Day 2 keynote and OpenPOWER blows the doors off: royalty-free, open soft-core (RISC-V sweating gallons)

Holy monkeys of Mars. What a morning at the OpenPOWER Summit Keynote (Day 2)! I swear I'm not paid to write this stuff except for the trivial pittance from ads that goes to maintain the domain name (I'm writing this on my lunch break!). I'm just an old-timer Power ISA bigot who's finally seeing the faith pay off. And boy howdy did it.

Let's hit the big news right now. A reasonable criticism I hear of the OpenPOWER movement is that the ISA isn't, or at least wasn't (oops, spoiler), the open part. This is something that RISC-V in particular could claim superiority on. Somebody at IBM was listening, because today Ken King, general manager of OpenPOWER at IBM, announced "we are licensing [the ISA] to the OpenPOWER Foundation so that anyone can implement on top of it royalty-free with patent rights" (emphasis mine). That's a quote right off the livestream. ISA changes will be "done through the community" with "an open governance model" and a majority vote for ISA expansions and changes.

Let me spell out what this means: you, yes, you, can go out and make your own Power ISA chip and not have to pay IBM. OpenPOWER is now truly open.

The other surprise wasn't OpenCAPI; the announcement that it and the Open Memory Interface are moving into the OpenCAPI Consortium is welcome, but expected. What was the other big news is that the OpenPOWER Foundation is moving into the Linux Foundation. There were already close ties between them before but now the OpenPOWER Foundation will be a component of it, albeit still with its own board, governance structure and decision making.

This announcement was definitely not all talk, because they also introduced Microwatt: a Power ISA soft core. Yes! You can drop it in your design as soon as they upload it!

Anton Blanchard from IBM OzLabs in Canberra announced this one, which was actually demonstrated at the show. Now, this is a very basic core: it's single issue in-order (so your old clamshell blueberry iBook will thrash this), and it doesn't even have hardware divide or cache support yet, though this is planned. In fact, the gcc they used was even hacked to not issue divide instructions. But the darn thing actually works. Here's the super-polished block diagram:

MicroPython is provided, so you can drop this into your design and then talk to it. Here it is in the simulator (which took a couple seconds to compute the answer):

On real hardware it is definitely quicker. Here's the core running on an old Xilinx Artix-7 he found doing nothing in the office computing the Fibonacci sequence:

Xilinx was on stage as a sort of sponsor thing, naturally, so they also gave Anton an Alveo to try this on. They crammed forty cores onto it, and then made it say "Hello World" over and over, because that's exactly what I would do with an expensive programmable piece of hardware. (This is where the name "Microwatt" is kind of crummy, because saying "40 microwatts on an Alveo" sounds like a power consumption benchmark.)

The repo as of this writing is not yet live on Github, but should be within the next day or so.

I'm giving Anton a hard time here because his segment actually was the part of today's keynote that impressed me most. Microwatt is real and tangible and you can work on it, and it can scale from hobbyist to enterprise. This is what really put the "open" into OpenPOWER and I was so delighted to see it run.

I will say I see perhaps a little worry from IBM that RISC-V is going to steal the initiative and momentum, and this move (and the open soft core) is their attempt to recapture the vanguard. RISC-V people should actually be happy about this move: at minimum it means they're being taken seriously at the corporate level, it gets more people thinking about open architectures, and the more truly open architectures out there, the more viable and expected the concept becomes. OpenPOWER is the biggest fish in this sea and (with my bias showing) the most powerful, the most ready for migration and the most well-rounded of all of them, but with more water in the pool everyone can swim farther.

After all of that the rest of it was comparatively pedestrian. Red Hat was also there; Michael Cunningham gave a speech which was largely corporate happy talk, but I think he meant it, and I'm hopeful the big blue and little red merger will generate something of the same rich burgundy shade of my SGI Indigo2. Facebook was there too but their presentation was cloyingly light on tech and heavy on smarm, and I think Facebook is ruining the Internet and the psyche of all who touch it, so that's all I'm going to say about that.

The panel at the end was asked to react to the news, which was a little silly, because what else were they going to say? On stage were Derek Chiou, partner system architect at Microsoft and associate professor at UT-Austin; Alan Clark, CTO for SUSE; Tim Pearson, CTO for Raptor; Bapi Vinnakota, engineer from Netronome; Steve Hebert, CEO for Nimbix and Peter Rutten, research director within IDC's Enterprise Infrastructure Practice. They all thought it was cool, because it is cool.

Microsoft was an interesting choice, but Dr. Chiou was complimentary, saying, "we're very supportive of the open source ... Microsoft sees that's where things are going." He also observed, to my interest, that "the interconnect is more important than the ISA." I'm not sure how true that is but I do agree with him that the ability to openly connect is certainly something that's been overlooked, and we need open tooling to make all of this possible. However, the best panel quote was this one, name censored to protect the innocent: "I'm a pretty incompetent developer, so ... [pauses] Python." Yep. Python definitely is the language of incompetent developers. :D (Hey, I got honourable mention in the obfuscated Perl contest one year! I couldn't resist.)

Tim put it best, though, when he said that "it's going to allow people to trust their computers again." That's why we're using OpenPOWER hardware in the first place. Mendy Furmanek, president of the OpenPOWER Foundation, closed up and said that "Christmas has to end sometime," but we got a whopper of a present today. The party's about to get started and IBM deserves all the credit for a move that really is courageous.

Read yesterday's Day 1 coverage for more if you haven't already.


  1. "RISC-V people should actually be happy about this move"

    Believe me, we are!

    This and MIPS's less-than-open moves and ARM's recent licensing changes show that we're doing something very right.

    I love PowerPC and did extensive assembly language programming (including Altivec) on it in the '94-'04 timeframe (dual G5 box was a beast I still miss) but quite frankly RISC-V has got the superior ISA now -- especially in the modularity.

    The top RISC-V implementations right now are more or less in the PPC603e space (though at much higher MHz). They'll be in late G4/G5 space in another year or two. So it's going to be a while before current Power or Core or Ryzen are even relevant competitors to RISC-V.

    Meanwhile RISC-V is doing very well in the embedded space where Power doesn't and won't play. Pretty much everyone with some home-grown internal ISA is switching, along with a lot of ARC or xtensa users. For all those, the RISC-V toolchain and ecosystem is already superior and improving rapidly. ARM doesn't have much to worry about at present, but they're losing a few sales too.

    Power going open can only help the RISC-V story at the moment.

    1. I won't dispute a great deal of what you've said even though I politely contest RISC-V's current performance capability, but I will strenuously dispute this:

      "RISC-V is doing very well in the embedded space where Power doesn't and won't play."

      This is totally false. There are thousands to millions of Power-based microcontrollers out there, particularly in networking, and more being used. RISC-V certainly does have a role to play here but not because Power, or for that matter ARM or MIPS, have abdicated that space.

    2. I would love to learn how RISC-V's ISA is, at all, superior to many competing architectures, particularly POWER, or how it is any more modular. Genuinely curious. Especially after the factually-uneducated remark regarding the status of the embedded space.

      To make matters worse, first you say the ISA is superior (without elaborating), then go on to say it is "in the PPC 603e space", and has yet to catch up to "G4/G5 space", and let's not even mention POWER9. It sounded like an absolute contradiction, although it could have just been that you meant something else entirely, and just made horrible wording choices.

      As far as I can see, RISC-V, for the longest time, has always been a _relatively_ irrelevant architecture, but that whatever relevance it _might_ have had, now it doesn't anymore with these latest announcements. Well, though I guess it serves as healthy competition to keep other competing architectures in check. A "proxy architecture".

  2. These comments are hilarious to read 4 years later.


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