Yes, it is very unfortunate that Intel further and further ties this closed ME into their ecosystem. We have to watch this very closely and at the point where a full working ME is inevitable for the system to reasonably work, latest then we have to split ways with Intel - except Intel would open up the ME in some way too.
But the problem really is that there are, right now at least, no serious alternatives. The AMD PSP can not be inhibited at all (in contrast to the HAP bit in Intel). The RISC-V ecosystem is looking promising since it seems to inspire more openness at the other silicon block vendors (like GPU etc.), but a free ISA is not a guarantee for that in any way. The ISA is just one piece of the puzzle.
But what I hope for is “leading by example”. For the past decades the silicon industry was super closed, pretty much anything in it was highly proprietary, patented etc. That’s how companies like ARM made their fortune, they “license” this “IP” (intellectual property, I hate this word) to others to combine their proprietary blocks plus some of their own into silicon. Or Intel, AMD etc. who do all of that on their own, even down to the silicon level with their own fabs and silicon processes. This very proprietary way of working in the silicon industry has worked for them for many years, basically since the invention of the very silicon chip in the 1960s.
But we are now reaching an inflection point, I think. A similar change that happened in the software industry is now starting to happen in the silicon industry and by that I mean the change that free and open source software has brought.
Two or three decades ago the world was almost 100% dominated by fully proprietary software. Software was treated as the holy grail of the industry, pretty much like the proprietary silicon technologies are now. Software was a great revenue and profit machine! Once developed you can make copies of it that cost almost nothing anymore (this was before the internet where you had to make physical copies on disks Same goes for the silicon IP, once developed it does not cost you anything anymore, except lawyer fees probably. So it’s a great way to make a big profit!
But it also comes at a price. If you are the sole owner of that IP then also you are also the sole proprietor of the eco system around it, like additional tools, development tools, derivative development, drivers, applications etc.
With the advent of free and open source software (FLOSS) the case was made that such FLOSS software has the potential and quality to be equal to commercial offerings. Soon the proprietary makers discovered that they could leverage that too and lower their burden of proprietary development cost by using FLOSS where possible without sacrificing their “IP”.
I worked in the embedded electronics industry for most of my career and took part in this development. In the beginning it was very hard to find chips at all that you could develop for with FLOSS, almost anything came with their own proprietary Windows only toolchains, libraries and even debug tools. You had to spend thousands of $$$ just to setup a development seat. Today an almost laughable idea. Today most chips come with a FLOSS toolchain, use standard debugging interfaces which are cheap to source, software development kits (SDK) are expected to be very close to FLOSS with as little as possible proprietary binary code etc.
I think because of two concepts that got recognized and valued. First of course on the proprietor side (the chip makers), they save a lot of development cost by not having to maintain their own proprietary stack of tools. They can focus on their product and what makes their product really special and shine. But also on the user’s / developer’s side FLOSS is now fully accepted and more and more expected. FLOSS allows the developers to look into the code, to modify it to their needs and requirements, to tailor mix and match what they need to make their awesome next new product. They are freed from the shackles of proprietary tools and all the confinements that these came with, more and more you can use the same toolchain for many different chips and projects which lowers the entry barrier massively.
And I think this exact same thing is now happening with the silicon industry through RISC-V. RISC-V is leading by example and the RISC-V foundation is doing a pretty good job fostering this new sharing economy in a new silicon industry emerging. Now silicon integrators for the first time can tune every bit of their CPU based silicon to their specific needs. Something that was almost impossible with ARM cores so far, only ARM (with very few exceptions) was able to do that before - and not talking about Intel or AMD here since these are playing in a whole different league, they do not license anything to anyone, they are the sole providers in their world.
The other thing the silicon industry now starts to recognize through the concerted RISC-V efforts is that by sharing not only CPU designs based on the same ISA but also necessary building blocks, like an internal bus system, a memory controller, basic blocks for interfaces like UART, I2C, SPI, USB or PCIe etc., by sharing this they can be way faster and a lot cheaper developing their own special chip with what they see as their unique business proposition.
Western digital is a good example for that, a huge sponsor of the RISC-V foundation and ecosystem. Why? Because they do not care at all about the CPU core they use in their harddisk or SSD controller chips. Their special knowledge and IP sits around that CPU core, it is the motor control logic, the error correction algorithms etc. This is what makes their product, not the little CPU core. With RISC-V they now have the means to influence that CPU core and its ISA in their favor and they of course benefit a lot from the work that others do which in the end provides them with better and better CPU cores to use in their storage controllers - for free. So instead of paying ARM a fortune for CPU core licenses in which they have little interest apart from that they need one, they now shift their focus to investing into RISC-V, not having to pay royalties for the CPU core anymore and benefiting the eco system which in the end gives them a return in the form benefiting also from other people’s work. Win-win.
Another good example are tiny microcontrollers used in so called motor controllers, chips that control speed, torque, position etc. of motors. Imagine your digital camera for example. In an average digital camera there are over a dozen such motor controllers at work! Focus, aperture, lens shift etc. The IP of the motor controller silicon makers is not in the CPU core of these controllers but in the driver logic around them. They do not care if the tiny CPU core is an ARM or anything else. In the recent years ARM has been the most convenient choice for them and that’s why most of them are based on tiny ARM M0 cores. But this is not a requirement. And here RISC-V will thrive - and I actually predict that this will be one of the first high adoption fields of RISC-V, embedded microcontroller cores. These chip makers of e.g. motor controllers (like e.g. Toshiba) can save millions and millions of $ by switching from ARM to RISC-V, with little effort and without loosing much or anything at all. They will even benefit because then they can finally tweak the CPU core itself as they see fit eventually even further improving their product. Looking back at the digital camera example, over a dozen motor controllers means over a dozen ARM CPU core licenses to pay. Even if a single one does not cost much, it adds up and cost reduction has always been a big incentive for the industry to turn.
If I would be in ARM’s position I would be really frightened. Their microcontroller business is their bread and butter business, billions of cores per year. I do not have the numbers but I would expect this to be on a steady decline from now on, which is probably also one of the reasons why Softbank is more and more desperately trying to get rid of ARM. It’s becoming a money pit.
Back to Purism, we are sadly not in the position to make our own silicon. I looked into it and it is simply not feasible. We would have to invest a multi million $ budget to make a single silicon product and would have to sell tens of thousands of devices with it afterwards. I would love to! But right now we can’t, I’m sorry.
Concerning the possible alternatives you mention, SiFive or LibreSOC, I am afraid this is not a real alternative. SiFive does not make chips, but we need chips. SiFive tries to be something like ARM, they develop silicon building blocks and try to license them to silicon makers - that’s what their StarFive offspring in China is, this is their silicon cooperation in which they are invested. We are not in a position to make our own chips based on their or any other IP. LibreSOC is a nice project but also they are “only” developing IP not a chip. We (Purism) did even sponsor LibreSOC, so we are invested in it, yes. But what we need to make a product is real silicon, the hardware, and making that silicon is immensely expensive.
If you (or anyone else) knows someone with deep pockets (starting at at least $10mio) we would love to get in touch and discuss opportunities for developing a real world SOC chip, as libre and free as possible, to be used in our and other products. Seriously, point them our way and we will do everything we can to make it happen!
But until this generous donor comes along we have to look out for the silicon that currently emerges from sources like THEAD, StarFive, Alwinner, Gigadevice etc. - do you recognize something? Hm? All Chinese…
And among the SOCs currently available and announced I have to say, well, while these are nice especially since they show what is possible already, but they are IMHO not yet good enough for a product. Gtreat RISC-V showcases! But not ready for consumer products yet. Maybe for some tinkerers that want to ride the first wave - I am for sure one of them! But for a consumer product? No, I don’t think these are usable yet. The closest right now is the StarFive JH7110 but even that lacks quite some performance, you would be pretty disappointed with it in, say, a laptop or such. This is not something we could sell yet. Maybe some, yes, but far from enough to recoup the development cost. Nevertheless I am looking into it, hopefully we can find a way to make some for the interested.
But I am pretty confident that the RISC-V ecosystem is picking up a lot of pace now. It is just a matter of time, maybe two years from now, for a decent RISC-V based SOC/CPU to emerge and when this happens, we will for sure be among the first to make a product with it!