I was fresh out of university when I first heard about RISC V. The RISC V Foundation just set up shop and the big guys, like Google and IBM,1 were throwing their weight behind it. There was suddenly renewed interest on open-source processors, like BOOM, and many IP businesses started emerging alongside RISC V. But “open” hardware or Instruction Set Architectures (ISA) are clearly not novel ideas,2 3 4 and most certainly, neither are Reduced Instruction Set Computers (RISC). So what is so good about RISC V?

I pondered this question for some time and I will humbly provide my perspective. I first worked with computer architectures while pursuing a PhD. I then joined ARM as a CPU Architect for about a year before joining Codasip where I currently work. ARM is an established IP business that owns its well-known ISA while Codasip, among other things, provides RISC V IP and is a founding member of the RISC V Foundation. In short, I worked with both ARM, the incumbent, and RISC V, the challenger, as an engineer, so hopefully my perspective provides a slightly different insight.

I would like to stress that the opinions expressed in this post are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer. My opinion is of course that RISC V is a great project and here are three reasons why…

1. It’s Free!

And again, it’s FREE! Well, actually RISC V is sort of free. The ISA is free and “open” in the sense that anyone can download the manuals and use them however they like. For example, an enterprising group of engineers can develop and commercialize RISC V processors without paying a penny in licenses or royalties for the ISA. Anyone can configure or customize RISC V however they see fit and use it for research, business or any other purpose. Even better, anyone can choose to ignore RISC V compliance and modify it however they see fit to make a new ISA based on RISC V – we could call it RISC VI or RISC V++!

But there is a (tiny) catch! You need to be a member of the RISC V International Association to really be part of RISC V. RISC V International oversees and fosters the RISC V community including its strategy, technical committees and workgroups, technical deliveries, etc. You must be a member if you want to participate in discussions, simply ask a technical question or have any kind of influence or voice in RISC V.5 Of course, becoming a member of RISC V International costs $$$!

Therefore, RISC V is more of an open standard, like Bluetooth6 or DDR7, as opposed to a regular open-source project. The ISA specifications are available online and you can submit patches via GitHub,8 but anything significant, like a new instruction, will probably be dismissed if you are not a member and the ideas were not previously discussed in members-only forums.

NOTE: The RISC V International Association is a non-profit organization incorporated in Switzerland back in 2020 to “manage strategic risk for [the] community investing in RISC V for the next 50+ years”.9 Feel free to read that in whatever geopolitical context you like!

The good news is that RISC V International memberships are relatively cheap, that is, when compared to buying an architecture license. Also, you do not have to ask anyone’s permission to use RISC V. You just need to get on with the work! In contrast, you cannot touch proprietary IP with a ten-foot pole for ages while your organization negotiates the purchase of an architecture license with, say, ARM. And most importantly, RISC V gives you the freedom to configure, customize or modify the ISA however you want without having to ask anyone for permission, and this brings us to the second point…

2. Innovation

Imagine that you are designing a new processor optimized for machine learning applications, so you decide that it needs a matrix coprocessor. Your new processor will implement a proprietary ISA, but there is a problem! Your legal department is saying, after the requisite few weeks of delays, that you are forbidden from extending the proprietary ISA with custom instructions to easily interface with your matrix coprocessor even though you purchased an architecture license. Perhaps the restriction is in the license agreement! What do you do?

Situations like this happened before. Apple wanted a matrix coprocessor, known as Apple Matrix coprocessor (AMX), in their M1 chip which implements the (proprietary) ARMv8-A ISA.10 However, ARM “has long resisted adding custom instructions to their ISA” as Erik Engheim pointed out.11 Apple did not end up extending the ISA in the usual way; AMX instructions are posted to the coprocessor via the processor’s store unit instead.10 Also, Apple did not document AMX and we are only aware of it thanks to Dougall Johnson’s reverse engineering efforts!10 The idea of matrix coprocessors caught on and ARM eventually introduced a proper Scalable Matrix Extension (SME) for their ARMv9-A ISA although this took years and the M1 was in production by then.12

The point of this story is that closed, proprietary ISAs restrict innovation. You cannot do whatever you want with those ISAs without asking permission, and permission may not always be granted!13 This is not a problem with an open ISA like RISC V. You do not have to ask permission to extend the ISA if the current specification does not suit your needs. Extending RISC V is even encouraged and the designers helpfully point out free opcodes for custom instructions in the ISA specification!14 There is also a huge amount of freedom to tune the core components of the ISA in an implementation, like the memory model.

The freedom to extend the ISA allows engineers to create innovative and unique RISC V processors. For example, you can be sure that two processors implementing, say, the proprietary ARMv8-M ISA only differ in their microarchitecture (e.g. slightly different pipeline, perhaps a coprocessor, etc). In contrast, two RISC V processors could have a different microarchitecture and implement different (custom) ISA extensions such that one processor is great for machine learning while the other is great for real-time applications. The freedom to innovate creating these domain-specific ISA extensions, not just the microarchitecture, is specially important as we reach the end of Moore’s law and Denard scaling.

Extending the ISA is so appealing that a few years ago ARM opened up the possibility for licensees to build custom instructions.15

Additionally, the freedom to innovate with RISC V enables businesses to come up with products that have clear differentiator features, like custom instructions and coprocessors, and even entirely novel products or services. RISC V also opens up great opportunities for research. And this brings us to my final point…

3. Community

An ISA would not be complete if it does not have a great community around it. RISC V absolutely nailed this point! A great open-source, research and business community sprung up to create a rich software (compilers, operating systems, tools, etc) and hardware (processors, coprocessors, etc) ecosystem and offer IP or services around the ISA.

My employer, Codasip, is a great example of a business in the RISC V community.16 Codasip’s flagship product, Codasip Studio, is an innovative EDA toolset that allows engineers to quickly design and customize processors and ISAs. Of course, you can use Studio to customize any ISA, but it would be a hard sell if an open ISA, like RISC V, was not available and customers could only rely on proprietary ISAs that restrict innovation. Similar to Codasip, there are many other businesses and projects who depend on an open ISA, like RISC V, to exist.16


So what’s so good about RISC V? It is free, enables innovation and has a great community around it! Those are, in my opinion, the three key points that make RISC V a compelling ISA today. Personally, this is also why I decided to join the RISC V community!


  1. Here is a list of members in the RISC V Foundation. 

  2. OpenRISC 

  3. OpenPOWER 

  4. OpenSPARC 

  5. RISC V Technical Forums 

  6. Bluetooth SIG develops and maintains the Bluetooth standards 

  7. JEDEC develops and maintains the DDR (and many other) standards 

  8. RISC V’s GitHub 

  9. RISC V history 

  10. The Apple Matrix coprocessor (AMX) is largely undocumented. Developer Dougall Johnson has reversed engineered a lot of it. See here  2 3

  11. Erik Engheim, The Secret Apple M1 Coprocessor, see here 

  12. ARM, Introducing the Scalable Matrix Extension for the Armv9-A Architecture, see here 

  13. There certainly are advantages for tightly controlled ISAs. For example, the ISA does not “fragment” in the sense that processors implement the same core set of instructions, so it is easier to have software that is written once and runs everywhere. I personally still favor innovation! Solutions to mitigate problems like fragmentation exist anyway. 

  14. See Chapter 26 (Extending RISC V) from The RISC V Instruction Set Manual Volume I: Unprivileged ISA. 

  15. Kevin Krewell, Arm Responds to RISC V, and More, see here 

  16. Many of these businesses are also RISC V members. See here  2