A venture in retrotronics

Open-source RISC processors making waves in research and industry

It's still early in terms of silicon implementations, tooling and operating system support, but the open RISC-V processor specification is making inroads in the processor world. As RISC-V Marketing Manager Ted Marena wrote at the beginning of last year on IEEE Times, RISC-V is to open hardware what Linux has been to open-source software.

According to Naveed Sherwani, the CEO of SiFive, today's complex chips are so expensive to develop that the situation for the chip industry is unhealthy: The cost of developing a chip is so high that no VCs will fund it and no young people will try it.

To research institutes, startups and government agencies involved in High-Performance Computing (HPC), and to bulk consumers of processing power, RISC-V provides an opportunity to participate and collaborate in creating a (European) technical and scientific ecosystem around an open design.

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Hardware is software

Hardware is mainly a software affair: the structure and inner workings of an Integrated Circuit (IC) are defined in a specification language and compiled into a chip layout – much like the way a software program representing an algorithm is compiled into an executable. From a computer-science point of view, the two are equivalent.

From a practical point of view, hardware licences are very similar to, or the same as, those used in the open-source software world. Likewise, the use of these licences facilitates collaborative development, reuse and interoperability. Although some designers use existing open-source software licences, others prefer licences that specifically address hardware specifications, like the TAPR Open Hardware License and the CERN Open Hardware Licence.

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s2smodern

Hardware is software

It's still early in terms of silicon implementations, tooling and operating system support, but the open RISC-V processor specification is making inroads in the processor world. As RISC-V Marketing Manager Ted Marena wrote at the beginning of this year on on IEEE Times, RISC-V is to open hardware what Linux has been to open-source software.

To research institutes, startups and government agencies involved in High-Performance Cmputing, and to bulk consumers of processing power, RISC-V provides an opportunity to participate and collaborate in creating a (European) technical and scientific ecosystem around an open design.

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s2smodern

Avoiding licensing burdens

It has been five years since ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the University of Bologna in Italy started their joint PULP research project on the energy efficiency of microprocessor architectures. The project is fully based on open-source hardware and software, and has resulted in the tape-out of two dozen implementations.

The real freedom you get from open source projects is much more, and more important than the fact that you don't have to pay for it, Frank Gürkaynak, Director of ETZH's Microelectronics Design Center, writes in an article posted on All About Circuits. Researchers can take what we provide and freely change it for their experiments. Startup companies can build on what we provide as a starting point and concentrate their time and energy on the actual innovations they want to provide. And people who are disturbed by various attacks on their systems [1, 2] have the chance to look inside and know what exactly is in their system.

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