RISC-V CEO seeks 'world domination' by winning over the likes of Intel

We speak to the head of ISA's governing body on industry adoption, timelines, and more

Interview The CEO of RISC-V's governing body says she wants to nothing less than "world domination" for the rising open-source processor technology, but to do that, the nonprofit needs buy-in from a variety of organizations, even those steeped in dominant, proprietary architectures, such as x86 giant Intel.

In an interview this week with The Register, RISC-V International CEO Calista Redmond reckons the buy-in, which comes in the form of paid memberships, is needed to support ongoing development of the royalty-free CPU instruction set architecture to better compete with x86 and Arm ISAs.

"We have to have a level of funding in order to operate and manage this special rodeo of ours," she says.

Redmond, an IBM veteran, pitches involvement in RISC-V International, which gives paying members an extra level of say in the ISA's future development, as a more even playing field for tech companies than what has been allowed with proprietary ISAs, namely x86 and Arm.

"What everybody gets from this is the vested collective interests of everyone involved to say, 'My destiny isn't pinned to any one or five companies. Everyone's investing together, therefore, my level of risk is much lower'," she says.

When Intel joined RISC-V International in February, it became a premium member, the top membership tier that gave the semiconductor giant a seat on the nonprofit's board and the Technical Steering Committee, which determines new features and specifications for the ISA.

For those privileges, Intel and the other 19 premium members each chip in an annual fee of $250,000, according to the nonprofit's website.

Redmond characterizes the interest of these premier members like this:

I want to really underwrite this thing because it helps me with my own commercialization as well as builds the ecosystem that fosters continued momentum across the industry, where I will find development partners, customers, new opportunities, growing all of that stuff that makes something really strategically durable.

Besides Intel, other major companies with premier memberships include Alibaba Cloud, Google, Huawei, Unisoc, Western Digital, and ZTE.

The premier members also range from startups like StarFive, Ventana and Micro Systems, to SiFive, the latter of which is hoping to go public in the next two years with a RISC-V CPU licensing business.

There are many more RISC-V International members at the "strategic" level, which still gives them the ability to weigh in on the future development on the ISA but not at the same level as premier members.

These members, which include Canonical, Nvidia, and Samsung, pay as much as $35,000 for an annual membership. Smaller organizations pay half or less.

But it's not just companies that are members. RISC-V's more than 2,400 members also include universities, and government-related entities.

Just last week, India's government announced that it had become a premier member and revealed a RISC-V roadmap for homegrown processors.

Another significant government-related entity with premium membership is the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which participates through its Institute of Software and Institute of Computing Technology. The academy is on the US Entity List of trade-restricted organizations, which underlines the unique position RISC-V is in with its open-source nature amid international tensions.

But Redmond says that, as with other countries, such as Russia, RISC-V International is "not required to block anybody from engaging and participating," though the organization will make changes if needed.

"If things go the way of sanctions that are heavier on a country level, we may need to pivot, but at this point we are abiding by things and [are] in very close contact in understanding what are other open source and global organizations doing," she says.

CEO has nuanced view of what RISC-V's rise will look like

For member companies that have historically been associated with proprietary ISAs, such as x86 or Arm, Redmond tells us they are looking at RISC-V to diversify their risk. It also gives these companies another ISA to support their increasing heterogenous computing needs.

"It makes business sense to do it," she says.

In the case of Intel, Redmond thinks the x86 giant's involvement with RISC-V is helping support the company's revitalized contract manufacturing business, which has vowed to make custom chips for others using x86, Arm or RISC-V ISAs as part of a larger comeback plan.

While Intel's move to support RISC-V could seen as a conflict with the semiconductor giant's traditional x86 business, Redmond admits that she doesn't think RISC-V poses an existential threat.

"This isn't inside information, but I'm pretty sure they're not too worried about their x86 business. I mean, they've locked that in. They've got so many customers that have some millions into that already. People are not typically ripping out existing investments," she says.

However, Redmond does see an opportunity for RISC-V to win business in new and emerging workloads, and she thinks over time devices and IT infrastructure will increasingly shift to the open-source ISA.  

"Now one or two generations down the line as you continue to advance and evolve your portfolio, I expect many of those may shift to RISC-V," she says.

But Redmond has a more nuanced view of what a world filled with more RISC-V designs will look like. She doesn't necessarily believe x86 and Arm will fall out of fashion. Instead, she suspects tech companies will increasingly see RISC-V, x86 and Arm ISAs as tools within the same toolbox. This will lead to a greater mix of ISAs used in devices and IT infrastructure, which is already starting to play out.

For instance, Intel uses Arm core designs for some products, including its Mount Evans infrastructure processing unit. AMD relies on Arm for hardware-based security within its processors, and its reportedly looking at incorporating RISC-V into future products. While Nvidia is expanding its use of Arm with upcoming server CPUs, it also uses RISC-V within its GPUs, as does Imagination, which backs the architecture.

"You start to look at technology and hardware differently as building blocks rather than a blind allegiance," says the CEO.

RISC-V can move faster than Arm

It's important to note that RISC-V, for the most part, is pretty far out from powering mainstream processors in servers and PCs.

Patrick Little, CEO of RISC-V designer SiFive, told us in March he doesn't expect to see commercial processors using the company's designs in PCs until late 2025, and server efforts will take longer than that.

It should be noted too that Arm has only just started to become a serious contender in PCs and servers over the past couple years.  

But Redmond says that Google and other so-called hyperscalers are working on RISC-V projects "under the covers" and pointed out that the ISA is also used in microcontrollers in storage devices from companies like Western Digital and Seagate.

She also highlights Alibaba Cloud's XuanTie RISC-V processors, which have been marketed for networking devices, gateways and edge servers [PDF].

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Another company, Esperanto Technologies, is testing its 1,000-core RISC-V AI chip with Samsung's IT services arm and other companies, Redmond noted. We also know of another startup, Ventana Micro Systems, that is building RISC-V server chips.

Redmond didn't cite any examples of PC activities. We do know that SiFive launched a RISC-V development board for desktops in late 2020, for instance, while Microchip offers RISC-V boards, folks are recreating the TRS-80 Model 100 with a RISC-V system-on-chip... it's safe to say various projects and products are on the go.

She promises we will see more examples of RISC-V implementations of both servers and PCs later this year.

"You're going to see a laptop this year. You're going to see more datacenter implementation stories this year," she says.

The CEO also makes a bolder promise: whereas it took Arm about 20 years to get where it is today, she predicts it will take RISC-V roughly five years to make the same amount of progress. "Where are we in the adoption curve? We're not halfway yet, but we are getting there very quickly," she says.

The caveat, she adds, is that the five-year timeline is an "imprecise measurement," as RISC-V International and its members need to fill out some additional capabilities on the instruction set side as well as software support to cover a broad spectrum of applications.  

But what makes Redmond confident in RISC-V's ability to gain more traction over the next few years is the growing support the ISA has received from a plurality of organizations.

"The reason that we're getting there faster is that we have a greater shared pool of investment across the community that is driving that," she says. ®

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