Did you know that many industry pundits originally believed there was “little money” to be made in the business of open source software?
“As the wave of Linux distributions rolled forth, however, that was quickly disproven, setting the decades-long chain of companies that have secured their footing, funding, and futures on the back of open software,” Nicole Hemsoth of The Next Platform wrote in a recent article.
“[This] same trend is moving into hardware, creating what might be the next run for companies touting open source designs. With this is in mind, it is finally time to start to watch one very early stage effort toward open and freely accessible instruction set architectures, most notably RISC-V.”
Of course, whether or not there will be commercial momentum for RISC-V remains to be seen.
“Opportunities for an open source business boom aren’t always expected and come when demand for something truly different is actually feasible,” said Hemsoth. “[Nevertheless], RISC-V in its current incarnation has garnered several backers to the foundation, including Google, LG, BAE Systems, and others.”
Although its commercial future is far from certain, RISC-V is clearly gaining momentum. In addition to the above-mentioned backers, an R&D division of the Indian government is slated to receive approximately $45 million to fund the development of its first 64-bit microprocessor based on the RISC-V instruction set. Meanwhile, a separate team of designers at IIT Madras has been working for more than two years on a family of 32- and 64-bit open source processors based on RISC-V, called Shakti. According to EE Times, the Shakti project now includes plans for at least six microprocessor designs along with fabrics and an accelerator chip.
As we recently noted in “Charting a New Course for Semiconductors,” the success of open-source software – as opposed to a closed, walled-garden approach – has set an important precedent for the semiconductor industry. To be sure, more than 95 percent of today’s web servers run on variants of the Linux operating system, while approximately 85 percent of smartphones sold worldwide use the open-source Android mobile operating system (OS). In addition, Red Hat recently became the first open source company to reach the $2 billion run-rate in annual sales.
According to Steven Woo, VP of Solutions Marketing at Rambus, a number of major industry players would likely be willing to consider backing a new semiconductor paradigm such as RISC-V, particularly when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT).
“[Of course], it would have to meet certain requirements, and the monetization aspects of such a paradigm would have to be worked out and clearly articulated,” Woo noted in a recent blog post.
Although launching and successfully executing such an initiative wouldn’t be easy, Woo emphasized the idea shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because of the difficult challenges the industry faces in meeting the promise of the Internet of Things.
“We’ve seen just how much the semiconductor model has changed over the past decade, especially in the mobile space. The semiconductor industry has done a good job of adapting to meet the needs of new markets and applications, and the Internet of Things will be no different,” he added. “With the right level of backing and contributing expertise, RISC-V could provide a foundation for exploring the open source semiconductor model. [More specifically], a RISC-V implementation augmented with security features could allow broad adoption and deployment for a broad range of IoT applications and infrastructure.”
Interested in learning more about RISC-V? You can check out the project’s official page here.