03-06-2021 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Huawei released their first RISC-V development system to help engineers use the HarmonyOS operating system targeted at IoT devices. So why is Huawei looking towards RISC-V, what does the new development system offer, and does ARM face competition from RISC-V?
Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, has been under scrutiny for a number of years due to its connection with the Chinese government and Peoples Republic of China military. However, before introducing 5G, Huawei plays an important role in developing and operating cellular technologies, including 4G services and smartphones.
However, with more information regarding Chinese practices, human right abuses, and constant attacks on western intellectual property, the US decided to blacklist many Chinese companies from having access to critical hardware and software including AI and ARM processors. Other countries soon took action against China and went as far as banning companies such as Huawei from being involved with developing key infrastructure such as 5G networks.
Being unable to utilize the latest technology offered by Qualcomm and ARM, Huawei has now turned towards RISC-V as their saving grace. Unlike ARM, RISC-V is open source, and as governments cannot control such. As a result, any company or individual can utilize the RISC-V architecture in their designs with no need to provide royalties or pay for licenses. However, RISC-V is hardly supported by the wider community. Moreover, the little hardware available for RISC-V development makes it difficult for engineers to design and develop the RISC-V platform.
Recently, Huawei announced that it has released its first RISC-V development module that will allow designers to design and develop products using the RISC-V architecture. The new module, called the Hi3861, integrates a RISC-V core onto a module that is similar to the Adafruit Huzzah32 board.
The main controller of the board is the Hi3861 which includes a 32-bit RISC-V core clocked at 160MHz, 352KB SRAM, and 288KB ROM. The module also integrates a 2MB flash memory, and an integrated Wi-Fi controller with a maximum data rate of 72.2Mbps on the 2.4GHz spectrum. Peripherals integrated into the SoC include SDIO, SPI, I2C, GPIO, UART, ADC, PWM, and I2S.
The module itself uses a USB 3.0 connector and a CH340 USB to UART to provide a programming and communication interface. The use of two buttons provides a RESET input and user input for programming while two jumper caps are used for programming the onboard flash. To extend the capabilities of the module, a development board is also available that brings out the pins for use with OLEDs, NFC, extended antenna, and JTAG.
The introduction of RISC-V, and its’ clear adoption is a genuine threat to ARM. If ARM is to survive the emerging RISC-V architecture, it needs to seriously re-think its strategy in the market. ARM had the advantage that it was one of the few widely used RISC architectures available that had a strong software support base. Furthermore, ARM could be licensed into other devices thereby enabling chip manufacturers to have great flexibility.
However, in the age of open-source hardware, ARM now faces extinction from RISC-V if the option of a free core with no licensing outweighs the benefits of ARM. Of course, ARM could fight back in a number of ways, but reducing the cost of their royalties and licenses won’t be key.
To start, ARM needs to look inwards and recognize what advantage they do have; software. ARM should think about increasing their software base to provide free resources wherever possible and encourage customers of ARM to also provide their software entirely free (for example, most ARM microcontroller IDEs have some kind of license or pay structure, but this hinders customers from taking full advantage of their devices).
Secondly, ARM needs to create custom hardware and peripherals for CPUs that the RISC-V community may not be able to develop. Such examples include security by default, improved cryptographic modules, and instructions specifically aimed at AI tasks.
However, it should be noted that RISC-V is an open-source architecture that merely describes how the processor should work. Therefore, it is still up to chip manufacturers on how such a processor is designed. This does provide ARM with an advantage as ARM actually designs the processor itself, then licenses the core for others to stick straight onto silicon.