Calista Redmond, chief executive of the microprocessor consortium RISC-V International, is a fan of the wild days of chip competition back in the 1980s. "This is the biggest opportunity to change the trajectory of computing and hardware that history has seen since the 80s, and that gets me excited every day," said Redmond in a recent interview with ZDNet via Zoom. She was referring to the flowering in the '80s of numerous different computer chip architectures. They included not only Intel's x86 processors, but IBM's POWER architecture; MIPS-based processors made by companies such as NEC and Toshiba; Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alpha series of processors; Sun's Sparc processors; Motorola's PowerPC series; and Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC series, to name just some of the more obvious chips. Many of these processor families faded over the decades, leaving two main processor camps, x86, and the ARM processors made by the U.K. firm of that name, which is owned by Japan's Softbank Group, and which is being sold to Nvidia.
Today, if you want to build a high-performance computing device, you can almost certainly find all the software you need in a free and open form. The same is not true for the processor chips that run that free software -- whatever you choose, a chunk of what you pay will go on proprietary hardware licences to Intel, ARM, or their friends. RISC-V, pronounced'Risk-Five', is a new architecture that's available under open, free and non-restrictive licences. It has widespread industry support from chip and device makers, and is designed to be freely extensible and customisable to fit any market niche. To be a success, however, it has to perform technically as well as be economic to design for, verify and program.
NASA has selected SiFive, a US chip startup that designs RISC-V CPUs, to provide the "core CPU" for the space agency's forthcoming High-Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC) processor. NASA announced in June that its HPSC project would develop new flight-computing technology that will feature "at least 100 times" the computational capacity of current spaceflight computers, which were developed almost 30 years ago. These CPUs need to be resistant to radiation damage, operate with minimal power, and turn off when not needed, yet still be capable of robotically landing spacecraft on Mars and supporting astronauts in space. SEE: NASA's new tiny, high-powered laser could find water on the Moon The chief problem with older spaceflight computers is that they're over-designed, built for the most computational-intensive parts of a mission, such as during a landing sequence on Mars. They also need to operate with minimal electrical power supplies.
Recently appointed Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger Tuesday said he will lead the company to being a "world-class foundry" to make chips for other companies, incuding Intel's competitors. That vow could open the door to a newer technology that could even displace some Intel products, the open-source RISC-V chip standard developed at the University of California at Berkeley. SiFive, a chip startup that has for several years been developing intellectual property using RISC-V, announced in conjunction with Gelsinger's talk that it is working with Intel to make the RISC-V designs availabe to customers of Intel's Foundry Services Business. "I am excited to see Intel's new Foundry services business (IFS) in the U.S. and Europe increase the opportunity and choice for the semiconductor industry," wrote SiFive CEO Patrick Little in a blog post. "We're pleased to see Intel recognize the utility and opportunity for the RISC-V instruction set architecture in partnering to enable SiFive's industry-leading Core IP portfolio to enable a new wave of leading-edge technology."