RISC-V & Debian Unite: A New Era for Open-Source Architecture
07-08-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
As RISC-V continues to increase in popularity, Debian has now announced that it will be aiming to provide official RISC-V support in the near future and has made it an official architecture option. What challenges does RISC-V face, what did the new announcement cover, and how does this further help solidify RISC-V as a future architecture?
What challenges does RISC-V face?
Since its conception in 2015, RISC-V has seen a massive wave of adoption, with companies from all areas of the industry looking at ways to adopt the technology. The primary advantage of RISC-V comes down to its open-source nature, meaning that those looking to utilise RISC-V cores do not need to pay for royalties or licenses to the RISC-V foundation. Of course, using a RISC-V core designed by a third party would still be subjected to such terms, but the instruction architecture itself being open-source lowers the barrier to entry for new start-ups and small companies.
The other major advantage of RISC-V is that by making the instruction set architecture open-source, it encourages more engineers to switch over to the technology, and as all RISC-V processors need to be able to follow the same basic instruction set (as defined in the standards), in theory, most RISC-V code should be able to run on most RISC-V processors. This introduces the possibility for code migration and cross-platform support while also helping to standardise microcontroller design.
However, for all the advantages that RISC-V presents, it still faces some challenges, and one of these challenges stands above the rest; support.
Simply put, as RISC-V is open-source and has only existed for a number of years, software support for the platform is nowhere near close to what is offered by other established architectures such as x86 and ARM. Of course, basic compilers do exist, and software libraries around RISC-V are being actively developed, but until these software services and tools mature, development with RISC-V can be challenging.
Furthermore, it is difficult for software developers to open-source their libraries and tools for a processor architecture that is so new, especially if there is no real economic gain to do so. While it is possible to explore new economic models (such as subscriptions for pro versions and ongoing software support), it is difficult to get such projects started. In fact, the RISC-V project itself was developed by researchers, demonstrating how an open-source platform can be tricky for profit-based companies to adopt.
The other challenge faced with RISC-V is that while the architecture itself is open-source, building physical CPUs that conform to the RISC-V instruction set is an expensive and time-consuming process. Once a processor has been designed in a hardware description language, it needs to be embedded into real silicon, and only companies with substantial assets and/or funding can achieve this. Thus, these devices still have a cost aspect to them that, when compared to pre-existing solutions on the market, which feature plenty of software support, can be a hard sell.
Debian to make RISC-V an officially supported architecture
Debian's decision to make RISC-V an officially supported architecture is a significant milestone. According to the official announcement, Debian 13 "Trixie" will include RISC-V support, although the archive is currently almost empty. As Debian developer Aurelien Jarno notes, "Before you rush to update your sources.list file, I want to warn you that the archive is currently almost empty, and that only the sid and experimental suites are available."
The poor software support for RISC-V certainly introduces challenges to engineers, but the undeniable growth in its popularity is seeing large companies and organisations take note. One such example is Debian, a distro of Linux that offers users a free and open-source OS offering long-term software stability, a comprehensive installer, and supports numerous hardware architectures that have now announced that RISC-V will become an officially supported architecture.
As Linux is so immensely popular in the engineering world, it only makes sense that Linux developers are considering RISC-V in future releases. With smart IoT devices and servers, all considering a switch over to RISC-V, having Linux able to support that platform will help prevent other OS developers, such as Windows, from dominating those markets.
Currently, RISC-V has sketchy support for Linux at best, meaning that RISC-V developers are still stuck in the computing dark ages. This lack of support also explains why most RISC-V devices on the market are focused on embedded designs, such as the ESP32, where full-fledged operating systems are not used.
While support for RISC-V was announced by Debian, it is only the start of the project, with the source files mostly being empty. Some experimentation files and software are included, and these will be built up over time, but for the time being, Debian will not run in a RISC-V environment.
How does this announcement further help solidify the RISC-V position?
The community's response to Debian's announcement has been positive, with many looking forward to experimenting with RISC-V. On the message board, users have been discussing board recommendations and expressing excitement about the future of RISC-V with Linux. This announcement not only solidifies RISC-V's position but also encourages further exploration and adoption of the technology.
In order for RISC-V to become popular, it needs to be widely supported, and in order for it to be widely supported, it needs to be popular. This sees RISC-V suffering from the chicken and egg problem, whereby RISC-V needs both to become an established processor architecture.
By Debian announcing that it will look to support RISC-V, it has effectively signalled to the world that RISC-V is not only a serious technology but that larger businesses and organisations will likely start to adopt and support it. Furthermore, this announcement now allows engineers looking to develop more powerful desktop RISC-V-based processors knowing that an operating system will exist for their designs.
Once the RISC-V ball gets rolling, with software announcements supporting hardware development which support software environments, it won't be long before RISC-V rapidly gains market share and, with some luck, pushes other technologies, such as ARM, out of the way.