RISC-V’s open-source architecture shakes up chip design

But what’s so compelling about RISC-V isn’t the technology – it’s the economics. The instruction set is open source. Anyone can download it and design a chip based on the architecture without paying a fee. If you wanted to do that with ARM, you’d have to pay its developer, Arm Holding, a few million dollars for a license. If you wanted to use x86, you’re out of luck because Intel licenses its instruction set only to Advanced Micro Devices.

For manufacturers, the open-source approach could lower the risks associated with building custom chips. Already, Nvidia and Western Digital Corp. have decided to use RISC-V in their own internally developed silicon. Western Digital’s chief technology officer has said that in 2019 or 2020, the company will unveil a new RISC-V processor for the more than 1 billion cores the storage firm ships each year. Likewise, Nvidia is using RISC-V for a governing microcontroller that it places on the board to manage its massively multicore graphics processors.

This really explains why ARM is so scared of RISC-V. I mean, RISC-V might not make it to high-end smartphones for now, but if RISC-V takes off in the market for microcontrollers and other “invisibe” processors, it could be a huge threat to ARM’s business model.


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