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Intel made $2bn+ takeover offer for RISC-V chip darling SiFive – report

Someone's got to keep Altera company

Intel offered more than $2bn to acquire RISC-V chip designer SiFive, it was reported today.

The approach by the x86 processor giant was among a number of takeover offers made to the semiconductor startup, according to Bloomberg, which cited unnamed sources.

It's said these discussions are in an early stage, no deal may ever be reached, and SiFive may prefer to take an investment round from interested parties rather than sell out. It raised $61m last year in a series-E round, and has been valued at an estimated $500m. SiFive has Qualcomm, Western Digital, and SK Hynix among its backers, and is said to have tapped up potential advisers to deal with this outside interest.

Intel declined to comment on the report. Likewise, a SiFive spokesperson told us: "We have no comment at this time."

There is a concern Intel is interested in SiFive not because it wants to pivot away from x86, or offer an alternative architecture on an equal footing as x86, but because it wants to be an inconvenience for Nvidia, which is trying to swallow Arm, the market leader in SiFive's world. Intel once tried to take on Arm in the mobile and embedded space, and gave up when it failed. Intel may be interested in vacuuming up any customers of Arm that do not wish to or cannot work with Nvidia, if that merger goes through.

If Intel is after SiFive to exploit Nvidia's ambitions with Arm, there's a danger SiFive could be left on the shelf along with FPGA maker Altera, which Intel bought for $16.7bn in 2015, if that strategy doesn't work out.

Naveen Rao, who cofounded deep-learning chip startup Nervana, which was bought and later axed by Intel, warned SiFive could be a casualty of another war between Intel and Nvidia. Intel acquired Nervana to take on Nvidia's AI accelerators, and pulled the plug on that line of attack in early 2020. What could happen to SiFive if it's bought just to be a nuisance for a combined Nvidia-Arm?

"Having been a pawn in that game," he tweeted, "it'll kill any innovation SiFive is bringing to the table, unfortunately." Rao, who left Intel a few months after Nervana's much-delayed processors were canned, acknowledged that Intel gained a new boss in the meantime, Pat Gelsinger, and so SiFive may fare better under that leadership.

"I’m hopeful things will be different with the new CEO," he told us.

SiFive designs RISC-V processor cores, system-on-chips, and related technology. These blueprints can be licensed by others – for example, Tenstorrent is using SiFive's IP in an AI chip, and Samsung tapped up its CPU cores for 5G modems. SiFive also makes its own boards featuring its chips, such as the HiFive Unmatched and the Learn Inventor board used in the BBC's Doctor Who-themed programming kit for kids.

The upstart is seen as a darling in the RISC-V world because it employs a bunch of people who came up with the architecture, as well as LLVM's main author Chris Lattner, and it gets under the skin of its much, much larger rival Arm, which also designs and licenses CPU cores. SiFive's CPU core designs are also available via Intel's foundry service.

RISC-V is an open instruction set architecture that's essentially a collection of specifications that people can use to implement RV cores, and a community around it. There are similar open-hardware projects, such as OpenRISC, OpenPOWER, and OpenSPARC, though these haven't quite caught the momentum, and corporate and enthusiast interest, that RISC-V has.

In other semiconductor news, IBM is suing chip maker GlobalFoundries for a billion-plus in damages over allegations of fraud and breach of contract. Big Blue says its former foundry partner promised to make 10nm POWER processors, and failed, and then promised 7nm parts, and failed at that, too. ®

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