Qualcomm invests in RISC-V startup SiFive

Qualcomm invests in RISC-V startup SiFive

Credit: SiFive

RISC-V is slowly catching on across the technology world. Qualcomm are the latest to back such a startup: but what is RISC-V and why is it so important?

It’s becoming increasingly more attractive to hardware manufacturers: now Qualcomm has become the latest big company to back a RISC-V startup.

RISC-V startup SiFive has announced a $65.4 million funding round. That includes Qualcomm Ventures as an investor, as well as Sutter Hill Ventures, Chengwei Capital and Spark Capital. SiFive has also sold stakes to Intel, Samsung and SK Hynix, the world’s three largest chip manufacturers.

SiFive was founded in 2015. The company prides itself on cost-effective custom silicon solutions and has established itself in the last few years as a leader in the RISC-V world. SiFive’s tools can be used to affordably assemble commercial RISC-V cores, proprietary customer IP, peripheral IP and partner IP into chips. SiFive hopes to facilitate smaller engineering teams in custom system on chip (SoC) design.

This recent investment from Qualcomm is significant for the industry. It indicates that RISC-V is now a serious threat to Arm, despite the fact the majority of chips in the smartphone and IoT industry are based on Arm architecture. Qualcomm is one of Arm’s biggest customers. SiFive, however, says it offers access to processor cores to rival Arm’s Cortex-A, Cortex-R and Cortex-M products, making this recent investment extremely interesting for the industry.

What’s the difference between Arm and RISC-V?

Open source RISC-V is catching imaginations in the industry, thanks to its customisation.

Since RISC-V is open source, it’s simple to add custom instructions on top. This is something that gives it the upper hand over Arm. RISC-V gives customers the potential to produce domain-specific designs that run on lower power than general-purpose silicon.

SiFive aims to reduce chip design time to between one and three months and can cut the costs of a chip substantially.

SiFive offers its RISC-V IP to suppliers which incorporate the system into chip designs before sending them to final production. Arm does the same, but SiFive aims to work more like an open source software vendor. One of the biggest benefits of SiFive is that they have introduced a set of development tools that enable customers to add custom instructions to its RISC-V cores and make it much easier for them to commission custom chips from SiFive.

Arm produces the chosen chips of many IoT devices. IoT requires complex chips that can integrate many IP components with high levels of security, and Arm’s range of IoT solutions provide SoC designers with a solid foundation to build on. RISC-V offers even more flexibility.

Qualcomm is a founding member of the RISC-V Foundation.

RISC-V could be huge for IoT

IoT security requires innovation at processor level.

Making a processor immune to network-based attacks is key to good IoT security. RISC-V differs from a lot of instruction set architectures (ISA), in that it includes computing security to stop buffer overflows and protects a processor from being overtaken by cyber attacks.

“RISC-V can dominate the $470B IoT market if it does security right,” says Dover Microsystems Founder and CEO Jothy Rosenberg. “Open source means it’s easy to innovate so many companies are already doing more extensive innovation – including for security – than on any other platform. Since there is no expense of tens of millions of dollars annually for architecture licenses, it means companies can afford to modify cores to make security better integrated, more comprehensive, stronger, and easier to use and adopt.”

risc-v, IoT, Qualcomm invests in RISC-V startup SiFive
Western Digital’s NAS is Powered by SiFive Microsemi and RISC-V. / Credit: Serve The Home

RISC-V is not only adaptable for designers though, it offers lower cost. SiFive aims to reduce chip design time to between one and three months and can cut the costs of a chip substantially.

SiFive’s chip design plans come amid a slowdown in Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years or so. This law is the semiconductor industry’s blueprint for building smaller, faster and cheaper chips.

SiFive has made over 100 licenses available to customers using its RISC-V cores. The company has started offering custom chip design services and over the last 18 months, SiFive has grown from around 40 employees at the start of 2018 to more than 400 across 15 locations globally.

risc-v, IoT, Qualcomm invests in RISC-V startup SiFive

Mark White

Mark is a writer/editor who has written online and in print.

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