September 28, 2022

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Arm rival SiFive raises $175M to accelerate development of its alternative RISC-V chip architecture

4 min read

SiFive Inc., a computer chip startup that’s developing processor technology based on the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture, said today it has raised a hefty $ 175 million in a late-stage round of funding.

The Series F round brings its value to more than $ 2.5 billion. It was led by Coatue Management, with participation from Ibex Investors plus existing investors Sutter Hill Ventures, SK hynix, Western Digital Capital, Qualcomm Ventures, Intel Capital, Osage University Partners, Spark Capital and Prosperity7 ventures. This brings SiFive’s total amount raised to date to more than $ 350 million.

SiFive designs a wide range of computer processors for artificial intelligence workloads, internet of things gadgets and data center servers, among other things. In addition it also sells software for customers looking to customize the chips it designs.

Where SiFive’s chips stand out is that they’re based on the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture, which it helped design. Instruction set architecture refers to blueprints for chip designs that describe the computing operators the millions of transistors on a chip should carry out.

Chipmakers rarely build processors from scratch. Rather than do the work themselves, they prefer to license a proprietary instruction set architecture from the British firm Arm Ltd., which charges a fee for its designs. SiFive’s RISC-V instruction set architecture is an alternative to Arm’s designs that’s available free of charge.

RISC-V International, the nonprofit organization that maintains RISC-V, says its designs provide a number of advantages besides not needing to pay royalties. For instance, it says, chipmakers have more flexibility to customize the technology for different workloads. This increased customizability means developers can play a bigger role in the design of chips for very specific applications.

Analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy told SiliconANGLE that this ability to customize chips is key, since the goal of RISC-V architecture is to make it easier to add special instructions, while also offering lower-cost chip designs. That said, he indicated SiFive will have its work cut out if it’s to convince customers of these benefits.

“I am unaware of any SiFive design that is superior to anything to that Arm has,” Moorhead said. “In fact, I don’t expect SiFive to have the highest performance even among RISC-V cores, as I expect Ventana Micro to hold this position.”

Nonetheless, SiFive seems happy with its progress. It said today its chip designs based on RISC-V architecture are currently being used by more than 100 customers, including eight of the world’s top 10 semiconductor firms, in applications such as automotive, client computing, data center and hyperscale computing.

SiFive is known to have a close relationship with Intel Corp., which recently launched a $ 1 billion Innovation Fund that aims to catalyze the RISC-V ecosystem. Indeed, Intel was once thought to be interested in acquiring SiFive, though for now it appears happy to settle for its role as one of its investors.

“As the founder and leader of RISC-V computing it’s our role to lead this ecosystem forward to take over the performance IP market from Arm and others,” said SiFive President and Chief Executive Patrick Little.

Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. said the royalty-free nature of SiFive’s chip designs may be enough to convince some customers. He pointed out that open source has won out in many other areas within the technology industry, especially software, and now the RISC-V community is getting lots of attention and capital, not only with today’s funding round but also with Intel’s recent announcement.

“The battle for the best instruction set architecture on RISC-V is getting hotter, and that can only be a good thing for enterprises as it means more innovation and likely lower costs too,” Mueller said.

SiFive said it will use the funds from today’s round to invest in global hiring, product development and its software ecosystem as part of its efforts to accelerate its future roadmap and grow the RISC-V ecosystem.

The company will certainly be a lot more focused on that goal, having offloaded its OpenFive business unit to Alphawave IP Group Plc earlier this week for a reported fee of $ 210 million. OpenFive was a subsidiary of SiFive that creates system-on-a-chip connectivity designs. SiFive said it decided to sell it so it can focus its energies on designing RISC-V central processing unit cores and related tech.

Photo: SiFive

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