions, shortages, and other barriers obstructing the free trade of semiconductor technology. These nations are thus turning to RISC-V for its global, open nature.

That could place RISC-V – which is developed in the US as well as the rest of the world – in the center of the next struggle over exported tech.

The US is threatening to cut off microchip supplies to Russia if the country invades Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian companies that include Yadro and Elbrus are developing capable RISC-V cores as an alternative to x86 and Arm-based parts.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is on the US Entity List of trade-restricted organizations, has developed 64-bit RISC-V cores while drawing on open-source blueprints made available by companies in America and Europe. Europe is also putting momentum behind RISC-V to advance computing on its own terms and to minimize the risk of falling victim to semiconductor trade barriers.

RISC-V is a set of open specifications that engineers can use to create compatible processor cores. This creates a common ground for organizations, companies, and countries to develop, fab, and distribute compatible processors and elements of these chips. To be sure, RISC-V is still a few years away from competing against Arm and x86 in higher-end mainstream computing, but it is emerging in areas including hardware controllers, management cores, and FPGAs, which are being used for applications from embedded electronics to artificial intelligence.

While RISC-V has pretty much flown under the radar of the White House, it’s only a matter of time until it finds its use being scrutinized by the US government, Jordan Schneider, an analyst covering China and technology at The Rhodium Group, an international consulting firm, told The Register. Specifically, that there are people in America and its allies working on RISC-V-based technology, and the open-source designs at least are available to China.

That's a nation on the hit list of Gina Raimondo, US Secretary of Commerce.

"We also have to protect, work with our allies, to deny China access to our most cutting-edge technology. It's offense and defense. That's at the very top of my agenda," Raimondo said during a fireside chat with Punchbowl News on Wednesday, which you can see below.

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America is in the process of passing legislation to plow billions of dollars into chip factories and semiconductor technology stateside. It will fund basic research that "will allow us to maintain our edge. All of AI runs on sophisticated chips," Raimondo said. "We have to out-compete China. We can't let them get ahead of us in these emerging technologies including AI."

Some may argue that RISC-V, as a fairly young phenomenon, isn't what Raimondo means by "our most cutting-edge technology." There is the possibility that RISC-V draws the attention of the Biden administration regardless if it involves tech flowing into China and Russia. The US government has tried and succeeded at limiting China's access to chip technologies previously, for instance.

Intel onside

Intel raised the profile of RISC-V last week, becoming a premium member of RISC-V International, the Switzerland-headquartered body that oversees the specification. Intel also established a $1bn fund to advance chip design and the development of advanced nodes and manufacturing techniques for x86, Arm, and RISC-V cores. Big names in tech as well as Intel, including Amazon, Nvidia, Apple, IBM, Western Digital, and Google, have shown at least some level of interest in RISC-V.

Companies that want to mix RISC-V, Arm, Intel x86 cores, acceleration units, and other chip blocks in the same processor package can approach Intel to make that happen, Bob Brennan, vice president of customer solutions engineering at Intel's Foundry Services, told The Register.

“The whole reason we're doing this is to kind of create a preference for our wafers and packaging technology,” Brennan said.

Intel will meanwhile manufacture chips for Andes Technologies, SiFive, Esperanto Technologies, and Ventana Micro Systems, which have all developed high-performance RISC-V cores. Brennan also sees independent chip designers going through its partner companies to get RISC-V chips made in Intel factories.

But questions remain on which RISC-V chip developers, and in what countries, will be able to access, say, Intel’s factories to produce components. The aforementioned multi-ISA processors are targeted at Intel’s fabs that use technologies like EUV, which America is trying to stop China accessing. Intel is also lobbying the US government to release funds to subsidize its efforts to build chip factories, and that may come with strings attached – such as preventing Russia and China from booking its fab capacity.

Though we've seen in the past the US government restrict certain foreign entities' access to chip technologies – notably Huawei – perhaps there is nothing to worry about, and RISC-V's global, open nature will secure its future.

Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, told The Register there are no geopolitical concerns, and that its members are equally distributed, with roughly a third apiece in all three major geographies of US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific.

“Open source is not one that has a geopolitical boundary to it," she said. "We have governments in all geographies who are deeply invested in taking an open and collaborative approach to technology and specifically in hardware."

RISC-V is appealing because engineers have the freedom to implement the specification, optimizing and extending their designs as they need, or use an off-the-shelf core, plus the modular nature of the architecture's extension system to meet different workloads in computing.

“We have profound contributions from around the world that are helping to make the open hardware community truly viable,” Redmond said. ®

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