Aaron Wasserman

@Aaronstotle

Why we need RISC-V

January 4th 2018
Open Everything

The RISC-V (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processor is a chip that is still in it’s infancy, but it’s a chip that everyone should be supporting. You might be wondering, what makes this chip so great?

The RISC-V architecture is great because it is the only processor that has a completely open source instruction set, if you want to learn more check out their website. What’s an open source instruction set? In layman’s terms, it means that the way the processor moves around 1s and 0s is available for everyone to see. The advent of what is probably the worst security bug, Meltdown and Spectre, boiled down to a flaw in the instruction set of Intel’s processors. I don’t think anyone in the security field was completely shocked, after all, a speaker at a BlackHat conference demonstrated that there were unknown instructions in the x86 architecture, and that inevitably means there are hidden bugs, it was only a matter of time before a truly devastating bug was found, in our case it was Spectre and Meltdown.

Another benefit of RISC-V is that it enables companies to develop a product that is tailored specifically to their workload, so they start with the RISC-V core and can add whatever it is they specifically need, saving both time and money. These savings can theoretically be passed on to the consumer either through a lower cost, or in the longterm by having a lower energy footprint. However, I believe the biggest benefit of RISC-V is the inherent security and peace of mind it will give to both consumers and businesses alike.

The Spectre and Meltdown bugs are huge problems in the security sphere because over 90% of the server market is owned by Intel, which means that nearly every cloud service is running on hardware that allows attackers to read data that they should not be able to access. To make matters worse, early reports indicate that after these bugs are patched, there will be a performance hit of anywhere between 4–30%, depending on the workload. I hope that these devastating new bugs will make everyone rethink how they go about designing hardware, and support products such as RISC-V.

I will confess that even if we all switched to RISC-V in the future, it doesn’t mean that all of our security woes will be left in the past, RISC-V is BSD licensed, meaning that a vendor can tailor it to themselves and keep those custom bits of code behind closed doors, and closed doors means that there is most likely a vulnerability waiting to be unearthed. The only way forward is with a future that is open and transparent, technology has become too ingrained in our society to be kept behind closed doors.

I’m a firm believer in open source because it’s the only way to achieve the kind of optimistic future that we want. AI that will be responsible for driving cars should be open for everyone to see what it does and how it works, processors that the AI runs on should be the same. As far as I know, RISC-V is the latest open source processor architecture that is currently being used or developed for a variety of products by multiple big name companies. (EDIT: ARM and SPARC are other open source processor designs) For example, Nvidia will be using a RISC-V chip onboard their GPUS and Western Digital is planning to ship a billion RISC-V units in the upcoming year. If you’re a tinkerer or someone who is a fan of small board computers such as Raspberry Pi’s or Arduino’s, SiFive, a company founded by a former student of the man who invented RISC, sells a RISC-V developer board right now.

RISC-V is an existing piece of technology with brilliant minds and monolithic companies propelling it forward, I hope that one day consumers and businesses alike will have easy access to this open architecture available on their laptops, phones, and desktops.

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