I’ve recently become aware of RISC-V.
Technical introduction here (somewhat out of date; hardware support is broader and deeper now, and I have seen video of a full Linux port running Doom), but the technicalia is not mostly where I’m going with this post.
I’m seeing a setup for a potentially classic disruption from below here. And not mainly because this instruction set is well designed, though it is. Simple, clean, orthogonal – it makes my compiler-jock heart happy; writing a code generator for it would be fun. If I needed to, but there’s already an LLVM back end for it.
And that points at what’s really interesting about RISC-V. whoever is running their product strategy has absorbed the lessons of previous technology disruptions and is running this one like a boss.
By the time I became really aware of it, RISC-V already had 19 cores, 10 SOCs, LLVM support, a Linux port, dozens of corporate sponsors, and design wins as a microcontroller in major-label disk drives and graphic cards.
That tells me that RISC-V did a couple of critical things right. Most importantly, quietly lining up a whole boatload of sponsors and co-developers before making public hype. Means there was no point at which the notion that this is nothing but an overpromising/underdelivering academic toy project could take hold in peoples’ brains and stick there. Instead, by the time my ear-to-the-ground started picking up the hoofbeats, RISC-V was already thundering up a success-breeds-success power curve.
Of course, they could only do this because open source was a central part of the product strategy. The implied guarantee that nobody can corner the supply of RISC-V hardware and charge secrecy rent on it is huge if you’re a product designer trying to control supply chain risk. It’s 2019, people – why would anyone in their right mind not want that hedge if they could get it?
Yes, yes, present RISC-V hardware is underpowered compared to an Intel or ARM part. Right now it’s only good enough for embedded microcontrollers (which is indeed where its first design wins are). But we’ve seen this movie before. More investment capital drawn to its ecosystem will fix that pretty fast. If I were ARM I’d be starting to sweat right about now.
In fact, ARM is sweating. In July, before RISC-V was on my radar, they tried to countermarket against it. Their FUD site had to be taken down after ARM’s own staff revolted!
Top of my Christmas list is now a RISC-V SBC that’s connector compatible with a Raspberry Pi. Nothing like this exists yet, but given the existence of SOCs and a Linux port this is such an obvious move that I’d bet money on it happening before Q4. Even if the RISC-V foundation doesn’t push in this direction itself, there are so many Chinese RasPi clones now that some shop in Shenzhen almost certainly will.
Let me finish by pointing out the elephant in the room that the RISC-V foundation is not talking about. They’re just letting it loom there. That’s the “management software” on Intel chips, and its analogs elsewhere. An increasingly important element of technology risk is layers hidden under your hardware that others can use to take control of your system. This is beyond normal supply-chain risk, it’s about the extent to which your hardware can be trusted not to betray you.
The real hook of RISC-V – something its Foundation has been quietly working to arrange via multiple open-source hardware designs – is auditability right down to the silicon. Open-source software running on open-source hardware with social proof that the risk of effective subversion is very low and a community that would interpret subversive success as damage and swiftly route around it.
That is huge. It’s going to up the market pressure for transparency at all levels of the computing stack. I was the author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, so I get to say this: “Bwahahaha! All is proceeding as I have foreseen…”