RISC Pioneers Gain Turing Award
Written by Sue Gee   
Friday, 23 March 2018

John Hennessy and David Patterson are the recipients of the 2017 ACM A.M. Turing Award for their foundational contributions to the development of the RISC microprocessors that led to today's mobile and IoT revolutions.

Established in 1966 this award, named for Alan M. Turing, is the most prestigious of those made by the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of computing. It is presented annually to recognise the contributions of computer scientists and engineers who have:

created the systems and underlying theoretical foundations that have propelled the information technology industry.ACMTuring

The ACM announcement states:

Hennessy and Patterson created a systematic and quantitative approach to designing faster, lower power, and reduced instruction set computer (RISC) microprocessors. Their approach led to lasting and repeatable principles that generations of architects have used for many projects in academia and industry. Today, 99% of the more than 16 billion microprocessors produced annually are RISC processors, and are found in nearly all smartphones, tablets, and the billions of embedded devices that comprise the Internet of Things (IoT).



It was in the 1980s that the work led by Patterson (left) and Hennessy (right) and, Berkeley and Stanford respectively pioneered a technology that enabled computers to function faster. The RISC approach differed from the prevailing CISC (complex instruction set computer) computers of the time in that it required a small set of simple and general instructions, requiring fewer transistors than complex instruction sets and reducing the amount of work a computer must perform.

Patterson’s Berkeley team, which coined the term RISC, built and demonstrated their RISC-1 processor in 1982. With 44,000 transistors, the RISC-1 prototype outperformed a conventional CISC design that used 100,000 transistors. Hennessy co-founded MIPS Computer Systems Inc. in 1984 to commercialize the Stanford team’s work. Later, the Berkeley team’s work was commercialized by Sun Microsystems in its SPARC microarchitecture. 

Hennssy and Patterson presented their insights in Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach. The 1st edition appeared in 1990 and its 6th edition was published in December 2017.

According to ACM President Vicki L. Hanson,

"their seminal textbook has advanced the pace of innovation across the industry over the past 25 years by influencing generations of engineers and computer designers.”


The book was groundbreaking in that it was the first text of its kind to provide an analytical and scientific framework, as well as methodologies and evaluation tools for engineers and designers to evaluate the net value of microprocessor design. In the book Hennessy and Patterson encouraged architects to carefully optimize their systems to allow for the differing costs of memory and computation. Their work also enabled a shift from seeking raw performance to designing architectures that take into account issues such as energy usage, heat dissipation, and off-chip communication.

Having been President of Stanford University from 2000 to 2016, John L. Hennessy is currently Chairman of the Board of Alphabet Inc. David A. Patterson was Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley from 1976 to 2016. He then became a Distinguished Engineer at Google where he working on domain-specific computer architectures for machine learning. He is also Google’s representative and on the Board of Directors of the RISC-V Foundation, whose goal is to make the free and open RISC-V instruction set architecture as popular for hardware as Linux is for operating systems.

Hennessy and Patterson will formally receive the 2017 ACM A.M. Turing Award at the ACM’s annual awards banquet on Saturday, June 23, 2018 in San Francisco, California. 


More Information

Pioneers of Modern Computer Architecture Receive ACM A.M. Turing Award

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Last Updated ( Friday, 23 March 2018 )