open cores, ISAs, etc: what is actually open about them?

In the past few years, with the launch of RISC-V, and IBM’s OpenPOWER initiative (backed up with hardware releases such as Talos) there has been lots of talk about open hardware projects, and vendors talking about how anyone can go and make a RISC-V or OpenPOWER CPU. While there is a modicum of truth to the assertion that an upstart company could start fabricating their own RISC-V or OpenPOWER CPUs tomorrow, the reality is a lot more complex, and it basically comes down to patents.

Components of a semiconductor design

The world of semiconductors from an intellectual property point of view is a complex one, especially as the majority of semiconductor companies have become “fabless” companies, meaning that they outsource the production of their products to other companies called foundries. This is even true of the big players, for example, AMD has been a fabless company since 2009, when they spun off their foundry division into its own company called GlobalFoundries.

Usually semiconductors are designed with an automated electronics design language such as Verilog or VHDL. When a company wishes to make a semiconductor, they contract out to a foundry, which provides the company with a customized Verilog or VHDL toolchain, which generates the necessary data to generate a semiconductor according to the foundry’s processes. When you hear about a chip being made on “the TSMC 5nm process” or “Intel 7 process,” (sidenote: the Intel 7 process is actually 10nm) this is what they are talking about.

The processes and tooling used by the foundries are protected by a combination of copyright and relevant patents, which are licensed to the fabless company as part of the production contract. However, these contracts are complicated: for example, in some cases, the IP rights for the generated silicon mask for a semiconductor may actually belong to the foundry, not the company which designed it. Other contracts might impose a vendor exclusivity agreement, where the fabless company is locked into using one, and only one foundry for their chip fabrication needs.

As should be obvious by now, there is no situation where these foundry processes and tools are open source. At best, the inputs to these tools are, and this is true for RISC-V and OpenPOWER: there are VHDL cores, such as the Microwatt OpenPOWER core and Alibaba’s XuanTie RISC-V core, which can be downloaded and, with the appropriate tooling and contracts, synthesized into ASICs that go into products. These inputs are frequently described as SIP cores, or IP cores, short for Semiconductor Intellectual Property Core, the idea being that you can license a set of cores, wire them together, and have a chip.

The value of RISC-V and OpenPOWER

As discussed above, a company looking to make a SoC or similar chip would usually license a bunch of IP cores and glue them together. For example, they might license a CPU core and memory controller from ARM, a USB and PCIe controller from Synopsys, and a GPU core from either ARM or Imagination Technologies. None of the IP cores in the above configuration are open source, the company making the SoC pays a royalty to use all of the licensed IP cores in their product. Notable vendors in this space include MediaTek and Rockchip, but there are many others.

In practice, it is possible to replace the CPU core in the above designs with one of the aforementioned RISC-V or OpenPOWER ones, and there are other IP cores that can be used from, for example, the OpenCores project to replace others. However, that may, or may not, actually reduce licensing costs, as many IP cores are licensed as bundles, and there are usually third-party patents that have to be licensed.

Patents

Ultimately, we come to the unavoidable topic, patents. Both RISC-V and OpenPOWER are described as patent-free, or patent-unencumbered, but what does that actually mean? In both cases, it means that the ISA itself is unencumbered by patents… in the case of RISC-V, the ISA itself is patent-free, and in the case of OpenPOWER, there is a very liberal patent licensing pool.

But therein lies the rub: in both cases, the patent situation only covers the ISA itself. Implementation details and vendor extensions are not covered by the promises made by both communities. In other words, SiFive and IBM still have entire portfolios they can assert against any competitor in their space. RISC-V, as noted before, does not have a multilateral patent pool, and these microarchitectural patents are not covered by the OpenPOWER patent pool, as that covers the POWER ISA only.

This means that anybody competing with SiFive or IBM respectively, would have to be a patent licensee, if they are planning to produce chips which compete with SiFive or IBM, and these licensing costs are ultimately passed through to the companies licensing the SoC cores.

There are steps which both communities could take to improve the patent problems: for example, RISC-V could establish a patent pool, and require ecosystem participants to cross-license their patents through it, and IBM could widen the scope of the OpenPOWER patent pool to cover more than the POWER ISA itself. These steps would significantly improve the current situation, enabling truly free (as in freedom) silicon to be fabricated, through a combination of a RISC-V or OpenPOWER core and a set of supporting cores from OpenCores.

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