Meet Snitch: the Small and Agile RISC-V Processor

Tests suggest it is six times faster than other comparable processors

2 min read
​Test chip showing a 24-core Snitch system.

Test chip showing a 24-core Snitch system.

Zaruba et al.

This article is part of our exclusive IEEE Journal Watch series in partnership with IEEE Xplore.

As society's insatiable demand for computing power continues to grow, so too does the need for more efficient processors. A group of researchers in Switzerland has devised a new processor design that may help meet our computational-intensive needs. It is physically small and computationally agile—and aptly named Snitch. (Harry Potter fans will get the reference.)

Florian Zaruba, a postdoc at the Integrated Systems Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich—and a researcher involved in the creation of Snitch—notes that there's a trend with commercial, general-purpose cores, which are relying on larger and more energy-hungry processors. "Snitch is the opposite," he says.

Typically, processors try to find an efficient instruction order on the fly, which requires additional hardware and thus uses more power. But Snitch is able to execute the majority of its basic instructions instantaneously, bypassing the need for this extra, burdensome hardware.

Because of this efficient computing approach, Snitch—built around the streamlined, RISC-V chip architecture—can perform most basic instructions within a single clock cycle. As well, it was designed to execute longer latency instructions without stalling and waiting for their completion. "This leads to a very compact and high-performance design compared to conventional processors that achieve high performance," explains Zaruba.

Zaruba and his colleagues describe their design in a study published October 7 in IEEE Transactions on Computers, where they compared it to other benchmark designs. They found that a single Snitch processor with its custom extensions was two times more energy efficient than the other processors analyzed in the study. When multiple processors were used in parallel, Snitch proved to be 3.5 times more energy efficient and up to six times faster than the others.

Notably, there are other hardware components, such as GPUs, that also outperform standard processors in computing speed—but such feats tend to be for highly specialized tasks. Snitch, on the other hand, is much more versatile, performing a variety of tasks while still executing calculations quickly and efficiently.

On the other hand, Zaruba notes, Snitch is more complicated to program. Still, he says that he strongly believes energy efficiency will be the number one priority for next generation computers, and that Snitch's energy efficiency will make it appealing despite its more complex programming requirements.

The researchers have made Snitch's hardware design freely available, and note that they have seen growing interest from industry consortia, for example from the Open Hardware Group, in supporting commercialization efforts.

Moving forward, the team plans to build larger systems based on Snitch. "While we could already demonstrate a very energy-efficient and versatile 8-core Snitch cluster configuration in silicon, there are exciting opportunities ahead in building computing platforms scalable to thousands of Snitch cores, even spreading over multiple chiplets," says Zaruba, noting that his team is currently working towards this goal.

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Can This DIY Rocket Program Send an Astronaut to Space?

Copenhagen Suborbitals is crowdfunding its crewed rocket

15 min read
Five people stand in front of two tall rockets. Some of the people are wearing space suits and holding helmets, others are holding welding equipment.

Copenhagen Suborbitals volunteers are building a crewed rocket on nights and weekends. The team includes [from left] Mads Stenfatt, Martin Hedegaard Petersen, Jørgen Skyt, Carsten Olsen, and Anna Olsen.

Mads Stenfatt

It was one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen: our homemade rocket floating down from the sky, slowed by a white-and-orange parachute that I had worked on during many nights at the dining room table. The 6.7-meter-tall Nexø II rocket was powered by a bipropellant engine designed and constructed by the Copenhagen Suborbitals team. The engine mixed ethanol and liquid oxygen together to produce a thrust of 5 kilonewtons, and the rocket soared to a height of 6,500 meters. Even more important, it came back down in one piece.

That successful mission in August 2018 was a huge step toward our goal of sending an amateur astronaut to the edge of space aboard one of our DIY rockets. We're now building the Spica rocket to fulfill that mission, and we hope to launch a crewed rocket about 10 years from now.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is the world's only crowdsourced crewed spaceflight program, funded to the tune of almost US $100,000 per year by hundreds of generous donors around the world. Our project is staffed by a motley crew of volunteers who have a wide variety of day jobs. We have plenty of engineers, as well as people like me, a pricing manager with a skydiving hobby. I'm also one of three candidates for the astronaut position.

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