SoftBank-owned and Cambridge-based low-power processor intellectual property (IP) specialist Arm appears to be getting rattled by industry interest in rival open-source instruction set architecture (ISA) RISC-V and its growing number of implementations, and has launched a marketing campaign to convince customers to stick with what they know.
Developed in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, RISC-V is a reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architecture with a difference: It's entirely open for anyone to implement, modified or otherwise, under permissive licensing. With traditional architectures like Arm and x86 being locked away from view and costing a considerable amount of money to license, RISC-V - along with rival open ISAs like the SPARC-based OpenRISC - represents a bold new option for everything from low-power embedded to high-performance computing projects.
Despite being only eight years old, the project is also enjoying considerable success: Nvidia has confirmed that it is switching to RISC-V from an in-house proprietary RISC architecture in its logic controllers, storage giant Western Digital has pledged to ship a billion RISC-V cores in the next two years, Rambus is using it in a new cryptographic security product, and even Intel has admitted it has potential.
Arm, though, is undeniably threatened by the growing success of RISC-V. It holds a majority share of the low-power market, a market many of the early implementations of RISC-V are targeting. To combat the threat, the company has made the controversial decision to go on the offensive - not by launching new products or opening its own architecture, though, but by creating a website which claims to help developers 'understand the facts' about RISC-V.
The site, riscv-basics.com, offers 'five things to consider before designing a system-on-chip,' and readers may be surprised to find that all five come out against RISC-V and in favour of the proprietary Arm architecture. Some are unarguably true, such as the argument that the well-established Arm ecosystem is larger than the still-young RISC-V ecosystem; others, though, are less clear-cut, such as Arm's claim that paying tens of thousands of dollars to licence its processor IP will work out cheaper than using the free-as-in-speech-and-beer RISC-V ISA.
The mere existence of the site, though, proves one thing: Arm is rattled, and RISC-V is definitely on the path to severely disrupting the processor industry in a way not seen since Intel launched the 4004.
In a predictable twist, an anonymous RISC-V fan has launched the site arm-basics.com which flips Arm's arguments on their head - and, in the spirit of the RISC-V open-source effort, has a GitHub repository to which changes can be contributed.
Following considerable backlash, Arm has removed the site; the company has not, however, commented on the matter publicly.
March 25 2020 | 14:00