New RISC-V CTO On Open Source Chip Architecture’s Global Data Center Momentum

With more big international players on board, the foundation's new head of technology sees signs of "state of the art moving forward."

Christine Hall

August 13, 2020

4 Min Read
Alibaba Cloud branding at Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona
Alibaba Cloud branding at Mobile World Congress 2019 in BarcelonaDavid Ramos/Getty Images

With geopolitical winds blowing faster and hotter than they have in a while, and with technology -- and technology companies -- increasingly caught up in international disputes, perhaps it's best for a foundation steering an important open source technology to be in famously neutral Switzerland.

With RISC-V's premier member Huawei in the US government's crosshairs, and with Chinese internet and cloud powerhouse Alibaba getting behind the open source chip architecture in a big way, keeping the RISC-V Foundation's headquarters in the US would likely cause more friction than its members cared to deal with. The move was completed in March, along with a name change to RISC-V International..

"That was mainly driven by some of the worries around the world about trade," Mark Himelstein, who joined RISC-V International as CTO in June, recently told Data Center Knowledge. "I don't think there was anything particular that was impeding us, but I think it was to give members comfort. For us, it doesn't really change how we do business, but it gives members comfort, and it's been very successful."

RISC-V has been gaining serious momentum since at least 2018. For example, that year SiFive, a company focused entirely on the new architecture, made news with the release of a RISC-V developers' board that sold out in a matter of days, despite the part's steep $999 price tag. A month later Western Digital inked a multi-year license for SiFive's Freedom Platform, announced plans to move its entire product portfolio to RISC-V silicon, and became an investor in SiFive.

Related:SiFive CEO Says RISC-V Servers are 'Five Years Away'

Early last year, noting RISC-V's success, Wave Computing open sourced MIPS, a long-in-the-tooth ISA that's been around since the 1980s. IBM followed suit by open sourcing its Power architecture last summer.

Neither move seems to have affected RISC-V adoption.

Alibaba seems to be going all-in with RISC-V. In July, the cloud giant's chip subsidiary, Pingtouge, announced its first RISC-V possessor, the fastest RISC-V chip yet. Alibaba said that Xuantie 910, a 16-core, 64-bit, 2.5GHz design, improves performance over mainstream RISC-V chips by 40 percent, and that it is suitable for for 5G, artificial intelligence, and Internet-of-Things workloads.

The company added that the design, which it intends to open source, will be used to produce high-end edge-based microcontrollers, CPUs, and systems-on-chips.

"Alibaba is creating their cloud data center stuff all around RISC-V, and it's not an embedded thing; this is the compute piece, the data access piece, and so on and so forth," Himelstein told us. "So there are people like Alibaba doing that, and then all of Europe's high performance computing has dedicated themselves to RISC-V."

Related:Companies Pushing Open Source RISC-V Silicon Out to the Edge

The later was a reference to the EuroHPC project, a public-private partnership to develop a pan-European supercomputing infrastructure that's expected to go online in 2023. In support of this project, the EU-funded European Processor Initiative is working to develop exascale-capable processors based on Arm, with accelerators based on RISC-V. Accelerators have so far  been the biggest use case for the architecture.

But given the work Alibaba is doing, Himelstein said, he expects the architecture will be designed more and more for CPU use cases going forward, starting with chips designed for edge devices, including everything from assembly line robotics to edge-based servers. Although he sees RISC-V servers eventually being a part of the mainstream data center landscape, he thinks RISC-V CPUs will find everyday use by hyperscale cloud platforms first.

"The reason why cloud comes first is because those guys control the horizontal and the vertical about what goes on in their cloud data centers," he said. "They don't run any random thing off the shelf. They're running JTE or other Java-based stuff, Spark or Hadoop, or those kinds of things. It's easier for them to pick a configuration that's going to help their customers.

"When you start talking about general purpose compute, something going towards finance, enterprise, or those kinds of things, it takes a little bit more effort, more time, because it is more general-purpose."

India is also on the RISC-V bandwagon. In 2017, its government began funding a project through its Center for Development of Advanced Computing to create special secret RISC-V chip designs for use in government computers, with many likely to be used by the military and the country's space program. In addition, the government is funding the Shakti project, which aims to design chips destined for use in India-made consumer devices.

Himelstein pointed out that RISC-V's global success would not have been possible under a proprietary model.

"The sum of the parts of the community are much greater than what any one company could do," he said. "I don't care how big the company is, it's hard to attract good people. It's hard to get folks excited about things. We're in a unique position, with everybody from Google to Alibaba -- these big 800 pound gorillas -- and really gritty little startups."

"We all fight, because we have different products and they compete and stuff," he added. "But in the end, a bunch of us are engineers, and we meet at conferences and we talk and stuff like that. We'd like to see the state of the art moving forward. This is the state of the art moving forward."

About the Author(s)

Christine Hall

Freelance author

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001 she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and began covering IT full time in 2002, focusing on Linux and open source software. Since 2010 she's published and edited the website FOSS Force. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux.

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