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Why we’ve levelled up on RISC-V

Author: Shreyas Derashri 

There’s no question that disruption is coming to the CPU industry. RISC-V is here to provide an open-source alternative to proprietary CPU instruction set architectures, providing the industry with a wider choice of chip designs with greater potential design flexibility. It’s not all hype either. Established players are putting their support behind the ISA, helping to drive greater momentum to the ecosystem. For example, Google has announced that it will now support RISC-V as a Tier 1 platform for its Android operating system.

Imagination announced its entry into the RISC-V space in December 2021 with Catapult, a RISC-V CPU product line designed from the ground up for next-generation compute needs. The first fruits of this appeared in June 2022 when we announced at Embedded World the availability of IMG RTXM-2200 CPU, a scalable, real-time, 32-bit embedded design for markets such as storage/SSD controllers, security enclave, network processors and SoC helper cores.

However, we aren’t seeking to merely take advantage of the RISC-V space–we wish to not only grow but to drive that ecosystem to make it successful for all. To that end, we are excited to upgrade to Premier Membership level on the RISC-V International and join the Board of Directors as well as the Technical Steering Committee. What that means is that we’re not just going to take advantage of the RISC-V ecosystem, but to contribute our knowledge and experience, to grow the space for everybody.

A heterogeneous compute vision

RISC-V is a clean-slate ISA that offers simplicity, modularity, and extensibility. However, we understand that it isn’t in and of itself a magic bullet for better chips. You still need deep-skilled knowledge and Imagination has over 25 years of experience delivering efficient, flexible GPU, AI and CPU IP.

The constructs upon which the industry is built, such as Moore’s law, Dennard scaling and Amdahl’s law have started to break down. That’s why to increase performance and power efficiency we must create heterogeneous compute solutions: bringing together different technologies to provide the right solutions as per market needs.

But every journey begins with a first step and thanks to the aforementioned IMG RTXM-2200, as well as a RISC-V Firmware processor inside our latest GPUs, Imagination has made a running start.

We also are demonstrating our commitment to RISC-V with a roadmap that expands on our performance-dense real-time cores to more performant solutions for markets such as automotive, and then onto ultra-high-end cores that will power rich OSs for smartphones and personal computers.

A community player

While we are happy to offer our own IPs and to be a one-stop shop for your IP needs we are not exclusive. If you already have a RISC-V CPU solution that’s a good fit, our IP can work alongside and we have years of silicon-proven experience helping our customers integrate our IP into their designs. To take just one example, the Alibaba Roma is the first laptop to be powered by a RISC-V core, and it includes an Imagination GPU and NNA inside. At Embedded World 2023, we will have several RISC-V-based solutions featuring our GPU technology so do come by and check them out if you’re attending.

RISC-V ISA is open source, and we want to be a key part of its journey to wide adoption. We understand the need for an open ecosystem and fully embrace it. Some of our GPU drivers are now open source and are up-streamed to the Mesa repository. We also support open standards, such as OpenCL, OneAPI, Vulkan and SYCL and believe that the industry should focus on API consistency to ensure a great developer experience.

The importance of software

Of course, hardware is only part of the story; software plays a crucial role. To that end our
Catapult SDK is fully-featured, available for free, and can be used with any RISC-V solution. It includes enhanced versions of industry-standard build and debug tools such as GCC, LLVM and GDB, optimised C libraries, and Imagination’s IDE: Catapult Studio. This is based on Visual Studio, a modern environment familiar to all current and up-and-coming developers, making it easier for them to deliver applications that offer the best possible performance.

Education, education, education

Imagination has always placed great importance on the next generation of engineers and developers, and we have offered courses at universities around the world that enables students to get hands-on with real-world silicon. Currently, we offer an award-winning RISC-V training course for next-gen programmers to help give them real-world skills, which you can read all about on our blog.

Working together

We believe that it is an exciting time for the RISC-V community and that only by embracing change can we provide new opportunities for both established players such as us, and new entrants into the industry. With our new role on the RISC-V board and technical steering committee, we hope to make a significant contribution to the RISC-V community and bring success to all. Onwards and upwards!

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