Creating Domain-Specific Processors Using Custom RISC-V ISA Instructions


When System-on-Chip (SoC) developers include processors in their designs, they face choices in solving their computational challenges. Complex SoCs will usually have a variety of processor cores responsible for varied functions such as running the main application programs, communications, signal processing, security, and managing storage. Traditionally, such cores have been in distinct categories such as MCUs, DSPs, GPUs and application processors. Additionally, some unique architectures and instruction sets were developed for very specialized applications. However, a downside of unique instruction sets is the lack of a software ecosystem.

Today, the distinctions between classic core categories are blurring. This is because if a core is designed the right way, more than one usage can be covered by that processor. Furthermore, by creating a processor that is tuned to the needs of the SoC, the silicon efficiency in terms of area and power can be improved.

A recent catalyst for creating domain-specific processors has been the RISC-V ISA (Instruction Set Architecture). Since the usage of the ISA is open and royalty-free, it is an attractive basis on which to implement a processor design. Furthermore, the existence of a base instruction set for each word length means that software using the base instruction set can be ported to all RISC-V processors with that word length.

The RISC-V ISA is designed in a modular way, meaning that the ISA has several groups of instructions (ISA extensions) that can be enabled or disabled as needed. This allows implementing precisely the instruction groups that the domain needs, without having to pay for area or power that will not be used.

One of the groups is special; it has no standard predefined instructions. Designers can add any instruction they need for the application that they want to accelerate. This is a powerful feature, as it does not break any software compatibility and leaves space for invention and differentiation at the same time. This whitepaper describes how to add domain-specific instructions (custom ISA extensions) and how to build all the needed tools in SDK, as well as implementing the custom ISA extension in HDL (e.g. Verilog). The end result is an optimized domain-specific processor.