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Is Intel Really Willing to Pay $2B+ for RISC-V Startup SiFive?


shane
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By Christine Hall

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We look into why Intel might be offering to pay more than $2 billion to purchase a top RISC-V company, SiFive, and what that might eventually mean.

The 6-year-old San Mateo, California-based SiFive, the fabless semiconductor startup that put RISC-V on the map, might have a suitor.

Bloomberg reported last week that according to unnamed sources close to SiFive, Intel has made an offer to purchase the company for more than $2 billion. Although neither Intel nor SiFive have publicly commented, Bloomberg's sources say that SiFive has turned to advisors to determine the next steps to take.

The sources also said that the company has received several other takeover offers as well as investment offers.

"To me it does not seem like a completely crazy rumor, given that I've seen it in some of the biggest publications, starting with Bloomberg," Vlad Galabov, head of cloud and data center research practice at researcher Omdia, told DCK. " I am inclined to think that it's possible."

(Disclosure: Omdia is owned by Informa Tech, which also owns Data Center Knowledge.)

SiFive and RISC-V

SiFive's business is based on RISC-V, an open source reduced instruction set architecture that can be used to make everything from controllers and accelerators to GPUs and CPUs. The architecture was initially developed as a project at the University of California, Berkeley, and SiFive was founded by three of the project's original developers.

These days the architecture is seeing increasing use as accelerators and controllers, but has yet to break into the CPU market in any meaningful way. Alibaba, however, has developed RISC-V CPUs that it's using extensively in its cloud data centers, and the Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences plans to build 2,000 RISC-V-powered laptops by the end of next year as part of the Chinese government's efforts to break the country's reliance on foreign technology.

SiFive's bread and butter is helping companies design chips for specific needs, usually using templates from its portfolio of RISC-V-based designs, and then helping them through the manufacturing process using third-party manufacturers. The company claims it can bring a chip to market at about 10% of what it would cost using traditional methods and proprietary instruction set architectures.

While SiFive is synonymous with RISC-V, the rights to the architecture are held by the RISC-V International Association, which was formed in 2015 as the RISC-V Foundation. The architecture is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0, a so-called permissive license that lets users make any products they develop proprietary if they want.

Intel's Interest in SiFive and RISC-V

Galabov said there are several reasons why Intel might be interested in acquiring SiFive, especially at a time when the other major fabless architecture, Arm, seems to be destined to soon come under Nvidia's ownership, which could eventually create licensing issues for Intel.

"Intel does license some of Arm's technology, so it's possible that they are trying to figure out how to wean themselves off of it," he said. "I think it's possible that they're also exploring a second processor architecture alongside their x86. They've done that before, so I wouldn't be surprised if they're looking for a differentiator, a different perspective, for their processor architecture."

"It's also possible they're developing a coprocessor," he added. "They have developed a few, but Nvidia is still the market leader. I definitely would anticipate that either new-product development is in the cards, or trying to use RISC-V instead of Arm in some of their products where today they're licensing Arm."

A Boost for RISC-V

RISC-V already has some heavy hitters in the technology arena behind it. Alibaba Cloud, Huawei and Western Digital are all dues-paying top-tier "premier" members of RISC-V International. SiFive has also seen interest from important tech players. Western Digital, which plans to eventually use RISC-V exclusively, is an investor, as are Arm chipmaker Qualcomm and Intel.

However, the world's largest chipmaker taking ownership of what is arguably RISC-V's premier player would be a game changer that Galabov said would mainly be positive.

"I think that it will be a net boost," he said. "Intel does have several things going for it, apart from loads of money. The last time that I checked, they had over 12,000 software engineers, so that means they could actually create this ecosystem around RISC-V. The second thing is that they have a very strong partnership network, even with some of the hyperscale cloud service providers.

"I think these are the two things: It has the the ability to utilize its software engineer army to uplevel RISC-V support, and [it has] partnerships to get it through the door at some of the large end users," Galabov said.

He added that Intel also has marketing moxie that it could bring into play.

If the sale does happen, Galabov said there also might be some flack from some quarters within the RISC-V community, at least at first.

"I will definitely expect to see headlines or worries from people that one of the more open architectures, Arm, is getting bought by Nvidia, and the other open architecture is getting bought by Intel," he said. "I definitely would not be surprised if that happens; people are still concerned about IBM buying Red Hat."


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