How WD Plans to Lead Major Changeover to RISC-V Processing

RISC-V systems on chips represent a great deal of new promise for the IT infrastructure business and could become the Next Big Thing inside devices ranging from thumb drives to servers.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Talk about going "all in," and fast. Western Digital, the storage hardware artist formerly known as WD, boldly predicted Nov. 28 that it is going to sell more than 1 billion new RISC-V core processors within the next two years.

RISC-V (pronounced "risk-five") is an open instruction-set computing architecture based on established reduced instruction set computing (RISC) principles. It is an open-source project available to anybody who wants to get involved.

WD also is repositioning itself from being known as a data storage maker to simply a "data" company. Of course, it will always make devices that house data, but it is now focusing on producing new products, such as systems on chips (SOCs), custom chipsets, various software applications and other items.

It will be an interesting trick to leapfrog from zero to 1 billion new products sold, because WD nor anybody else makes very many RISC-V cores right now. WD pays its bills by being among the world market leaders in making conventional hard disk drives, hybrid drives and solid-state drives for all types of computers.

WD Changing Its Market Focus

Thus, the San Jose, Calif.-based company's direction has been rechanneled in the last 11 months. It may or may not be a coincidence that this has all started last January, when new CTO Martin Fink moved over after 31 years at Hewlett-Packard Co., discovered the RISC-V opportunity and community and saw the potential impact the relatively new computing architecture will have on the world.

In fact, Fink told eWEEK that this was indeed a coincidence, that he did not have RISC-V in mind when he changed jobs from Palo Alto to San Jose and from CTO of HP to CTO of WD. We'll have more on that at later date.

As a result of all this change, Fink said, WD intends to lead the industry transition toward open, purpose-built compute architectures in order "to meet the increasingly diverse application needs of a data-centric world."

"In the world of computing, there is big-data processing and fast-data processing," Fink told 300 attendees and a worldwide streaming video audience at the seventh RISC-V Workshop here on the WD campus. "Conventional architectures are mostly general-purpose in nature; they do one thing well and the other not so well. New-gen applications and workloads need to have the right type of processing at the right time and place in order to be efficient and fast. We're not going to make general-purpose systems on chips (SOCs) at WD; that has been done.

"Turns out that RISC-V does both fast data and big data very well--on an HPC (high-performance computing) basis. That's where we're going."

Examples of big-data workloads are insight, prediction, prescription and batch analytics. Examples of fast data processing are mobile, real-time results, smart machines, financial transactions and others.

Versatility is the Key for RISC-V

Adoption of RISC-V systems eventually could cut big-time into the standard-processor pipeline fed by companies such as Intel, AMD, ARM, Nvidia and others. These things are fast, they are easier for IT admins and developers to utilize, they are low-power and they perform well for any workload, Fink said.

But again, this is all future news; while the potential is great, the execution is still to come.

WD isn't going to manage this revolution all by itself, Fink cautioned. There is a fast-growing ecosystem being built around RISC-V, and it is populated by organizations such as the RISC-V Foundation, Linux Foundation, OpenFlow, OpenStack, TensorFlow, Open19 Foundation, Open Compute Project and Ceph. Companies--yes, many are competitors--such as Intel, HPE, Microsoft, Google, Qualcomm, IBM, Microsoft, AMD and others, are also members of the RISC-V association.

And this promises to be a Big Thing, Fink and others contend.

The open-source RISC-V chip architecture was created a few years ago to help developers more easily and cheaply customize processors that run their devices, and last year the industry consortium, RISC-V, was formed around the technology.

RISC-V Inventors Have Their Own Company, SiFive

The inventors of itself RISC-V are building their own business based on the architecture. SiFive, a startup founded by some RISC-V (pronounced "risk-five") inventors, including Yunsup Lee, Krste Asanovic and Andrew Waterman, launched July 11, 2016 and first showcased their own portfolio of system-on-a-chip (SoC) platforms at the RISC-V 4th Workshop in July 2016 at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

The San Francisco-based company wants to bring the broad range of benefits of open-source development—such as affordability, customization and accessibility—to a chip industry that is seeing rapid consolidation and that is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a few big vendors, such as Intel and ARM.

This is exactly the same purpose WD has.

"We want to democratize the access [to silicon development] to the customer," Jack Kang, vice president of product and business development at SiFive, told eWEEK's Jeff Burt last year.

Chip Development, Manufacturing Has Become Domain of Only a Few

The problem in the chip industry is that it's become tremendously expensive, in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars—to develop new processors, according to Kang. Moore's Law—the prediction made five decades ago about the rate of growth in the number of transistors in a chip that has driven development ever since—is coming to an end, which is helping drive up the cost of producing processors, said Yunsup Lee, a SiFive co-founder and its CTO and one of the inventors of RISC-V.

The result is that developing processors becomes the purview of a handful of vendors that need to court large customers in order to justify the high costs of developing processors, the SiFive officials said. Smaller system and device designers are getting priced out of the market for high-performance chips, and have little-to-no chance to find one that can be customized to fit their particular needs.

That situation drove the development of the RISC-V architecture and the launch in 2015 of the foundation around it. The inventors, who were with the University of California, Berkeley, saw an opportunity to apply the principles of open-source software to the chip-making business, and in the process give smaller system makers access to chips that can be easily and affordably customized for their needs.

That is what Linux and other open-source efforts have done in the software industry, and there are some groups—in particular, the Facebook-led Open Compute Project—that are trying to apply the same ideas to data center hardware systems, including servers, storage appliances and networking gear. SiFive was the first to embrace the RISC-V architecture and try to commercialize it.

WD Has the Engineering Muscle to Be a Leader

WD, which has a great deal of corporate IP and engineering muscle since it acquired both SanDisk and HGST during the last five years, wants to be the ringleader of this promising new ecosystem. Its hosting of the RISC-V Workshop this week was a clear sign of its intention.

We at eWEEK will be following developments in this sector closely.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...