Alibaba close to porting Android to RISC-V

04-05-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

In order for RISC-V to become mainstream, it needs to be able to run modern operating systems, have accessible compilers, and be compatible with mainstream applications. Recently, Alibaba announced that it is getting closer to porting Android to RISC-V, which marks a major milestone in the widespread adoption of RISC-V.

What challenges does RISC-V currently face?

Despite RISC-V only being introduced to the public for the first time in 2010, its popularity has rapidly expanded, with multiple vendors now producing RISC-V processors. The open-source architecture has allowed different manufacturers to implement their own version of RISC-V while ensuring that all processors can run the same code. Furthermore, the open-source nature of RISC-V means that there are no licenses or royalty fees associated with RISC-V, and this allows anyone to jump into the processor market.

However, RISC-V continues to be plagued by numerous challenges that typically come with any new CPU architecture. Firstly, a new CPU architecture will not support any software on the market, meaning that compilers have to be built from the ground up. In contrast, pre-existing operating systems and applications must be recoded and checked for performance.

Secondly, new architectures also require new computer designs from the ground up as such processors will unlikely be pin-compatible with other established processors. For example, one cannot remove the CPU of a Raspberry Pi and expect to find an equivalent RISC-V that operates in the same way.

Thirdly, the RISC-V architecture only describes an architecture and doesn’t outline implementation. As such, manufacturers are required to design their own RISC-V processors from the ground up (i.e., VLSI design), and this in its own right can be an expensive process. This process also requires experimental silicon processors to be fabricated and tested to ensure that they can be used in an application.

RISC-V’s software support is rapidly improving, with multiple compilers now available, including GNU. However, only a limited number of operating systems support RISC-V, and those that do are generally different ports of Linux, including Debian, FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD.

Alibaba is close to porting Android for RISC-V

Recognising the potential of RISC-V, Alibaba Cloud has undergone a massive effort to port the popular Android operating system to RISC-V. Currently, Android only officially supports ARM architectures which limit smartphone manufacturers to ARM processors, and this comes with licenses and royalties, which can drive up manufacturing costs. Furthermore, the deteriorating relationship between the east and west could see eastern manufacturers denied access to ARM processors, which would effectively deny the east to Android and its associated software.

Last year, Alibaba Cloud had already demonstrated their ported version of Android running Chrome, but the latest announcement now shows Android 12 working on a custom RISC-V with some key third-party vendor modules operational, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, video playback, camera, and audio. Additionally, Alibaba Cloud has also demonstrated a TensorFlow Lite module running on RISC-V to show how AI functions, including character recognition and image recognition, can be used on RISC-V.

“The support of Android12, vendor modules and the AI framework on RISC-V based devices is another major milestone that we have achieved. We look forward to further contributing to the RISC-V community with our advanced technology and resources and encouraging more innovation in the community together with global developers.” - said Jianyi Meng, Senior Director at Alibaba.

Will RISC-V become a major architecture of the future?

Considering how hard businesses around the world are pursuing RISC-V, it is very likely that RISC-V will become a major CPU architecture of the future. The ability for manufacturers to design their own cores could open the world to a whole ecosystem of CPU designs that is currently controlled by two companies, Intel and ARM.

The seriousness of RISC-V can also be seen in a recent announcement by ARM, which is looking at developing an anti-RISC-V strategy to ensure that they stay competitive. Their new strategy against RISC-V aims to reduce the development time of new SoCs by opening up cloud-based resources to developers and ARM virtual hardware. But the very fact that ARM has to develop an anti-RISC-V strategy demonstrates that RISC-V presents a genuine risk to ARM.

As software support for RISC-V improves, so will market utilisation. Currently, RISC-V is very limited in application, and it is rare to come across a device using a RISC-V processor, but that does not mean that the use of RISC-V won’t explode. Once Android 12 is ported, smartphones will likely be the first devices to use RISC-V that will be commonly available to the general public.


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.