On Friday, December 27, just before the turn of the decade, around fifty men and women sat on the ground floor in Western Digital's office building in Kfar Saba after a night without sleep, working on the next offering from RISC-V, the open source technology that industry-leading companies like Google, Western Digital, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Alibaba, IBM and many others are starting to adopt.
Those fifty developers, who were divided into ten teams from all fields of technological innovation in Israel and hailed from the IDF (Israel Defense Force), Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University, various startups and international technology giants like IBM, Melanox and Western Digital, were able to develop solutions in the field within 36 hours. Solutions included security protection, artificial intelligence, compression accelerator, binary code converters from ARM to RISC-V technology, and air pollution measurement sensors that can also serve as a development platform for other IoT products.
A field that is growing manifold each year
"As part of Western Digital's efforts to develop the RISC-V ecosystem and embrace innovation, we conducted the first RISC-V hackathon in Israel at our Kfar Saba's office," says Amir Fridman, Western Digital Senior Director of Corporate Development, and Capital Investment. "The hackathon itself was organized in collaboration with Mellanox and Eurolab4HPC, to further accelerate open RISC-V processing architectures, to more companies and developers here in Israel."
Why is sharing technology with developers in competing companies on your agenda?
"As a leader in data and storage infrastructure, Western Digital adopts a long-term strategy of openness. By openness, we mean open architecture. RISC-V is a transparent architecture that incorporates open interfaces and enables innovation adoption, and this is our agenda. We believe in a data centric world, instead of traditional general-purpose computing, to meet the increasingly diverse application workloads. In fact, the RISC-V field is growing by over 100% a year. A recent 2025 market survey predicts that over 62 billion RISC-V cores will be produced. This reflects a tremendous average annual growth rate (CAGR) of 146% between 2018-2025, and we are among the leaders."
Recently, Western Digital announced it will transition its product to RISC-V cores in a process that will take several years. "The transition means consumption of over billion RISC-V cores per year," says Fridman. "Western Digital has already released two generations of open RISC-V cores to the Data Center and Embedded Systems (embedded computing) so that anyone can take them and create a dedicated or multi-core processor with our core release. Our goal is to operate in the most open way. A startup and a developer can take what they need and create new technologies."
"It will be possible to create cheaper technologies"
"Every once in a while, I participate as a judge in hackathons if I think the goal is worthy. I find this augments our activities and raises awareness, "says Aharon Aharon, CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority, who came on Friday to attend the panel of judges in the hackathon, along with Itzik Parnafes, General Partner at Battery Ventures, David Goldschmidt, Vice President, Managing Director at Samsung Catalyst Fund, Dror Goldenberg, Senior Vice President of Software Architecture at Mellanox Technologies, and Professor Avi Mendelson of the Technion's Faculty of Electrical Engineering.
"One of the key goals of the Innovation Authority is to encourage companies to take risks through investment in research and development. One of the main problems of the Israeli industry is that companies need to get a license from the same technology giants, such as Intel, who also operate and control the manufacturing process. This license costs a lot of money, and in many cases - makes product production, or technology development - not financially viable."
And RISC-V is the solution?
"RISC-V came and changed the rules of the game. If ARM had absolute dominance in the field in the past, then today another architecture has evolved, called RISC-V. RISC-V is the fifth generation of the same technology and it is a game changer. Due to the simplicity of its architecture and its ability to adapt to high performance and optimize solutions more than Intel, the RISC-V immediately became an industry force, and it continues to gain momentum."
And how does the Innovation Authority fit in here?
"Huge companies like Apple, for example, can buy a license from ARM, the company that develops the technology, and on that basis, continue to develop processors for their products. The problem for many Israeli companies is that they want to develop relatively low price products, and the license can be very expensive. The Innovation Authority has created a free consortium called GenPro, where we develop solutions based on this architecture that software and device companies can use. In other words, the Innovation Authority has created intellectual property, which members of the consortium can use free of charge, thus providing Israeli companies with open source processors and applications at a relatively low price so that companies can continue to work on and develop their own technologies."
Natty Buhbut, Chairman of GenPro consortium, Senior Firmware Developer in Mellanox Technologies, also took part in the GenPro Hackathon. “The [GenPro] consortium was founded in conjunction with the Innovation Authority with the goal of developing an Israeli processor based on RISC-V technology for industry and academic leading companies. This is an open source processor with a very mature software layer and toolchain that can be found on the network to help Israeli startups and corporations develop advanced technologies. The hackathon is a great platform to promote short time development projects. I am pleased to see here the RISC-V’s local industry growth adoption."
Quick jump in development
"As part of the desire to push forward innovation and entrepreneurship within Mellanox, I brought the concept of the hackathons to the company," says Dror Goldenberg, Senior Vice President of Software Architecture at Mellanox Technologies, which co-sponsored the Hackathon. "I really believe in the idea of the hackathon because it allows teams to make a very quick jump. A lot of projects that didn't take off before the hackathon, or that the executives didn't believe in, suddenly take off with the help of this process. This happens because the team is concentrated only on that specific mission and from there it’s possible to really move forward. This is why I always say that the hackathon is a great place to begin with. It's a microcosm where startups and entrepreneurial teams come in to develop new ideas very quickly. And indeed, in this hackathon, we've seen lots of interesting things that can be relevant to the industry."
The first place winning team in the hackathon was a team of IDF technology unit soldiers which implemented a RISC-V ISA extension for inst. addresses encryption using hardware concealed key to prevent control flow hijacking ; and a plugin for RISC-V GCC compiler, to enable Control-Flow Integrity (CFI) protection in cases where hardware modification is not possible.
“I think there are definitely some very interesting things that have come out of this hackathon," Goldenberg adds. "The success of the projects always depend on the developer team and the way they take the idea after the hackathon and propel it forward."
"The solutions selected for the hackathon presented a variety of leading trends in the market. Perhaps more importantly, they emphasized the advantage of RISC-V architecture to offer maximum flexibility and optimization. The team that won first place, for example, is a brilliant team that effectively implemented security expansion for RISC-V hardware commands that can only be performed in an environment of open source code,” says Fridman. "The feedback we received from the local ecosystem after the Hackathon is excellent. This is the first hackathon in Israel in the RISC-V field, and we plan to continue investing in the development of the RISC-V community in Israel, with additional collaborations, meetups, and another hackathon during 2020.”