Tech giants have switched to RISC-V one after another, Intel: I think too.
According to foreign media Reuters, Intel is planning to acquire SiFive, a California semiconductor start-up company, for US$2 billion.
Founded in 2015, SiFive is the world’s first semiconductor company based on the RISC-V architecture. The latest valuation is around US$500 million.
The conversion of semiconductor companies to the RISC-V architecture is not new. Last year, Nvidia announced that it would acquire ARM for US$40 billion, and the authorized users of the ARM architecture include a series of competitors of Nvidia. This makes many companies in the semiconductor industry feel “crisis-seeking” and the RISC-V architecture has received attention. The degree is getting higher and higher.
The advantage of RISC-V is that it is an open source architecture, and the company is incorporated in Switzerland and does not “represent the political position of any country/region.”
Intel’s move is clear: in the “three-quarters of the world” processor architecture, it hopes to acquire SiFive for US$2 billion to include the third largest architecture, RISC-V.
The negotiations are still in the early stages, and SiFive is also facing the acquisition intentions of many other companies, and may remain independent in the end. At present, neither Intel nor SiFive has officially responded to the news.
Entrepreneurs from the original RISC-V team
SiFive is the world’s first customized semiconductor company based on RISC-V. It was founded in 2015 by three researchers Krste Asanovi?, Yunsup Lee and Andrew Waterman from the University of California, Berkeley.
SiFive’s main business helps SoC designers shorten the time to market and reduce costs through customized open architecture processor cores. At the same time, it enables system designers to build customized semiconductors based on RISC-V to achieve chip optimization. Like ARM, SiFive also sells intellectual property rights such as chip design to manufacturers.
The company is trying to introduce open source standards into the field of semiconductor design to make it cheaper and more acceptable to customers. So far, SiFive has established in-depth cooperative relationships with many internationally renowned semiconductor manufacturers.
Since 2015, SiFive has successively released a variety of RISC-V-based processor cores, mainly for development at all levels from enthusiasts to major manufacturers.
In 2017, the U54-MC Coreplex released by SiFive was the first chip based on the RISC-V architecture to support Linux, Unix and FreeBSD.
In June 2018, SiFive acquired Open-Silicon for an undisclosed amount and retained its design capabilities for dedicated chips (also known as application-specific integrated circuits or ASICs).
In November 2018, SiFive released the 7 series of high-performance RISC-V CPU IP. Among them, this series of IP can provide up to a single combination of 81 cores expandability, real-time 64-bit memory addressing capabilities, and the associated combination of real-time processors and application processors.
In October 2020, SiFive released HiFive Unmatched, which is a Mini-ITX development board with four U74-MC cores, one S7 core, 8GB DDR4 RAM, four USB 3.2 Gen1 ports, and one PCI Express x16 slot , A PCIe Gen3 x4, a microSD card slot and a Gigabit Ethernet.
For a long time, ARM has been the largest IP provider in the mobile and IoT markets. However, with the rise of the open source RISC-V architecture, SiFive has begun to be seen as a strong challenger to ARM.
The current CEO of SiFive, Patrick Little, was the senior vice president of Qualcomm’s automotive business. It is worth mentioning that Little left Qualcomm and joined SiFive after Nvidia announced last year that it would acquire ARM.
Companies such as Intel and Qualcomm are all investors in SiFive. In 2018, SiFive received US$50.6 million in Series C financing, a large amount of which came from Intel. In August 2020, companies such as SK Hynix and Saudi Aramco invested an additional US$60 million in SiFive. The arrival of this new funding has brought the company’s total financing amount since its establishment in 2015 to more than 185 million U.S. dollars.
Ebb and flow of the three major architectures
Before RISC-V came out, x86 and ARM had been evenly divided in CPU architecture. Among them, X86 occupies fields such as PCs and servers, while ARM focuses on fields such as mobile phones and the Internet of Things.
The RISC-V project started at the University of California, Berkeley in 2010. It is an open source instruction set architecture (ISA) for RISC chips. It is commonly used in microcontrollers and small chips. It is widely recognized in the industry, such as hard disk manufacturer Western Digital More than 2 billion RISC-V controllers are included in the products each year. It abandons the licensing fee system of ARM and other instruction set architectures, and is maintained by the non-profit RISC-V international organization, including more than 1,000 members from 50 countries/regions.
Both the ARM architecture and the RISC-V architecture are derived from the reduced instruction computer RISC in the 1980s. The biggest difference between the two is that ARM is a closed instruction set architecture, while RISC-V is a completely open source architecture. Manufacturers who only use the ARM architecture can only adjust product frequency and power consumption according to their own needs, and must not change the original design.
On the other hand, RISC-V, due to the choice to use the BSD License open source agreement, gives users a lot of freedom, allowing users to modify and redistribute open source code, and also allows them to develop commercial software based on open source code.
SiFive uses the RISC-V architecture to design the CPU. Although its underlying architecture is open source, the specific core design itself can be sold. The acquisition of SiFive can also provide Intel with a guarantee of intellectual property rights, which can be used on its own chips or provide licenses for future foundry service customers.
Compared with strong competitors, RISC-V still has a lot of room for development, especially in the field of high-end chips.
Previously, Intel’s new CEO Pat Gelsinger announced that the company’s x86 architecture was licensed to other companies as part of the foundry business contract. This is also one of the IDM 2.0 plans he released after taking office. Intel even stated that it doesn’t mind that the newly established foundry service department manufactures third-party ARM-based devices in-house.
In March of this year, Intel officials announced a new foundry service department, which mainly manufactures chips for external semiconductor companies. On the same day, SiFive announced the cooperation with Intel’s foundry service department.
If the news of Intel’s acquisition of SiFive is true, then its goal is very clear: to incorporate the RISC-V architecture into its own arsenal, and to provide customized designs for customers of its foundry services.
The value of this deal is more than that, Intel can also obtain software advantages. Last year, SiFive dug from Google to Chris Lattner, the great god of compilers, as its senior vice president of platform engineering, leading the work of platform engineering. Lattne worked at Apple for eight years and created the Swift programming language. The addition of Chris Lattner at that time was regarded as a major benefit in the RISC-V field.
These moves can not only help the United States regain its strength in the semiconductor field, but also help Intel fight back against rivals in the ARM team, such as Apple’s M1, and AWS’s Graviton2.
After the United States restricted the use of the ARM architecture for national security interests, Chinese semiconductor companies have also shown greater interest in the RISC-V chip architecture.
Previously, Huawei provided developers with the first Hongmeng development board Hi3861, and industry insiders speculated that it was also based on the RISC-V architecture. This Hi3861 is a 32-bit chip with a maximum frequency of 160MHz, embedded 352KB SRAM, 288KB ROM, 2MB Flash, etc., integrated 802.11b/g/n baseband and RF circuit, and supports Hongmeng system.
After the development board was launched, some foreign developers tested it and said that this Hi3861 is Huawei’s first chip based on the RISC-V architecture. Currently, Huawei has not responded to this matter, but it has spread widely on the Internet.
According to statistics, more than 300 companies in China are following or developing with the RISC-V instruction set. Among them, more than 20 domestic enterprises and institutions, including the Institute of Computing Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Huawei, and Alibaba Group, have formally joined the RISC-V Foundation.
Since its development, many companies have built key technologies for open source chips based on RISC-V and launched related products. In September 2018, Huami released the world’s first RISC-V-based artificial intelligence chip in the field of smart wear. Huangshan No. 1; In July 2019, Pingtou officially released XuanTie910 (XuanTie910), which is the most powerful RISC-V processor in the industry.
The development of RISC-V open source chip architecture is seen as an opportunity for China to independently develop the semiconductor industry chain. Many chip manufacturers have already turned to RISC-V. Previously, Ni Guangnan, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that in the future RISC-V is likely to develop into one of the world’s mainstream CPUs, thereby forming a three-part structure of Intel (Intel), ARM, and RISC-V in the CPU field.