31-01-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
Intel has stopped its RISC-V development project, which was less than a year old, and is now recommending customers use third-party RISC-V tools in future CPU designs. The unexpected termination raises questions about the future of RISC-V architecture, platform and its potential challenges in hardware and software development.
This sudden move by Intel has created uncertainty in the RISC-V processor market, and it remains to be seen what impact it will have on its pathfinder role in shaping the future of CPU architecture.
What information has come to light over this situation, what reason could Intel have for killing this project, and does this signal bad news for RISC-V?
In August 2022, Intel announced its interest in RISC-V development by forming a new project called Pathfinder, whose primary goal was to develop RISC-V software support for customers. As RISC-V is an instruction set (not a physical implementation), Intel’s plan was to provide users with all the resources and infrastructure needed to pre-test CPUs on Intel FPGAs and/or virtual simulators. Once a design has been proven in a physical FPGA, real-world silicon implementations can then be manufactured using Intel’s Foundry Service.
The launch of this project was seen as a milestone in RISC-V development and showed strong industrial support for the processor platform, especially considering that Intel’s primary business is their x86/x64 line of processors. Soon after the project was launched, a second announcement in December stated that enhancements to the Pathfinder project, including multi-core support, new development boards, and debugging extensions.
Despite all of these promising signs, Intel has now recently (and silently) killed off the RISC-V Pathfinder project, instructing developers to use third-party RISC-V software instead. Visiting pathfinder.intel.com yields only the following announcement:
“We regret to inform you that Intel is discontinuing the Intel® Pathfinder for RISC-V program effective immediately.
Since Intel will not be providing any additional releases or bug fixes, we encourage you to promptly transition to third-party RISC-V* software tools that best meet your development needs.”
Additionally, according to Krishnan's LinkedIn profile, his role as the RISC-V boss ended in January 2023, and he is now listed as "GM, new initiatives."
The reasoning behind this decision isn’t clear, and Intel hasn’t exactly made public statements on its internal decisions. However, one possible explanation for this move could lie in Intel’s Q4 2022 earnings report.
The past two years haven’t exactly been the easiest for consumers, with COVID lockdowns having massive impacts on peoples earning capabilities, supply chains falling apart, and the global economic challenges faced with increased oil prices and the rising cost of living. The response from governments to print money and raise taxes has seen a spike in inflation, which has reduced the spending power of consumers. Overall, this reduction in the global economy has resulted in plummeting PC and server chip sales, which has contributed to a massive $661 million loss in Intel’s revenue.
Speculation from this earnings report would suggest that Intel’s discontinuation of the Pathfinder project results from two factors. Firstly, the project may have been expensive to run, and companies that make losses need to introduce cost-cutting measures so that shareholders remain happy. Secondly, the Pathfinder project would be responsible for developing projects that could compete with Intel’s CPU products. While RISC-V designs would unlikely beat Intel cores in the server market, the emergence of RISC-V CPUs could threaten Intel’s grasp of the PC market. At the same time, future server designs will likely adopt RISC devices due to their higher core densities and lower energy consumption, meaning that Intel would be supporting the tools that could eventually upset its server market.
While Intel’s decision to drop software support for RISC-V development may be worrying for some, it is unlikely to have any effect on the development of RISC-V as a processor architecture. Firstly, RISC-V was around long before Intel got involved with the concept, and many engineers have already developed, manufactured, and deployed RISC-V cores. Secondly, the platform developed by Intel was aimed at helping engineers specifically with Intel hardware and not as a generic solution (i.e., platform agnostic).
If this recent decision signals anything, it’s that Intel was either sinking stupendous amounts of money into the project (which it simply doesn’t have), Intel has limited foresight into RISC-V development, or Intel recognises that as a company, its future doesn’t lie in RISC-V. Considering how RISC-V has grown massively in popularity, it would be strange for a processor company not to actively develop products around the architecture. With all the advanced that Intel has made in processor design (most of which is likely to be patented), it would go without saying that if anyone can design the next generation of RISC-V devices, it would be Intel.
So, with the Pathfinder project officially halted, engineers will now have to turn to other means for RISC-V development. Does this mean RISC-V is failing? Absolutely not! If anything, RISC-V will continue to grow in popularity thanks to its lack of licensing fees, open-source nature, and strong community support.