You might have noticed that we just announced that we have joined the RISC-V (pronounced “risk-five”) Foundation. This is a group that came out of the Computer Science Division of the EECS Department at UC Berkeley, advocating the concept of open-source Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) processors. The Foundation now has more than 100 members, showing that their concept has quite a bit of traction. The beauty of an open ISA is that there is a common architecture, instruction set, and collection of compiled code which all work together seamlessly regardless of the source. That’s a powerful idea for developers of SoCs, who until now had to choose a vendor-specific architecture and then stay within that vendor’s particular ecosystem.
The idea becomes even more powerful when you combine it with a process technology that is broadly available from a major foundry such as GLOBALFOUNDRIES, and then add embedded FPGA from a vendor such as QuickLogic. Imagine a next-generation SoC with an embedded processor designed for the GLOBALFOUNDRIES 22FDX® process. The developer chooses the RISC-V ISA, giving them not only all the flexibility associated with embedded processing but also the additional flexibility to choose the processor implementation best suited to their particular application. They can then add a library of functions from a completely different source which is known to run on the RISC-V ISA.
Next, they can add eFPGA technology from QuickLogic, which has been pre-verified for the GLOBALFOUNDRIES 22FDX process. Now they have an incredible amount of software and hardware flexibility built into their SoC, without having had to worry about interoperability or optimizing the processor or eFPGA architecture for the process node they have chosen. That high degree of flexibility really means that the SoC developer can create a platform rather than just a one-off product. And that fact has enormous consequences for the lifetime revenue and profitability of the SoC.
Let’s look at this another way. We would go so far as to say that given the high costs and long development times associated with SoCs today, nearly every developer should be thinking in terms of platforms rather than products. An open source ISA, a leading edge but broadly available process node, and embedded FPGA technology are the perfect combination for creating a flexible SoC platform. Once you have such a platform available, you can create many products, each fairly easily, spun out through a combination of software (implemented on the open source ISA) and hardware (implemented in the eFPGA technology on chip) changes. Make the big investment in the platform, and small incremental investments in delivering highly market-tuned products to your end customers. In most cases that will be the way to extract the most value from your company’s intellectual property and market knowledge.
Modifying mask sets to create new products is a time-consuming, expensive, and ultimately obsolete way of thinking. Welcome to the platform-based future that open source ISAs and eFPGA technology are helping to create.