RISC-V org claims export restrictions would stifle innovation

Efforts to deny China access will hurt the 'open' part of open standard, says collab body CEO

The CEO of RISC-V International is warning US politicos that subjecting the open processor standard to export restrictions could result in the development of incompatible solutions and stifle innovation.

The admonition comes after members of the US Congress expressed concerns that Washington was not doing enough to deny China access to advanced chip technology, and suggested that export restrictions should be extended to RISC-V.

Measures could include the Department of Commerce introducing rules that would require US citizens or companies to obtain an export license before they are allowed to engage with any Chinese entities with regard to RISC-V technology.

RISC-V, however, is an open instruction set that is publicly available and not controlled by any single company or country, so it is difficult to see how the US can realistically prevent China from having access to it.

RISC-V International CEO Calista Redmond took to the organization's blog to defend open standards, claiming these are strategically important for innovation, adoption, and growth. She compared RISC-V with other open standards including Ethernet and the internet protocols that much of the modern technology market has benefited from.

"Compatibility based on such standards is essential for innovation on a global basis within the larger tech ecosystem. Competition is not based on shared standards, but rather on the unique value that each vendor adds on top of the standardized layer," Redmond said.

She claims a restriction in open standards would lead to diminished access to the global marketplace of products, solutions, and talent.

"Bifurcating at the standards level would lead to a world of incompatible solutions that duplicate effort and close off markets," she said.

Development of the RISC-V specifications is based on contributions from around the world, including North America, Europe and Asia, Redmond said. The RISC-V organization does not provide chip designs or implementations, but rather publishes a set of commonly used global open standards.

"These published standards contain no more information than what is already published by proprietary architectures. The only difference is that the marketplace is allowed to use [RiSC-V] standards without proprietary licenses from a controlling company. Competition does not happen at the standards level, but rather at the implementation level."

This can be seen in the very different RISC-V implementations that already exist, from the xcore 400 microcontrollers from XMOS to server-focused CPU cores from Ventana Micro Systems.

Many Chinese companies are already involved in the RISC-V ecosystem, and a number of these teamed up to form a patent alliance earlier this year, with the aim of encouraging community development without fear of litigation over intellectual property between members.

The way that US restrictions might prevent China from developing indigenous processors that can compete with those built elsewhere would most likely revolve around the silicon technology used to implement the chips, rather than the designs.

"The high level specification is quite a way from an advanced, scalable, high performance implementation as a full CPU or system-on-chip (SoC), and so this is where most of the restrictions will aim to have effect," IDC senior research director for Europe Andrew Buss told us.

"They will aim to make it harder, more costly and take a longer time to come to market from a logical design to physical design and layout, fabrication and packaging, right through to higher level issues such as drivers, OS support, and development environments," he added.

"Arguably the biggest impact restrictions will be those that limit access to advanced design and simulation tools, as well as competitive fabrication processes which will tend to keep designs from approaching anything like best in class architecture and performance," Buss said.

The US already has measures in place, with restrictions on the sale to China of chipmaking equipment such as that made by Netherlands-based ASML, currently the only provider of Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) machines for the production of 5nm and 3nm silicon.

The UK government also blocked the sale of a British chip design software outfit to a Chinese company last year, citing national security concerns as the reason.

But while such restrictions are bound to have a substantial impact for several generations of product, Buss warned they also create an incentive for local skills and solutions in China to overcome the restrictions, potentially defeating the object of the restrictions in the first place. ®

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