Are we seeing the takeover from RISC-V?

28-05-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

The RISC-V architecture, which is in direct competition with ARM, is making more news headlines recently. So how do RISC-V and ARM differ, what products is RISC-V being integrated into, and will it overtake ARM?

How do RISC-V and ARM differ?

RISC-V is the name for a computer architecture that continues to show up in product news, but when compared to ARM, there are few differences. Of course, both instruction sets are different, and therefore code written for one will not operate on the other. Still, besides that, both are reduced instruction set computers that have fewer (and simpler instructions), than a CISC processor such as an Intel i5 or an AMD Ryzen.

However, where the two architectures differ most is their licensing; ARM is a proprietary core that must be licensed in designs while RISC-V is open-source and royalty-free. One would wonder why ARM is the dominant force in the market if RISC-V is free, but the simple answer is that ARM was released back in the late 80s while RISC-V has only been around for a few years.

What products is RISC-V found in?

RISC-V opens up designers to a whole world of new opportunities, but while RISC-V describes an instruction set architecture, it does not describe the physical construction or layout. This means that anyone who wants to use a RISC-V processor either needs to design it from scratch themselves or find an off-the-shelf CPU manufactured by someone else.

The newness of RISC-V means that it is currently found in virtually no products on the market, but this is starting to change. For example, SiFive is a company that was first to produce a commercial RISC-V device and is currently releasing a new single-board computing system using a RISC-V core. Alibaba is another company that has been working on RISC-V with its own custom processor, the XuanTie 91016-core RISC-V. This device has vector extension, floating-point units, memory management, and interrupt controller all in a single package. Still, it also adds to the instruction set to increase the speed of application-specific operations (such as those found in OpenSSL).

Western Digital and Seagate are other example companies that is looking to utilize RISC-V in their products. Seagate, who manufacture hard disks, have developed two in-house processors; one for disk management and the other for high-optimization. The goal behind the disk management chip was to create a custom CPU that could be tailored to HDD tasks such as servo and motor optimization. In addition, western Digital see the use of a custom CPU connected to memory as a potential method for accelerating tasks such as file search, file organization, and on-the-fly encryption.

Will RISC-V overtake ARM?

There is no doubt that RISC-V will become a major competitor to ARM, and this would solely come from the open-source nature of RISC-V. So long as a manufacturers CPU can execute RISC-V instructions, any code written for RISC-V will work, and there will be no license fees to pay. Furthermore, the purchasing of ARM by NVIDIA could see many ARM users move towards RISC-V as NVIDIA risks ruining ARMs reputation of impartiality amongst customers. NVIDIA could also have access to next-generation ARM technology unavailable to competitors, and NVIDIA could also influence its ownership to direct ARM to develop products that work best with NVIDIA.

While RISC-V offers designers many new opportunities, it is still in its infancy, and software support is still limited. Of course, some operating systems support RISC-V, but when it comes to everyday devices, RISC-V is still a no-show. 

If RISC-V is to be taken seriously as a competitor against ARM, manufacturers of microcontrollers such as Microchip and STMicroelectronics could look into creating RISC-V microcontrollers. This would remove the need for royalties while also helping develop the RISC-V market. RISC-V will also be heavily reliant on the open-source community to create software libraries and platforms for processor technology. 

Looking forward to the next ten years, there is no doubt that RISC-V will not only become a competitor of ARM but will most likely take over their market share once the advantages of a royalty-free processor are made clear to manufacturers. Furthermore, it is likely that RISC-V supporting companies will form who will provide software and hardware surround the RISC-V core, and this, in turn, will help medium-sized companies get into the RISC-V markets.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.