Open-source versus Proprietary ISAs

Moderator: Mark Hill (University Wisconsin)

Panelists: Dave Christie (AMD), Dave Patterson (University of Califonia, Berkeley)


Mark Hillís position statement

Mark Hill will moderate this debate and--like a referee--takes no position.


Dave Christieís position statement

Itís Not The ISA, Itís The Ecosystem!

The mainstream commercial ISAs, particularly x86 and ARM but also MIPS, SPARC and PowerPC, have served industry -- well, the whole world really -- quite well over the years.These ISAs have provided an effective standard, and standards provide stability, and stability supports strong ecosystems which in turn have enabled the tremendous breadth of applications that have changed life as we once knew it.But one canít attribute the astounding progress weíve seen over the past 2-3 decades to a particular ISA definition any more than one can accuse perceived weaknesses in these definitions for a lack of even greater progress.If any of these ISAs have become juggernauts, itís because of the ecosystems that have developed around them, and the underlying economics of those ecosystems. (This is business after all.)


How they got to that point -- how they reached the critical mass of support to pretty much take on lives of their own (ask Intel about how well IA-64 killed off x86) -- was as much about marketing, support capabilities, economics, and a dose of chance here and there, as it was about any ďarchitectural goodnessĒ of the ISA definitions themselves.As long as the ISAs provided the basics needed to support software development needs at a given point in time -- such as an instruction set that compilers could readily target, protection mechanisms and virtual memory for multi-tasking OS support -- along with commercially feasible implementations, that was really all that mattered.Many ISAs met that criteria; to the extent any of them survived, thrived, or shone brightly then faded (or were prematurely extinguished), itís been driven far more by economic factors than specific details of the ISA.


Moreover, the evolution of these ISAs, at least in the past decade or two, has for the most part demonstrated responsible stewardship, with extensions that have been carefully thought out from a benefit and need perspective, often in consultation with others in the industry.SIMD, 64-bit, machine virtualization? none of these could be viewed as a misstep.This evolution, which also takes into account the ecosystemsí needs for backwards compatibility, keeps these ISAs very much alive.These arenít your grandpaís ISAs, which were seen as a lock-in for a companyís customer base.These are the ISAs that killed those off, but only because they came in the form of implementations, and with an ecosystem model, that completely changed the economics of the industry in ways the owning companies couldnít handle.


Itís these ecosystems, and the economics achieved by the standards that these ecosystems provide, that provide a formidable hurdle for any open ISA effort that would aspire to replace them, or even achieve parity.What would they bring to the party?How many do we need -- one ring to rule them all?Who will drive and participate in them and, from a business perspective, why?


Dave Pattersonís position statement

Given that the industry has been revolutionized by open standards and open-source software -- like TCP/IP and Linux -- why is one of the most important interfaces proprietary?


While instruction set architectures (ISAs) may be proprietary for historical or business reasons, there is no good technical reason for the lack of free, open ISAs.


It's not an error of omission. Companies with successful ISAs like ARM, IBM, Intel, and MIPS have patents on quirks of their ISAs, which prevent others from using them without licenses that academia and many small companies can't afford. Even IBM's OpenPower is an oxymoron; you must pay IBM to use its ISA.


An ARM license doesn't even let you design an ARM core; you just get to use its designs. (Only about 10 big companies have licenses that allow them to design custom versions of ARM cores.) While the business is sound, licenses stifle competition and innovation by stopping many from designing and sharing their ISA-compatible cores.


Nor is it because the companies do most of the software development. Despite the value of the software ecosystems that grow around popular ISAs, outsiders build almost all of their software.


Neither do companies exclusively have the experience needed to design a competent ISA. While it's a lot of work, many today can design ISAs.


Nor are the most popular ISAs wonderful ISAs. ARM and 80x86 aren't considered ISA exemplars.


Neither can only companies that design ISAs verify them. Long ago, open organizations developed mechanisms to ensure compatibility with hardware standards, such as floating point units (IEEE 754), networking chips and switches (Ethernet), and I/O buses (PCIe). If not for such organizations, open IT standards would not be so popular.


Finally, proprietary ISAs are not guaranteed to last. If a company dies, it takes its ISAs with it. Digital Equipment's demise also terminated the Alpha and VAX ISAs.


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