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Why you should care about RISC-V

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Hardware

If you haven’t heard about the RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) processor, it’s an open-source (open-hardware, open-design) processor core created by the University of Berkeley. It exists in 32-bit, 64-bit, and 128-bit variants, although only 32- and 64-bit designs exist in practice. The news is full of stories about major hardware manufacturers (Western Digital, NVidia) looking at or choosing RISC-V cores for their product.

But why should you care? You can’t just go to the local electronics boutique and buy a RISC-V laptop or blade server. RISC-V commodity hardware is either scarce or expensive. It’s all still early in its lifespan and development, not yet ready for enterprise tasks. Yet it’s still something that the average professional should be aware of, for a number of reasons.

By now everyone has heard about the Meltdown and Spectre issues, and related “bugs” users have been finding in Intel and AMD processors. This blog is not about how hard CPU design is – it’s hard. Even harder than you realize. The fear created by these bugs was not that there was a problem in the design, but that users of these chips had no insight into how these “black boxes” worked, no way to review code that was outside their control, and no way to audit these processors for other security issues. We’re at the mercy of the manufacturer to assure us there are no more bugs left (ha!).

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