The last several years have taught us that innovation, whether it’s in smart connected and electric vehicles, the rapid
evolution of smart factories or the migration to the autonomous home, will come from electronics. That’s why developments in
the semiconductor supply chain get so much attention now as opposed to a decade ago, when semiconductors were a comparatively
unknown/unattended segment of the technology landscape.
It’s also why pundits were leaning in when, in the midst of supply chain disruptions, record demand and geopolitical
uncertainty, the licensing of processor cores emerged as another thorny industry issue. It took a single galvanizing event to
bring the issue to the top of the semiconductor agenda and it has generated a flurry of activity to set up a new balance of
power in chip licensing.
In September 2020, SoftBank announced plans to sell Arm to NVIDIA. This was no small matter, because Arm licenses cores for
many of the top semiconductor companies in the world. After a difficult regulatory approval process the deal was scrapped—but not before a host of questions began to circulate both in public and behind closed doors. What would happen if NVIDIA, a
competitor to many in the semiconductor space, held the power to grant and price licenses? What alternatives would companies
have to diversify? How could such a change impact product roadmaps? How could the competitive scale be tipped in the favor of
others? The point is, no matter how things might have turned out, whether benevolent or otherwise, the questions were now out in
the open and they caused a shift.
The Open-Source Alternative
The wake-up call of a potential Arm sale spurred many semiconductor companies to take a closer look at RISC-V, the open-standard
instruction set which came to market in 2015. In the last two years, more companies have jumped on the bandwagon, especially
those with RISC know-how like NXP (Freescale had many RISC products). The toolchain vendors have also joined, as have the
universities. It’s similar to the development of Linux 30 years ago.
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Unlike Arm, the RISC-V instruction set can be used and changed by anyone, creating the ability to extend the processor exactly
as a use case requires. This greater capacity to differentiate creates competition in processors, ultimately leading to more
innovation, but also bears the risk of fragmentation with respect to toolchains and IP reuse.
So who benefits the most from RISC-V? Chip start-ups for one, because of the ability to tailor the cores to individual
applications. But having an open-source alternative also lowers the hurdles for medium-sized companies to enter chip design.
They too would benefit from increased competition in the market.
Win, Lose or Draw
There are some challenges. Open-source does not mean free and in some ways it can be more expensive for companies since the
configuration effort is now duplicated. RISC-V is also still many years behind in development compared to Arm. But the gap is
significantly smaller than a few years ago and only in the high-performance world are the differences very large. Give it
another five years and those will be much lower too.