07-09-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Chinese giant Alibaba Cloud unveiled a new RISC-V development platform that it hopes will continue to push developers into the field of RISC-V. What challenges does RISC-V currently present to designers, what are the specifications for the new platform, and are RISC-V devices becoming more mainstream?
One of the hot topics over the past two years has been the rise of RISC-V and the numerous developments around it, whether it is the manufacture of the first RISC-V devices, the integration into ESP32 microcontrollers, or the support from Linux. Despite RISC-V being a public project with active users all over the world, by far the loudest country is China. China’s strong interest in RISC-V likely stems from the increasing difficulties it faces in obtaining the latest technology due to numerous export bans from western nations such as the UK and US.
By investing in RISC-V, China not only becomes a major player in RISC-V but can potentially move away from western devices and create its own supply chain of advanced systems based on an open-source instruction set. As western software companies will undoubtedly support RISC-V (through popularity and a drive towards open-source designs), countries such as China will be able to run western software while mitigating against the hardware export bans.
However, developing for RISC-V currently presents designs with several challenges. The first challenge is that because RISC-V only describes the instruction set, it is up to a manufacturer to design and fabricate physical devices. While many open-source RISC-V cores can be flashed into FPGAs, there are not many options for engineers looking to integrate dedicated high-end RISC-V processors.
That isn’t to say that RISC-V processors don’t exist; several devices are currently available to engineers, including SiFive E3 Series and ESP32 (which contains a secondary RISC-V core). However, compared to other instruction sets, RISC-V is severely limited and doesn’t offer engineers the same degree of freedom. As such, RISC-V development can be tricky to do.
Recently, Alibaba Cloud announced the release of a new development platform that it hopes will help engineers to work with RISC-V devices. The new platform, called the Wujian 600, is an entire computing system that incorporates the CPU, GPU, memory, NPU, and audio.
However, reports on the new platform are unclear whether the new system is a single-board computer, a system-on-chip, or a system-on-module. References to the new development platform talk about the design being licensable, meaning that engineers can utilise the platform in their own custom designs and, as such, may be closer to a SoM than a SoC. At the same time, one report mentions how the platform was used to test the TH1520 processor, which suggests that the system is indeed a single-board computer. Additionally, the announcement of the Wujian also stated how the platform will help with the development of future SoC designs, further suggesting that it is a SoM that allows engineers to test configurations of chips and then choose the components they want internally in a SoC.
While RISC-V devices are still in their infancy, the push from China will help accelerate the adoption of RISC-V. This is especially true when considering the numerous export bans on technology to China and how many countries rely on Chinese manufacturing. For example, if China can develop numerous RISC-V microcontroller platforms that offer significant cost savings over other platforms, then many engineers will likely consider turning to Chinese-made RISC-V devices for their next projects (likely to be involved with IoT and IIoT). The use of locally sourced devices also helps to simplify supply chains and reduces the number of manufacturing steps required.
Even though millions of RISC-V processors are deployed worldwide, they make up a tiny proportion of the overall market. The introduction of RISC-V development platforms such as Wujian 600 will undoubtedly help engineers develop RISC-V devices as well as create software for RISC-V systems. Finally, the development and implementation of RISC-V in China could help to cement RISC-V as the ultimate cross-platform, cross-country architecture that anyone is allowed to develop on.