In October 2018, India saw the launch of the first indigenously built chip, which can change the game for the Indian consumer and industrial electronics landscape. Baishakhi Dutta of the EFY Group caught up with G S Madhusudan, senior project advisor of IIT Madras to talk about their design strategies for the SHAKTI microprocessor and how it can serve the electronics community at large. Excerpt follows…
Q. Can you tell about the technology used in making the SHAKTI processor and the application area of the same?
A. The SHAKTI program was started not just as a research program, but also to develop production-ready processor cores. The latter are competitive with equivalent processors in the market and are better in areas like security and functional safety. For example,
We will be competitive with equivalent ARM cores, better in some respects perhaps lagging in one or two areas. We will know better once SHAKTI reaches wider adoption.
We are happy with what we have achieved but we still have ways to go!
The research half of the program focuses on areas like supercomputers, neuromorphic computing and security techniques. They use the production SHAKTI platform as a base to do research on publicly available platforms. This enables a seamless translation of research into products and also allows easier collaboration with other researchers.
SHAKTI aims to develop 6 families of processors, everything for what goes in door locks and smartcards to supercomputers. For that entire range, you cannot have a single design. In SHAKTI, the E-class is the lowest, then comes the C-class (for low-end mobile phones, industrial controllers), the I-class, the S-class (for servers), H-class (for supercomputers), F-class or functional safety processors (for aerospace/auto/medical applications) and finally, the T-class (for high security applications)
Q. How are the chips ensured to be at par with international standards?
A. When we evaluate the chip, there are basically 3 broad parameters: performance, power consumption and size. The instruction set (also known as the DNA of the chip) is an international standard called RISC – V. The RISC-V consortium, of which IIT-M is a founding member, is comprised of experts from around the world and has designed the RISC-V ISA to be an extensible ISA platform for building next-generation processors.
Q. What certifications and quality assurance testing have the chip gone through to ensure maximum usage?
A. SHAKTI has an open source based test methodology and a comprehensive set of test suites. This is on par with standard industry practices. We are also working on formal verification techniques. After the chip is fabricated, the foundry or the entity that manufactures the chip also does chip-level qualification testing. After that, we re-run our standard tests as well as some application tests to check for correctness, stability and performance.
Q. For how long have you started working on this?
A. Processor research at IIT-M has been going on for a long time but the SHAKTI program started around 2012.
Q. Are the chips ready for all the emerging technologies like 5G, machine learning (ML) or artificial intelligence (AI)?
A. IIT-M develops the basic cores and proves them on test chips. The startup then takes these cores and build ASICs for applications like 5G, ML and AI.
Q. How competitive is the price as compared to the chip made by the traditional manufacturers? Is it in the price advantage, upfront cost or PoV?
A. In terms of development and IP cost, it is cheaper. Ultimately the cost of the chip is tied more or less to the size of the chip. In that respect, SHAKTI cores are very optimal and competitive with contemporary cores.
Q. How do you think that open source is playing a role in chip manufacturing currently and what has made IIT Madras adopt RISC- V?
A. The computer science department of IIT Madras has been an advocate of open source and open standards for quite a long time. Hence the decision to help co-found the RISC-V consortium. The open source chip movement is just starting. How it will change the world remains to be seen.
The open source chip movement is just starting. How it will change the world remains to be seen.
Q. Do you think that RISC-V is more beneficial from a chip designer’s perspective or from a customer’s perspective?
A. RISC-V has advantages which are beneficial to both (chip designer and customer). For the designer, it allows easy design exploration and thus allowing an optimal design to be reached quicker. For the customer, it offers a choice of vendors, since a number of vendors will provide royalty free RISC-V designs.
For example a bright college kid having an idea can simply go to the SHAKTI website, takes the Verilog code, compile it, tests it out, makes any required changes and within 2-3 weeks make a new design.
Q. There are certain advantages of using RISC-V. So, how strongly do you suggest it to the Indian designers?
A. I strongly advise the Indian designers to switch over to RISC-V completely.
Q. What kind of application areas is the RISC-V platform best suited for in designing chips? How much of a contribution did it have in the SHAKTI design?
A. Pretty much any kind of design can be built with RISC-V since it is a general purpose ISA.
Q. Is the student with an idea going to the SHAKTI website related to the growth of SHAKTI?
A. Increased student use of SHAKTI will increase its adoption and also ensure availability of RISC-V trained engineers. This will help strengthen the CPU design ecosystem in India. We will soon be launching low-cost field programmable gate array (FPGA) kits to help students experiment with SHAKTI
Q. By when can we expect this kit to come out? Any tentative timeline?
A. The kits are already available. It is the software around the kit that we are creating. By July to September.
Q. Any names of such startups that you can reveal? What kind of solution areas are they into?
A. InCore Semiconductors is the first startup that uses some of the SHAKTI IP. It is founded by members of the SHAKTI team. It focuses on AI/ML systems, Security and fault-tolerant computing.
Q. Since you have made the technology open to the public for modification, so how do you monetise out of this? How is the business model running currently?
A. One of the world’s largest defence electronics company called Thales is evaluating the SHAKTI processors for aerospace applications. And they have given a fairly large grant to IIT Madras to accelerate the development of our technology. A lot of entities have started to pay funds to IIT Madras or are basically looking forward to collaborating to figure out how to use SHAKTI in their products.
As far as startups are concerned, they will provide commercial services on top of SHAKTI or provide enhancement to SHAKTI.