RISC-V, innovation, and not having to ask permission

01Dec17

RISC-V[1] is something that I’ve been aware of via the Open Source Hardware Users Group (OSHUG) for a little while, and their most recent meeting was a RISC-V special, with talks on core selection and porting FreeBSD to the platform. Suddenly it seems that RISC-V is all over the news. A sample from the last few days:

The trigger is the Seventh RISC-V Workshop[2], which Western Digital happens to be hosting, but I get a sense that something more is happening here – that RISC-V is breaking out of its academic origins and exploding into the commercial world. I also get the sense that this might just be the tremors of activity before things really take off in China.

I’ve always been very impressed with ARM‘s positioning in the Internet of Things (IoT) space. It seemed that when Intel’s ambition was to have an x86 device in the hands of every human on the planet, ARM wanted one of their cores funnelling instrumentation data from every paving stone on the planet (and everything else besides). But the problem with ARM (or MIPS or whatever) is that they license proprietary technology, and this creates two barriers to adoption and innovation:

  1. Cost – the core design vendor takes a small but ultimately significant slice of the pie every time one of its cores is used.
  2. Asking permission – if what the core design vendor has on the shelf works for a particular application then great, but if changes are needed then that needs to be negotiated, and that takes time and slows things down.

Even at a cent a core the cost stacks up if you’re shipping a billion cores, so Western Digital’s interest is obvious; but I don’t think cost is the main issue here. A huge factor driving innovation in software has been the permission free environment of open source, and the same is playing out here, just with hardware. RISC-V is empowering hardware designers to just get on with doing whatever they want, and that’s hugely beneficial in terms of reducing wait times, and thus improving cycle times. The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loops are tightening.

If I may sound one note of caution, it’s that many of the RISC-V cores developed so far have very permissive licensing. That’s great in terms of making things permission free, but it’s less great in terms of feeding back innovation to the ecosystem (as we’ve seen with Linux and copyleft). In general I’m a fan of permissive licensing, but (like the Linux kernel) there’s perhaps a case to be made for licenses with greater obligations for lower level parts of the ecosystems we build.

Notes

[1] Pronounced ‘RISC five’, just like the iPhone X is ‘iPhone ten’.
[2] Day One and Day Two are covered on the lowRISC blog.



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