According to Bloomberg’s sources, Intel has offered $2 billion for startup chip designer SiFive, though neither company has officially acknowledged the offer. SiFive is the leading designer of chips based on the open source RISC-V architecture that has coincidentally attracted much more interest in the wake of Nvidia’s ongoing acquisition of Arm for $40 billion. The reports of the possible SiFive acquisition come on the heels of SiFive’s announcement that it will collaborate with Intel’s newly-christened foundry services.
SiFive, most recently valued at $500 million, is reportedly considering takeover offers from multiple firms and it may still choose to remain an independent outfit. Much of the new interest in SiFive and RISC-V stems from firms looking to avoid any potential pitfalls due to Nvidia’s potential control of Arm.
RISC-V is an open source instruction set architecture (ISA) for RISC chips that discards the traditional notion of licensing fees associated with designing chips around a certain ISA, as we see with Arm. The ISA is maintained by the non-profit RISC-V International organization comprised of more than 1,000 members in 50 countries.
RISC-V is most commonly used in microcontrollers and small, simple chips, which has earned it quite the industry uptake with companies like WD, which ships over two billion RISC-V controllers a year in its products. The RISC-V organization plans to evolve the standard to accommodate faster chips for high-performance applications in the future.
Chinese chip firms have shown a keen interest in RISC-V chip designs in the wake of US restrictions on their use of Arm designs due to US national security interests. Naturally, RISC-V’s open source licensing, which eschews fees, and the fact that the company is incorporated in Switzerland and doesn’t “take a political position on behalf of any geography” is enticing to Chinese firms.
Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger’s recent announcement that the company would begin licensing its own x86 processor designs to other firms as part of its new IDM 2.0 initiative was surprising, and the company even revealed that it would be open to fabbing third-party Arm designs in its new custom foundry outfit, Intel Foundry Services (IFS).
If the reports are true, it’s natural to expect that Intel will look to add RISC-V designs to its own arsenal and also offer custom designs to customers of its new foundry services business, all of which ties in nicely with the company’s pledge to help “re-shore” semiconductor manufacturing in the US. Having yet another ISA in the cannon might also help to fire back at Arm competitors, like Apple’s M1 and AWS’s Graviton2, in the future.