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Intel pondering purchase of RISC-V chip designer SiFive

by Mark Tyson on 11 June 2021, 11:11

Tags: Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

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There are reports from heavyweight news sources, including Reuters and Bloomberg, indicating that Intel is pondering over making an offer to buyout SiFive. You might not have heard of the latter company, but it is a tech startup considered to be the leading designer of chips based on the open source RISC-V architecture. Several of the creators of RISC-V work at SiFive. Moreover, Intel, Qualcomm and SK hynix have already shown faith in SiFive via significant investments, and it is estimated that the firm is worth approx US$2bn.

Currently, SiFive operates on a business model similar to Arm, in that it sells chip designs which are adopted by others, and fabricated by others before integration into devices. One key difference is that RISC-V is open source, through there is still plenty of scope for SiFive to innovate with custom optimised RISC-V designs which it can sell.

The acquisition of SiFive would give Intel "a library of intellectual property it could use both in its own chips and that it could offer to license to future customers as it works to build a business by opening up its chip factories to outsiders," reasoned the Reuters report. Remember, during the IDM 2.0 and related announcements, new Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger outlined plans to open up Intel chip factories for all sorts of chip designs as part of its contract manufacturing business. SiFive officially noted this Intel initiative and said it was on board, back in March.

Another benefit of a SiFive acquisition for Intel would be that Chris Lattner - a prominent Silicon Valley computer scientist behind Apple's Swift programming language, Google Brain, and Google TensorFlow - works for the startup.

It will be interesting to see if Intel does put up the $2bn offer, as tipped by insiders. If it becomes official, we will likely get statements from both parties outlining the reasons the deal is a good one, and how Intel and SiFive will work together in the coming months / years.

Sources: Reuters, Bloomberg.



HEXUS Forums :: 17 Comments

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So, Intel is looking to buy a stick to beat Nvidia with.

I'm struggling to see any good out of this.
DanceswithUnix
So, Intel is looking to buy a stick to beat Nvidia with.

I'm struggling to see any good out of this.
No I also can't see any benefit for anyone except maybe SiFive's shareholder and Intel. Although Intel aren't very good at buying stuff so maybe not even Intel. About the only benefit might be if Intel get to work on their compilers for RISC-V.
Then again I couldn't see any benefit of Nvidia buying ARM aside for Nvidia shareholders.
Ian Cutress on his TechTechPotato channel had an interesting take.

SiFive is a big contributor to RISC-V so it won't stop RISC-V but when the largest contributor is swallowed up into someone like Intel/Nvidia, it can affect some things (for better or for worse).

And Intel hasn't exactly had a great track record with some of their more “diverse” acquisitions.
Tabbykatze
And Intel hasn't exactly had a great track record with some of their more “diverse” acquisitions.

They do have a history involving a fair range of CPU instruction sets, some released with quite the fanfare. None really survive beyond amd64 and some clone 8051 parts afaik.

Now I can see that this could be done with the best of intentions. I'm right now coding for an Intel FPGA which has a pair of 32 bit ARM cores integrated onto it as hard cells. Intel could start doing parts with RISC-V cores instead, either at a discount or as 64 bits for the price of 32 or something. I'd be fine with RISC-V, they just need to keep that vomit worthy x86 stuff off our design. That would be a mild poke in the eye for Nvidia assuming the ARM sale goes ahead.

My main worry is that this would be the new Itanium. Heralded as the next great thing, and then quietly dropped into the dustbin of history along with i860 and all the rest. Possibly from someone in Intel deciding once again that they should only make x86 chips (I'm looking at you Larrabee for gpus plus Atom and that funky 386 core for embedded) could axe SiFive, or if the architects are working there partly because it isn't Intel then they might find everyone ups and quits.

Intel can't own RISC-V, they aren't really competing with it in any way other than on their ARM based FPGA chips so derailing RISC-V doesn't seem that useful. The likes of WD would keep tramping on with their internal designs, compilers would keep getting updated.

I partly wonder why Intel wouldn't just design their own RISC-V from scratch. They could probably rip the ugly front end off an Atom core, and put a nice RISC-V decoder on there and instantly have the fastest RISC-V chip on the market outpacing anything SiFive have.

Don't even think this would annoy Xilinx that much. Again, AMD can just use ARM cores and given the RISC-V eco system is still a bit young for embedded use have time to knock out a competitive part before it really matters for a whole lot less than the $2B this deal is supposed to be.

What am I missing? I just don't get why this purchase makes any sense. Perhaps it is no more than a “Me too!” from Intel after Nvidia bagging ARM.
DanceswithUnix
Tabbykatze
And Intel hasn't exactly had a great track record with some of their more “diverse” acquisitions.

They do have a history involving a fair range of CPU instruction sets, some released with quite the fanfare. None really survive beyond amd64 and some clone 8051 parts afaik.

Now I can see that this could be done with the best of intentions. I'm right now coding for an Intel FPGA which has a pair of 32 bit ARM cores integrated onto it as hard cells. Intel could start doing parts with RISC-V cores instead, either at a discount or as 64 bits for the price of 32 or something. I'd be fine with RISC-V, they just need to keep that vomit worthy x86 stuff off our design. That would be a mild poke in the eye for Nvidia assuming the ARM sale goes ahead.

My main worry is that this would be the new Itanium. Heralded as the next great thing, and then quietly dropped into the dustbin of history along with i860 and all the rest. Possibly from someone in Intel deciding once again that they should only make x86 chips (I'm looking at you Larrabee for gpus plus Atom and that funky 386 core for embedded) could axe SiFive, or if the architects are working there partly because it isn't Intel then they might find everyone ups and quits.

Intel can't own RISC-V, they aren't really competing with it in any way other than on their ARM based FPGA chips so derailing RISC-V doesn't seem that useful. The likes of WD would keep tramping on with their internal designs, compilers would keep getting updated.

I partly wonder why Intel wouldn't just design their own RISC-V from scratch. They could probably rip the ugly front end off an Atom core, and put a nice RISC-V decoder on there and instantly have the fastest RISC-V chip on the market outpacing anything SiFive have.

Don't even think this would annoy Xilinx that much. Again, AMD can just use ARM cores and given the RISC-V eco system is still a bit young for embedded use have time to knock out a competitive part before it really matters for a whole lot less than the $2B this deal is supposed to be.

What am I missing? I just don't get why this purchase makes any sense. Perhaps it is no more than a “Me too!” from Intel after Nvidia bagging ARM.

I imagine it's for the headstart. A $2bn acquisition is chump change for Intel and if they see RISC-V becoming big then even a couple of months advantage could be worth far more than that further down the line, and that's before accounting for the headstart against competitors. It also means that they don't have to divert as much of their current resources or try to headhunt from the very small bunch of RISC-V developers. If they put down the full $2bn that would also kick out Qualcomm and SK Hynix which would also be beneficial by setting back some of the competition.