European Union Seeks Chip Sovereignty Using RISC-V

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The European Union invests heavily in initiatives to achieve chip independence using the RISC-V open-source architecture. This effort is led by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, which has been a pioneer in the development of RISC-V technology.

European Union leaders recently opened several initiatives to promote the development of RISC-V-based chips—in response to anxiety over member countries’ reliance on foreign companies for semiconductors. The recent global chip shortage, which has disrupted supply chains and highlighted the importance of chip sovereignty, exacerbated that concern.

RISC-V is an open-source instruction set architecture that no one company owns. This makes it an attractive option for the E.U., allowing for greater flexibility and security.

The Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), one of the leading research centers in Europe, is playing a pivotal role in the development of RISC-V-based chips. 

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To learn more about the European semiconductor initiatives and the role of the BSC, EE Times spoke with Mateo Valero, director of the Barcelona Supercomputer Center, and Teresa Cervero, leading research engineer at BSC.

The BSC leads several RISC-V projects, including the European Processor Initiative (EPI) and its OpenChip spinoff. EPI is a €70 million project that aims to develop a new generation of high-performance RISC-V processors. OpenChip is a company that will commercialize the BSC’s RISC-V technology.

The BSC started creating its chips with the Lagarto family of CPUs, with the first tapeout in May of 2019, in 65 nm. “Today, we are on the fourth generation of the Lagarto core targeting 7 nm and beyond in the near future,” Valero said.

The BSC also works with other European companies and research institutions to develop a complete RISC-V ecosystem, including software tools, compilers, and operating systems.

Mateo Valero said these initiatives aim to reduce Europe’s reliance on American and Asian chipmakers. He points out that the lack of a solid European chip industry is a significant security vulnerability, making Europe dependent on foreign suppliers for critical technologies. “RISC-V is the Linux of hardware. It is an open-source ISA that no one company owns. This makes it an attractive option for the E.U., as it allows for greater flexibility and security,” he said.

Prof. Mateo Valero (source: BSC)

The E.U. needs to invest in chip manufacturing to become more competitive 

Teresa Cervero, who works from the BSC on European RISC-V initiatives, brings a balanced perspective. She agrees that chip sovereignty is essential for Europe’s security and economic interests. 

Cervero points out that RISC-V is an ideal platform for achieving chip sovereignty because it is open-source and royalty-free. While acknowledging Europe’s strengths in knowledge and design, she cautions against unrealistic expectations of complete independence, highlighting the complex ecosystem of the semiconductor industry. 

“Europe is strong in knowledge and has potential for the design and development of solutions. From the public and private entities, there is a certain movement to reinforce the manufacturing stage, creating infrastructures (clean rooms) for it. A medium-term bet will require not only economic investment but also talent to be able to exploit the facilities,” she acknowledged.

Dr. Teresa Cervero (Source: BSC)

The BSC wants the next MareNostrum 6 to use RISC-V processors

Initially, the BSC tried to use Arm-based processors for its supercomputers. They even used the chips from Samsung’s Galaxy 4 smartphones. “We extracted the chips from the phones and connected thousands of them,” said Valero.

After Brexit and the SoftBank acquisition of Arm, Valero understood that the E.U. had a problem: there wouldn’t be any more proprietary European processors. “That was until seven years ago, when RISC-V appeared, which is like the Linux of hardware; this opened the possibility for anyone in the world, including Europe, to make processors. Because America, Europe, or China don’t decide the instruction set, the instruction set is global.”

In 2019, Mateo Valero convinced the European Commission to help start making RISC-V-based chips for supercomputing. That’s when the European Processor Initiative began.

EPAC 1.5 chip on daughtercard (Source: EPI)

“EPI is an industrial project where there will be three European companies, one of them our OpenChip, a spinoff of the BSC, which would continue as an independent company all that we’ve done at the BSC for years and we’ll help them, they’ll try to take those developments to make them competitive with Nvidia,” said Valero. “Of course, Nvidia has 200-story skyscrapers. We started with a shack. In three years, we want to make real chips that are very competitive, and the big goal is that in six years, the MareNostrum 6 will use RISC-V-based chips.”

A long way to go for Europe

Teresa Cervero mentioned Gaiser, Esperanto Technologies, Semidynamics, and Codasip as examples of European companies offering RISC-V products. Still, their solutions are more focused on processors or accelerators instead of SoCs or platforms to be used as final solutions.

Furthermore, she mentioned that “there is still a lack of entrepreneurship around RISC-V in Europe (there are not many startups or SMEs) offering services, products or solutions to the market. Perhaps it is too soon for that or not yet very attractive.”

Cervero cautions against unrealistic expectations of complete sovereignty and calls for strategic collaboration to navigate the complex world of semiconductors. “It is very difficult for me to believe that Europe, or any other region, can be sovereign and independent in the semiconductor industry. There are many factors at play: raw materials, precision machinery, knowledge…,” she said, “Europe can bet on manufacturing technologies (<7nm). Below this, the costs are too high… for the moment. […] The semiconductor industry is interested in betting on RISC-V as a strategic line. Well-known companies are investing in it, although there is still no public information about their results.” 

Despite these challenges, the European Union is making significant progress in achieving chip sovereignty using RISC-V. The BSC is playing a leading role in these efforts, and its work is helping to make Europe a leader in developing RISC-V technology.

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