Nicole Hemsoth of The Next Platform recently observed that while Moore’s Law has yet to fully run its course, organizations such as the IEEE, along with individual device makers, are already thinking their way “out of a box” which has influenced the semiconductor industry for decades.
“The semiconductor industry is not growing; there has been unparalleled consolidation and money spent on acquisitions, and all of this is coming from the fact that this is a non-growth market,” Rambus CMO Jerome Nadel told The Next Platform. “The industry is only reaping 1.5 percent of the billions in value it creates, so we are asking is what alternative paths exist.”
According to Nadel, one potential alternate route is open source hardware, which could help alleviate the severe margin erosion plaguing the semiconductor industry.
“Investments in the costs and design and fabrication are now so enormous that the notion of ‘build it once and reap the benefit’ is one that is not sustainable as costs go up and margins go so far down,” he explained. “To counter this trend, the only real options lie in custom ASIC and FPGAs, but more broadly in the future of open source hardware.”
As Nadel told The Platform, Rambus joined the RISC-V Foundation earlier this year as a founding member and is backing the open source initiative due to the sheer economics of designing new novel instruction set architectures (ISAs).
“Commercial chip vendors typically pay hefty, multi-million dollar license fees to use proprietary ISAs,” he added. “However, such prices are often too high for academia and many small companies, leading to stifled competition and innovation as well as more expensive chips.”
As we’ve previously discussed on Rambus Press, RISC-V has gained significant momentum over the past year. In April, engineers at ETH Zurich and the University of Bologna debuted the 32-bit PULPino, an open-source microprocessor based on RISC-V architecture. The PULPino – taped out as a 65nm ASIC – is now available for RTL simulation and FPGA mapping. On the software side, engineers at Genode unveiled new support for RISC-V CPU architecture. For the uninitiated, the Genode Framework can perhaps best be described as a tool kit for building highly secure special-purpose operating systems. It is capable of scaling from embedded systems with as little as 4 MB of memory to highly dynamic general-purpose workloads.
As 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).
Interested in learning more about RISC-V architecture? You can check out the official RISC-V Foundation site here.