The giant of Cambridgeshire (Part 2) - The RISC philosophy

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The RISC philosophy

Having used the term RISC to describe the ARM chip that powered the Archimedes, and because the same tag can be applied to today’s ARM technology, it makes sense to start by investigating this approach to the design of a microprocessor. To do that, we need to begin with a brief history lesson.

Early 8-bit microprocessors like the Intel 8080 or the Motorola 6800 had only a few simple instructions. They didn’t even have an instruction to multiply two integer numbers, for example, so this had to be done using long software routines involving multiple shifts and additions. Working on the belief that hardware was fast but software was slow, subsequent microprocessor development involved providing processors with more instructions to carry out ever more complicated functions. Called the CISC (complicated instruction set computer) approach, this was the philosophy that Intel adopted and that, more or less, is still followed by today’s latest Core i7 processors. This move to increasingly complicated instructions came at a cost. Although the first microprocessors could execute most of their instructions in just a handful of clock cycles, as processors became more complicated, significantly more clock cycles were required.

In the early 1980s a radically different philosophy called RISC (reduced instruction set computer) was conceived. According to this model of computing, processors would have only a few simple instructions but, as a result of this simplicity, those instructions would be super-fast, most of them executing in a single clock cycle. So while much more of the work would have to be done in the software, an overall gain in performance would be achievable. Many RISC-based processor families adopted this approach and exhibited impressive performance in their niche application of Unix-based servers and engineering workstations. Some of these families are now long gone

but the fact that several — including IBM’s POWER, Sun’s SPARC and, of course, ARM — are giving the x86 architecture a run for its money rather suggests that less can indeed be more.

We really are talking about a minimalist approach here. In a classic RISC design, all arithmetic and logic operations are carried out on data stored in the processor’s internal registers. The only instructions that access memory are a load instruction, which writes a value from memory into a processor register, and the store instruction that does the opposite. A simple example will illustrate how this results in more instructions having to be executed. If you’ve ever tried your hand at programming using a high-level language like BASIC, you’ll surely have written an instruction like A = B + C that adds together the values in variables (memory locations) A and B, and writes the result to another variable called C. With a CISC processor, this one instruction would become three as shown in the following example, which is for a typical processor:

·         LOAD A

·         ADDB

·         STORE C

In this example, the LOAD instruction writes the value from memory location A into the processor’s accumulator (a special register used for arithmetic and logic operations), the ADD instruction adds the value from memory location B to the value in the accumulator, and the STORE instruction writes the value from the accumulator into memory location C. In a RISC processor, the following instructions would be needed. It’s important to note that a RISC processor has several registers, not just the accumulator, so these have to be specifically referred to as RI and R2 for example) in the instructions.

·         LOAD A, RI

·         LOAD B. R2

·         ADD R1, R2

·         STORE R2,C

Description: ARM evolved from a research division at Acorn Computers. The company responsible for the hugely influential BBC Micro

ARM evolved from a research division at Acorn Computers. The company responsible for the hugely influential BBC Micro


Learn to program ARM chips

Get to grips with the mbed rapid prototyping platform

Given that ARM can trace its ancestry back to the educational market, it’s perhaps appropriate that the company has launched an initiative that represents a return to its roots. In those early days of the BBC Micro, if you wanted to do something useful with the hardware, it often meant rolling up your sleeves and creating some BASIC code. In an attempt to get people programming again, ARM has launched the mbed rapid prototyping platform, which simplifies the process of developing code for ARM processors. The name mbed comes from the concept of an embedded application, the name given to an application that runs in the background, perhaps in something like a microwave or a washing machine, often completely unbeknown to the user.

Although you’d have to buy a development board a small circuit board containing an ARM processor and the necessary circuitry to interface it to external hardware and costing from around $56 — the associated C/C++ compiler is freely available at You can find all the necessary project documentation on the mbed website, along with a large collection of ARM code, contributed by other mbed users, that you are free to adapt for use in your own software.

If you’re still to be convinced that mbed is for you, you might be interested to know that an ARM-powered robot arm has solved the world speed record for solving the Rubik’s Cube, and other exciting amateur projects have involved racing robots around a track and controlling a remote weather station.

Description: Learn to program ARM chips

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