Over the past two weeks, significant drama has occurred in the instruction set architecture (ISA) industry. Sensing the threat of competition, Arm Holdings launched a website titled "RISC-V Architecture: Understand the Facts" at riscv-basics.com, which effectively was a platform from which Arm Holdings propagated fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the open source RISC-V ISA, in a way reminiscent of Microsoft's ill-advised "Get the Facts" anti-Linux marketing effort from 2004-2007.
RISC-V is a relatively recent open source ISA that is not subject to patent encumbrances, and is available under the BSD license. This license allows organizations that wish to implement or extend RISC-V in commercial products to not disclose their changes to the community at large. This makes it particularly appealing for commercial use in embedded devices, as licensing fees for ARM or MIPS designs—both of which are fundamentally RISC in principle—do not need to be paid.
Naturally, because of these open attributes and lack of licensing fees, RISC-V poses a significant threat to Arm's business in licensing their ISA to manufacturers, particularly for embedded and low-power use cases, such as IoT devices, and for drive controllers.
SEE: Hardware spotlight: The Raspberry Pi (Tech Pro Research)
Arm's argument against RISC-V has five points: Cost, ecosystem, security, fragmentation, and design assurance. These arguments are often awkwardly couched in misleading language.
In terms of cost, Arm argued on its site that RISC-V has "no license fee and currently no ongoing royalty model," implying that somehow royalties could be assessed ex post facto, which is an absurd assertion to make. For the ecosystem issue, Arm made a staggeringly ill-advised argument for "market choice," which a competing ISA only serves to increase, though Arm posits that RISC-V is too new to have a mature ecosystem. Likewise, Arm claims that "RISC-V based products are relatively new and have yet to benefit from years of scrutiny from partners and industry experts." Given that Arm designs suffer from Spectre and Meltdown hardware-level security flaws, this point of attack is tone deaf at best.
Further, in terms of fragmentation and design assurance, Arm attempts to make the case that the ability of IP vendors to add their own extensions to their own SoCs is a bad thing for building ecosystems, and that "verification and validation of processor designs can consume 75% of total design time," which can add to costs when building RISC-V SoCs. This permissive licensing allows companies to customize RISC-V to their needs, without the risk of exposing their operational requirements to competitors by being required to disclose these changes.
In a statement to The Register, a representative from Arm Holdings indicated that "Our intention in creating a webpage to offer key considerations around commercial RISC-V based products was to inform a lively industry debate. Regretfully, the result was something different, a page that wasn't in line with Arm's collaborative culture, so we've taken it down. Indeed, many of our own people also told us they didn't like it."
In recent months, employees publicly protesting the decisions of companies they work for has been an increasingly visible phenomenon. Microsoft employees have criticized the company for their contract with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Amazon employees have called on the company to end sales of facial recognition technology to law enforcement, and Google employees have successfully convinced the company to not renew a contract with the Department of Defense related to the "Project Maven" drone video analysis project.
The big takeaways for tech leaders:
- Arm Holdings launched a website titled "RISC-V Architecture: Understand the Facts," effectively a platform from which the company propagated fear and uncertainty about the competing RISC-V ISA.
- The website was quietly taken down following poor industry reaction and complaints from Arm employees about messaging.
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- Why Intel x86 must die: Our cloud-centric future depends on open source chips (ZDNet)
- Hi-Five Unleashed: The first Linux-capable RISC-V single board computer is here (TechRepublic)
- Amazon, Microsoft, Google employees call for companies to stop work with ICE (CBS News)
James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.