We’ve just attended our fourth RISC-V summit in China on behalf of our western semiconductor clients – and it’s been by far the largest and most impressive. It reflects China’s booming RISC-V ecosystem and underlines the huge and timely opportunity for international firms with the right technologies to enter the market and succeed.
The rise of RISC-V
When the first official RISC-V event was held in China in 2017, it was a one-day workshop with only 150 attendees. This year’s World Conference lasted a week and had more than 1,000 visitors on-site, 10,000 online and 100 companies involved.
Clearly, the show would have been even bigger if COVID hadn’t been an issue, but this didn’t stop overseas companies presenting via recorded video. And our Shanghai team was able to attend in person on behalf of our western clients.
The growth of the event reflects the rise of China’s semiconductor industry as a whole – and RISC-V in particular. China’s focus on the technology has, in fact, enabled it to start to challenge the well-established Arm ecosystem.
But, while self-sufficiency may be a priority for the nation, companies here are still very much open to overseas software tools and IP, presenting big opportunities for western firms – including those in EDA tools, silicon IP, security solutions, and software.
Often, Chinese chip firms want to use RISC-V as a platform to reach a global audience and grow outside China. And, to do that, they need a strong product – which means not being restricted to local or free solutions, especially as RISC-V applications advance into complex areas such as data centres and high-performance computing.
An opportunity to reshuffle
As an open-source instruction set architecture (ISA), RISC-V is sanction-proof and can be deployable in a chip design without royalties being due. The ISA has been implemented in various designs in the last few years and is enabling a new wave of processor and chip innovation in China via open standard collaboration – as was evident from the World Conference, where these were two key topics.
To implement a serious design, a chip company will still need to license a commercial RISC-V core, but this will cost much less than an equivalent core from Arm. So, the real value for China is the chance to decouple itself from the traditional x86- and Arm-centric supply chains and build its own RISC-V ecosystem.
Prior to 2019, most RISC-V implementations in China were microcontrollers (MCUs) for IoT devices. Small system companies could benefit from the open-source processors without paying royalties or expending too much engineering effort. But, just two years on, we can already see the emergence of more complex CPU IP and System-on-Chip (SoC) specifications, designed for applications from embedded systems to high-performance computing.
StarFive’s Dubhe series of processor cores and ICT’s Xiangshan processor core were two of the star products on show at this year’s conference - both demonstrating just how advanced the ecosystem has become.
As one of the top Chinese contributors to the RISC-V ecosystem, StarFive has consistently rolled out processor cores faster than its local competitors. The Dubhe series CPU IP now claims to deliver performance even greater than some flagship Arm processors, potentially opening opportunities for international RISC-V tool and IP suppliers as companies like Starfive look to create more advanced designs and go global.
The Xiangshan series, meanwhile, is a fully open-sourced, high-performance core developed by China’s Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), using a Linux-like open-source model to enable academic and commercial users to drive innovation in the ecosystem.
This kind of contribution is helping convince players in China that RISC-V could be a viable alternative - and perhaps even a better option - than competing solutions. And this is attracting startups and traditional semiconductor firms alike. Besides the usual Chinese suspects like Alibaba, Andes, Verisilicon, Nucleisys and StarFive, many new companies and universities were involved in the event. Even Huawei made an appearance, despite all its troubles.
Major questions ahead
Windows and x86, Android and Arm … but which operating system could align with RISC-V?
How might Nvidia’s Arm acquisition and Intel’s offer to SiFive change the state of play?
How can RISC-V have its own versions of Linaro – the non-profit organisation that supports the Arm ecosystem by offering high quality open-source software and development tools?
During the conference, the organisers ran a survey which gave a clear view of industry opinion on some of these questions. Sixty-five per cent, for example, thought Intel will acquire SiFive. And 70% thought either Huawei’s Harmony or Google’s Fuchsia operating system will dominate the AIoT market and work best with RISC-V architecture.
These discussions about RISC-V help to build understanding in the Chinese market, and so bring more companies and opportunities into the field, driving its maturity. But there are still many technical challenges facing Chinese developers before the technology can move decisively ahead.
Firstly, while the basic instruction set is frozen, many of the extensions are still draft versions and there are few standards on aspects such as security, testing and benchmarking. Obviously, it’s inconvenient if my vector instruction set is version 0.9 and yours is 1.0. Developers will need strong, flexible support for any extensions that aren’t frozen.
Secondly, there isn’t a great deal of IP yet to support sophisticated RISC-V applications. Most of the implementations still focus on the low-to-mid-end market. And RISC-V suppliers will need to benchmark their performance claims further before really shifting the major semiconductor players from the traditional Arm world.
Thirdly, improvement to the software ecosystem is needed. The RISC-V market is fragmented, thanks to its wide applications in the AIoT space and the open-source nature of the ISA. And developers must customise each hardware and software set to avoid compatibility issues.
Although we’re beginning to see a few operating systems, compilers and development tools built around RISC-V, developers would benefit from a larger set of media and runtime libraries and a mature application framework rather than relying on open-source and often low-quality solutions.
Now is the time
So, as this year’s World Conference has shown, the RISC-V space in China is taking great leaps forward, presenting both openings and challenges for international firms.
As the complexity of the field increases and RISC-V is used in more and more applications, Chinese developers will certainly need help from overseas. And we’re seeing a growing number of western IP, EDA tool and software companies moving into the market.
If your company has a technology which can contribute to the rapid development of China’s RISC-V ecosystem, now is the time to explore the opportunity.
To discuss the opportunities for your business in China’s semiconductor sector, contact Huw Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org