A Big Week for RISC-V
It’s been a banner week for the RISC-V ecosystem. The profile of the open-source instruction set architecture (ISA) has been raised by a pair of announcements. Let’s take a closer look.
Earlier this week, Intel announced it would join RISC-V International as a premier member. Intel Foundry Services (IFS) will embrace designs built on multiple ISAs in order to compete with foundry giants Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Samsung. Intel claims to be the only foundry offering IP optimized for x86, Arm and RISC-V.
The wording is crucial here, acknowledging as it does that RISC-V is joining x86 and Arm as a leading chip architecture.
Intel’s embrace of RISC-V means developing an ecosystem of its own. To that end, Intel is partnering with key RISC-V players, including CPU designer SiFive, AI accelerator chip company Esperanto, embedded CPU designer Andes Technology and data center CPU designer Ventana Microsystems. The partners will work with Intel to optimize their designs for Intel’s process technologies.
“As the leading open-source ISA, RISC-V is a great fit for our open ecosystem vision, which is why we are making investments and building partnerships that will empower the ecosystem and help drive further adoption of RISC-V,” Randhir Thakur, president of Intel Foundry Services, noted in a blog post.
Intel Capital and IFS will meanwhile invest $1 billion in IP, software tools, chip architectures and advanced packaging. Along with accelerating the chip development cycle, the fund will also focus on Intel’s open chiplet platform and supporting design approaches that use multiple ISAs, including RISC-V.
“There is strong demand from foundry customers to support more RISC-V offerings,” Intel said in a statement, adding that part of the fund will be used to drive RISC-V adoption. “The fund will help disruptive RISC-V companies innovate faster through IFS by collaborating on technology co-optimization, prioritizing wafer shuttles, supporting customer designs, building development boards and software infrastructure and more,” the company said.
Intel’s backing elevates RISC-V as among the industry’s leading chip architectures. IFS and Intel Capital funding will undoubtedly help drive commercial adoption of RISC-V technology.
Not unexpectedly, Nvidia this week pulled the plug on its bid to buy RISC-V competitor Arm after the $66 million deal was scuppered by regulators in multiple jurisdictions. RISC-V already represented a credible threat to Arm; Nvidia’s failed acquisition of Arm may have made RISC-V even more so.
With its rich suitor out of the picture, Arm is girding for an initial public offering to raise funds and recoup current owner SoftBank’s hefty investment. In documents previously filed with U.K. regulators, Arm made the case that an IPO would be nothing short of a disaster. It argued that Nvidia’s deep pockets were critical to keeping Arm competitive in data center and PC markets (its core market, mobile, is saturated). Nvidia would have provided valuable expertise and substantial investment, helping Arm tackle those markets, the company said.
“As a publicly traded company, Arm would likely not have the financial resources to invest sufficiently in early-stage revenue businesses” Arm pleaded with regulators. “Nvidia is particularly concerned that these pressures would drive Arm to de-prioritize data center and PC and to instead focus on its core mobile and growing IoT businesses. The result would be a concentrated CPU market largely controlled by Intel/AMD (x86), with the remainder controlled by powerful and far more profitable Arm architectural licensees.”
Arm also highlighted stiff competition it faces from RISC-V companies, including SiFive’s P550 RISC-V CPU IP that Arm said “compares favorably to Arm’s contemporary CPU IP block (Cortex-A75), in a smaller package.”
Meanwhile, Arm customers concerned about its neutrality under Nvidia started to look at RISC-V with fresh eyes. It’s unclear just how many customers were tempted by RISC-V’s “come-for-the-open-source, stay-for-the-scalability-and-customization-possibilities” pitch. And it’s too early to say whether any such customers could be lured back to an independent, public Arm, or whether they’re gone for good.
“RISC-V is absolutely a formidable competitor, it’s a different competitor than anything we’ve faced in the past, given its movement around open source and accelerators, and we absolutely treat it very seriously and are well aware of the movement,” said new Arm CEO Rene Haas. “At the same time, what really makes a computer architecture pervasive and interesting is the software development ecosystem. We think we have a couple of key significant advantages over RISC-V there.”
Haas claimed more than 15 million developers are working on Arm projects, and that Arm implementations are standard across the board to ensure software compatibility.
“It’s a tradeoff: With RISC-V you get innovation, you can create new extensions, but you lost software compatibility. And more importantly, you lose the guarantee of software compatibility,” he said. Arm’s founders made “that a key tenet, and that will serve us well going forward. I’m confident of that.”
RISC-V proponents may have sought to capitalize on concerns about Arm licensees under Nvidia, along with uncertainty regarding Arm’s future. Those advantages have largely vanished. For now, Arm will remain independent as a public company. But will a public Arm be strong enough to fend off RISC-V as a worthy competitor? Arm itself has argued both sides. The eventual outcome could be something more like coexistence, helped by the adoption of heterogeneous packaging technologies like chiplets.
Ultimately, the combination of Intel’s support and the collapse of the Nvidia-Arm deal mean the semiconductor industry has moved beyond two leading chip architectures. Now there are three.
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