European Processor Initiative Tapes Out Their First RISC-V Test Chip

12-06-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Recently, the EPI announced that it has developed its first HPC chip using RISC-V technology and is now in the stages of having the device fabricated. What is the EPI, what will the new device be capable of, and how does this release demonstrate the potential of RISC-V architecture?

What is the EPI?

The European Processor Initiative collects different institutions across the EU that aim to develop and create high-performance, low-power chips for use in supercomputers and other big data applications. Currently, most processors used in supercomputers are proprietary and often sourced from foreign nations. For example, the main processor technology currently in use is x86/x64, and these processors are only designed and manufactured by two companies; Intel and AMD. However, ARM-based processors are gaining popularity thanks to their small core size and ability to scale. Still, even then these processes use proprietary technology in both the physical construction and ISA. As a result, the ability to process large amounts of data and train AI is mostly dependent on a nation's ability to source such parts.

The goal of the European Processor Initiative is to try and provide Europe with technological sovereignty. By developing and experimenting with high compute processors with vector capabilities, Europe will be able to develop its own processors without relying on foreign nations to provide the technology. However, simply being able to design a high-compute device is not enough to have sovereignty; the ability to manufacture the device is also required.


EPI Announces First RISC-V Device

The EPI recently announced that it has developed its first RISC-V device, the EPAC1.0, a RISC vector processor using the RISC-V ISA. Using the RISC-V architecture, the device can work with software libraries and other developments in the RISC-V environment. Furthermore, RISC-V removes the need for royalties and licenses when manufacturing processors that free the EPI from any outside commercial interest.

The new device integrates multiple hardware accelerators to enable higher computational efficiency in areas such as AI. The device integrates four-vector processing units which themselves each integrate a Home Node and L2 cache. Also integrated onto the chip is a Stencil and Tensor accelerator and a Variable Precision Processor.

The announcement from the European Processor Initiative also mentions that the new device is due to be fabricated which will then be integrated into an FPGA development board designed by FORTH, E4, and the University of Zagreb. This will enable the processor to be prototyped and experimented with, and the results will hopefully enable the continuation of obtaining technology sovereignty for the EU.


The Importance of RISC-V Architecture

While RISC-V is nowhere near as popular as x86 or ARM, it is starting to gain traction and will undoubtedly become a major competitor. In addition, the use of an open-source ISA enables any manufacturer to create their own code-compatible CPU without worrying about licenses or royalties, which supports the development of lower-priced processors and encourages the use of open-source hardware.

However, just because something is free and open-source does not guarantee its success. For example, while Linux distributions are popular amongst servers and smartphones, they account for a few per cent in the desktop sector despite many of the distros being easy to use with a high degree of software compatibility. As such, RISC-V could see the same challenges whereby it becomes popular in microcontrollers and servers but could struggle to enter the mainstream consumer computer market.


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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.

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