Creating the Free-Licensed Semiconductor Market


As many would-be open hardware manufacturers have discovered, free-licensed computer chips are nearly non-existent. However, SiFive, a recently announced startup in San Francisco, is hoping to change that with its custom chip designs.

SiFive has its origins in the RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA) developed in the Computer Science Division of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Originally, ISA was a three-month project in the summer of 2010 intended for educational purposes. Subsequently, however, Krste Asanovic, Yunsup Lee, and Andrew Waterman developed 11 RISC-V–based chips using an agile hardware design methodology, with early funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

With the combination of the ISA and agile methodology, explains Jack Kang, SiFive’s vice president of product and business development, “the team was able to prove that smaller teams could design state-of-the-art silicon.” The ISA was released under a BSD License, and many of the team members went on to create SiFive. The site currently lists two development platforms, Freedom Everywhere and Freedom Unleashed, which includes Linux support.

The company describes itself as “a fabless chipmaker,” meaning that it designs chips and outsources their manufacturing. SiFive’s current partner is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Limited (TSMC), one of the oldest and largest semiconductor foundries in operation. “Having a partner like TSMC,” Kang says, “means that our customers have confidence that SiFive’s silicon will be world-class, with the best performance/power in the industry.”

Critiquing an Industry

Implicit in SiFive’s business model is the observation that the semiconductor industry is badly in need of change. As Kang explains, the industry’s business model has traditionally been based on Moore’s Law – the observation that computing power doubles every two years or so. In recent years, however, that assumption has become “extinct.” As a result, Kang says, companies “found it increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional production models that required hundreds of millions of dollars to develop new chips.”

Instead, in the last couple of years, there has been what Kang describes as “massive rounds of mergers and acquisitions.” In fact, according to Kang, “in 2015 alone there was more than 100 billion [dollars] in mergers and acquisitions in the sector.”

The result has been a sharp increase in the industry’s already monopolistic tendencies. “For many years now,” Kang continues, “all but the largest companies have been priced out of getting cutting edge silicon and forced to make do with older designs that were good enough. The expiration of Moore’s Law has only added to the challenge of attaining smaller, faster, and cheaper silicon. Unless you have tens – if not hundreds – of millions of dollars, it is impossible for smaller system designers to get a modern high-performance chip, much less one customized to their unique requirements.”

According to Kang, a secondary driver of change has been the Maker movement. Originally composed of do-it-yourself hobbyists, thanks to crowdfunding, the Maker movement is creating a new breed of startups and small businesses, many of which are designing products for the Internet of Things (IoT). “In the past,” he says, “engineers developed loyalties to specific controllers and feature sets, and the industry sold chips based on ‘feeds and speeds’. But Makers focus more on how to bring their products to life quickly and efficiently. It’s essentially a different mindset that is becoming more widely adopted by developers, and those developer reside in small companies.”

Today, such small companies are increasingly seen as the technological leaders of the future. As a widely quoted estimate from the Gartner Group suggests, the IoT alone is likely to result in another 20 billion devices by 2020. However, to meet such demands, Kang suggests that several different solutions are needed. As he says, “A chip that powers an agricultural sensor isn’t like to be the same solution required to power a smart appliance.”

In other words, even if a small company could manage to place an order within the semiconductor industry, it might have trouble finding a chip suited to its needs. In these circumstances, an alternative to the x86 or ARM architectures seems overdue. In particular, Softbank’s recent acquisition of ARM, Kang suggests, “has placed an additional layer of uncertainty on the cost and access to chips for all but the largest companies,” prompting some industry analysts to suggest that companies should look for alternatives. “We are seeing a number of established system designers look for Plan B evaluated RISC-V architecture as they wait to see how the industry dynamic will shake out,” says Kang.

Addressing the Company

All these changes and uncertainties help to explain why the RISC-V Foundation includes more than 50 companies, including AMD, Google, HP Enterprise, IBM, Microsoft, Nvidia, Oracle, Qualcomm, and Western Digital.

By using a free-licensed ISA, SiFive potentially bypasses many of the costs normally associated with chip design. While avoiding over-specialization, the RISC-V is flexible enough for custom designs and inexpensive enough to encourage experimentation.

Sander Arts, SiFive’s chief marketing officer, points to Arduino chips, which are widely used in the Maker movement for both prototyping and tinkering, as an example of the potential for RISC-V. “The cost-effective nature of open source allows companies like SiFive to offer custom silicon at a fraction of the cost of going to one of the larger chip vendors,” claims Arts, with a potential of $60–100 billion in revenue. “This is where small volumes rule, and the margins are higher,” says Arts. “Smaller companies or startups would never have gotten the attention of the traditional vendors due to the relatively small run volumes and the cost involved in developing custom silicon through traditional methods.” These same benefits, of course, also apply to established companies exploring the possibilities of the IoT.

“You have to look at SiFive as a solution provider for chips,” Arts says. “We’d like to call it ‘Chips as a Service’, similar to the mainstream Software as a Service. That is our business model, and we believe [it] will be able to excite larger customers as well as companies and start-ups in the long tail of the market. The fact that all of this is open source means that we will, with the market and our customers, be able to gain an enormous amount of speed. The beauty of SiFive’s model is that, not only do we offer standardized off-the-shelf silicon through our Freedom Everywhere series for IoT and the Freedom Unleashed platform for heavier computing loads for those companies that might need a lower volume of chips for a prototype run or a test market, but [we] also offer the ability to customize those designs to suit a specific end use.”

Introducing a new ISA and open source into a notoriously proprietary industry, SiFive is nothing if not ambitious, especially for a startup. “We see a lot of potential for open source hardware [generally] and for SiFive specifically,” says Kang. “Every day, we have new companies knocking on our door, curious to learn what we are doing, start projects with us, and become members of the forums where they can engage with like-minded people. If what we’ve seen continues (and we have no indication that it won’t), we believe that SiFive will be among the early adopters in the center of a thriving RISC-V ecosystem.” In the process, SiFive just might have created a free-licensed niche in the semiconductor industry where none existed before and help to make open hardware a reality.

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