RISC-V Is On a Roll. Is It Ready to Take a Seat Alongside Intel, AMD, and Arm?

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RISC-V International's CTO says the open source ISA is bound for the data center as CPU in everything from IoT to HPC.
RISC-V, the emerging open source instruction set architecture for processors that have so far been used mostly as accelerators, is suddenly on a roll and appears about ready to become competitive in the CPU arena.

The most activity has been in the hacker space. A year ago about the only way to play around with a RISC-V processor was to spend $1,000 for a development board from the RISC-V-based startup SiFive. These days, SparkFun, BeagleBoard, Pine64, Rios, and others have either already released or are about to release single-board computers powered by RISC-V silicon, and at prices as low as $15. There's even a BBC Doctor Who-based RISC-V mini computer, meant for kids to learn coding and sold for under $100.

Related: SiFive Pushes Open Source RISC-V Chip Architecture Closer to Prime Time

"That rollout is going to continue with lots of vendors," Mark Himelstein, CTO at RISV-V International, told DCK. "Some of them are small, like SparkFun, clearly an embedded kind of thing -- like the tiniest Raspberry Pi. Then the BeagleBoard stuff starts showing up as something you can run Linux on. You're gonna see people doing things through a whole range of deployments, first for development and then actually deploying these things."

Data Center Bound

RISC-V is already in the data center, and not only as accelerators, but pulling duty as CPUs. For example, some HPC networks use RISC-V to process data in transit. It also appears to be on the way to another role, powering servers, where its low power consumption could make it especially useful for edge deployments.

Related: New RISC-V CTO On Open Source Chip Architecture's Global Data Center Momentum

"There have been [RISC-V-based] cloud servers already," Himelstein said. "Alibaba does that already -- them and some other people."

Soon he expects to see the architecture powering everything from smartphones…
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