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© 1997-2006
Gareth Knight
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The concept was developed by John Cocke of IBM Research during 1974. His argument was based upon the notion that a computer uses only 20% of the instructions, making the other 80% superfluous to requirement. A processor based upon this concept would use few instructions, which would require fewer transistors, and make them cheaper to manufacture. By reducing the number of transistors and instructions to only those most frequently used, the computer would get more done in a shorter amount of time. The term 'RISC' (short for Reduced Instruction Set Computer) was later coined by David Patterson, a teacher at the University of California in Berkeley.

The RISC concept was used to simplify the design of the IBM PC/XT, and was later used in  the IBM RISC System/6000 and Sun Microsystems' SPARC  microprocessors. The latter CPU led to the founding of MIPS Technologies, who developed the M.I.P.S. RISC microprocessor (Microprocessor without Interlocked Pipe Stages). Many of the MIPS architects also played an instrumental role in the creation of the Motorola 68000, as used in the first Amigas (MIPS Technologies were later bought by Silicon Graphics).. The MIPS processor has continued development, remaining a popular choice in embedded and low-end market. At one time, it was suspected the Amiga MCC would use this CPU to reduce the cost of manufacture. However, the consumer desktop market is limited, only the PowerPC processor remains popular in the choice of RISC alternatives. This is mainly due to Apple's continuous use of the series for its PowerMac range.


CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) is a retroactive definition that was introduced to distinguish the design from RISC microprocessors. In contrast to RISC, CISC chips have a large amount of different and complex instruction. The argument for its continued use indicates that the chip designers should make life easier for the programmer by reducing the amount of instructions required to program the CPU. Due to the high cost of memory and storage CISC microprocessors were considered superior due to the requirements for small, fast code. In an age of dwindling memory hard disk prices, code size has become a non-issue (MS Windows, hello?). However, CISC-based systems still cover the vast majority of the consumer desktop market. The majority of these systems are based upon the x86 architecture or a variant. The Amiga, Atari, and pre-1994 Macintosh systems also use a CISC microprocessor.


The argument over which concept is better has been repeated over the past few years. Macintosh owners have elevated the argument to a pseudo religious level in support of their RISC-based God (the PowerPC sits next to the Steve Jobs statue on every Mac altar). Both positions have been blurred by the argument that we have entered a Post-RISC stage.
RISC: For and Against
RISC supporters argue that it the way of the future, producing faster and cheaper processors - an Apple Mac G3 offers a significant performance advantage over its Intel equivalent. Instructions are executed over 4x faster providing a significant performance boost! However, RISC chips require more lines of code to produce the same results and are increasingly complex. This will increase the size of the application and the amount of overhead required. RISC developers have also failed to remain in competition with CISC alternatives. The Macintosh market has been damaged by several problems that have affected the availability of 500MHz+ PowerPC chips. In contrast, the PC compatible market has stormed ahead and has broken the 1GHz barrier. Despite the speed advantages of the RISC processor, it cannot compete with a CISC CPU that boasts twice the number of clock cycles.

CISC: For and Against
As discussed above, CISC microprocessors are more expensive to make than their RISC cousins. However, the average Macintosh is more expensive than the WIntel PC. This is caused by one factor that the RISC manufacturers have no influence over - market factors. In particular, the WIntel market has become the definition of personal computing, creating a demand from people who have not used a computer previous. The x86 market has been opened by the development of several competing processors, from the likes of AMD, Cyrix, and Intel. This has continually reduced the price of a CPU of many months. In contrast, the PowerPC Macintosh market is dictated by Apple. This reduces the cost of x86 - based microprocessors, while the PowerPC market remains stagnant.


As the world enters the 21st century the CISC Vs. RISC arguments have been swept aside by the recognition that neither terms are accurate in their description. The definition of 'Reduced' and 'Complex' instructions has begun to blur, RISC chips have increased in their complexity (compare the PPC 601 to the G4 as an example) and CISC chips have become more efficient. The result are processors that are defined as RISC or CISC only by their ancestry.  The PowerPC 601, for example, supports more instructions than the Pentium. Yet the Pentium is a CISC chip, while the 601 is considered to be RISC. CISC chips have also gained techniques associated with RISC processors. Intel describe the Pentium II as a CRISC processor, while AMD use a RISC architecture but remain compatible with the dominant x86 CISC processors. Thus it is no longer important which camp the processor comes from, the emphasis has once-again been placed upon the operating system and the speed that it can execute instructions.


In the aftermath of the CISC-RISC conflict, a new enemy has appeared to threaten the peace. EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) was developed by Intel for the server market, thought it will undoubtedly appear in desktops over the next few years. The first EPIC processor will be the 64-bit Merced, due for release sometime during 2001 (or 2002, 2003, etc.). The market may be divided between combined CISC-RISC systems in the low-end and EPIC in the high-end.

Famous RISC microprocessors

To prove that his RISC concept was sound, John Cocke created the 801 prototype microprocessor (1975). It was never marketed but plays a pivotal role in computer history, becoming the first RISC microprocessor.

RISC 1 and 2
The first "proper" RISC chips were created  at Berkeley University in 1985.

One of the most well known RISC developers is Cambridge based Advanced Research Machines (originally Acorn Research Machines). Their ARM and StrongARM chips power the old Acorn Archimedes and the Apple Newton handwriting recognition systems. Since the unbundling of ARM from Acorn, Intel have invested a considerable amount of money in the company and have utilized the technology in their processor design. One of the main advantages for the ARM is the price- it costs less than £10.
If Samsung had bought the Amiga in 1994, they would possibly have used the chip to power the low-end Amigas.

External Links
RISC Vs. CISC: The Post-RISC Era



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