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SiFive bags $175m to further challenge Arm with RISC-V

CEO tells The Reg his engineers still have sights on phones to servers

SiFive is pulling in nearly $400m in funding this year between a new investment round and the proceeds of a business sale with the ambitious mission of eclipsing rival Arm – and the x86 world of Intel and AMD – with processor designs for everything from smartphones to servers.

The Silicon Valley-based chip designer said Wednesday it had raised a $175m Series F financing round at a more than $2.5bn valuation, only two days after announcing it would sell its OpenFive connectivity business to Alphawave for $210m so that the startup could focus on its RISC-V CPU cores.

SiFive's total funding from investors, which includes SK Hynix as well as the venture arms of Intel, Qualcomm and Western Digital, now stands at more than $350m.

Patrick Little, SiFive's CEO, told The Register that the two cash infusions – with the OpenFive money expected to arrive in late 2022 when the deal closes – serve the same purpose: accelerating its time to market with new designs that best Arm's at performance and efficiency in areas where there is increasingly greater demand for faster computation.

Part of this includes doubling the more than 300 employees in SiFive's core design business over the next 12 to 18 months, according to Little. This does not include the more than 300 people in the OpenFive team who will head to Alphawave later this year.

"It's really down to execution and speed of execution. And so, to me, it's a compute super-cycle where it's really a land grab, and we're moving as quickly as we possibly can," he said.

SiFive was founded in 2015 by the creators of RISC-V, the open-source instruction set architecture. And while the RISC-V ISA is royalty-free to use, SiFive has built a growing business out of it by creating specialty RISC-V-compatible CPU core designs that companies can license to put into system-on-chips.

The way SiFive makes money is essentially identical to the business model of Cambridge, UK-based Arm, whose CPU designs rule the smartphone and embedded computing worlds, and which is now trying to expand to PC, server, and related markets.

But Little said there are a few reasons why SiFive has increasingly come up into comparisons against Arm, which has allowed his biz to amass more than 100 customers, including Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, and several other top semiconductor companies, over the past few years.

Perf-per-watt saber-rattling with Arm

For one, Little claimed SiFive customers are reporting the company's high-performance core design that was introduced last year can provide the same grunt as Arm's comparable design at 30 percent less power.

Little is talking specifically about SiFive's P550 core design for automotive applications in this case. However, he said what comes next – the P650 and P670 cores ‒ will soon open opportunities for the chip designer in the PC market. Currently x86 giants Intel and AMD rule the market, whereas Arm has a modest but growing footprint with design partners like Qualcomm.

The plan is to keep introducing more powerful and more efficient core designs so that SiFive eventually eclipses anything Arm or other companies have to offer. Little claimed SiFive will be able to match Arm's designs in any market with an efficiency advantage in the next couple of years.

"We believe that over the coming next two years or so we should be able to say to customers in earnest in any market, 'If you can get it from Arm in terms of the performance level, you can get it from SiFive,' and so that's the intention there," he said. "But we do believe that power efficiency is going to be a persistent advantage that we'll have in any performance."

With the way chip design cycles work and with SiFive's cadence of releasing more powerful designs every nine months or so, Little expects that SiFive customers will be releasing system-on-chips for the PC market in the next three and a half years, which would roughly bring us to late 2025.

Little said he expects commercialization of server processors using SiFive designs to follow shortly after. "It's getting there for client computing, that is the highest hurdle, and then we feel like it would spill over to the datacenter very quickly," he said.

Little also wants SiFive to pounce on the prized market that jolted Arm to the world stage and which Intel sorely lost: smartphones. The CEO knows firsthand how difficult it can be to enter the mobile space. After all, he was previously an executive for several years at Qualcomm, where he led that chip designer's expansion into the automotive space.

But Little said RISC-V is well-suited for mobile, especially because of its low-power capabilities. "We don't see anything in the architecture that would stop us from having profound success in mobile as well," he said.

Open standards, flexible customer agreements

Outside of Little's performance-per-watt saber-rattling, he believes there are a couple other areas that sets SiFive apart from rivals.

Most crucially, RISC-V is an open standard. That means that if SiFive were to evaporate as a company tomorrow, which we, even as neutral industry observers, would not like to see, companies using chips powered by SiFive technology wouldn't be left completely high and dry, according to Little. Their applications, middleware, and services built for SiFive's RISC-V cores would run on whatever RISC-V-compatible processor they deploy next as a replacement.

"So from one RISC-V vendor to the next RISC-V vendor, there is software compatibility," Little said, contrasting this with Arm, whose ISA is proprietary. "If Arm went away and a company had built a software stack on top of the Arm architecture, there's nowhere to go with that," he said.

There are holders of Arm architectural licenses, such as Apple, that could, we suppose, continue designing their own Arm-compatible CPU cores even if Arm were to vanish. Little's general point was that if Arm were to disappear, system-on-chip designers relying on off-the-shelf Arm cores, and companies with layers of Arm software, could find themselves in a tough spot if not a dead end.

Little said these concerns about Arm and the future availability of its technologies became acute in 2020 when Nvidia announced its intent to acquire the British company, which for multiple Arm customers and regulators raised questions about whether Nvidia would play fair with Arm's licensing model despite the GPU giant offering multiple assurances.

These concerns ultimately sank the Nvidia-Arm deal in February, and Little said it all translated into increased interest in SiFive from organizations once considering Arm designs. This benefited not only SiFive's business for performance core designs, where Arm is the incumbent, but also its design business for artificial-intelligence workloads, according to Little.

"We only launched the product 10 months ago or something like this, and it's already half of our pipeline because we're finding that customers are reticent to get into a situation with a proprietary supplier in a new space," he said of SiFive's Intelligence line of chip blueprints for accelerating AI.

Little sees another advantage for SiFive: the company can be flexible with agreements for licensing and royalty payments for its designs, the latter of which happens when a customer starts selling SiFive-based chips.

"If they say, 'Hey, we're higher volume or lower volume, let's move the business model around a little bit,' we're open to those discussions," Little said.

Tailwinds from a reported suitor

Among the investors in SiFive's Series F round is Intel Capital, the venture arm of Intel that has previously backed the chip designer. Over the past 12 months, Intel has pledged to manufacture RISC-V chips from its new foundry business and support companies in the RISC-V ecosystem with a $1bn innovation fund, efforts of which include working with SiFive.

Little said he thinks Intel's support of SiFive and the RISC-V ecosystem is "more historically critical or important than everybody gave it credit for," and that it will help his company endure.

Even the Intel juggernaut is behind making it successful

"From that moment on, I can really feel that the world is saying, 'OK, it's going. RISC-V is going. There's no question about it now. It's very obvious. Even the Intel juggernaut is behind making it successful.' So it was really actually very important and a big risk mitigator for us," he said.

Intel apparently had such a great interest in SiFive that it reportedly tried to acquire SiFive for $2bn last year, though the discussions ultimately went nowhere, as Bloomberg reported last October.

Little declined to comment on the report, but he said his goal is to make the company ready for an initial public offering in the next two years.

At the same time, Little said he wants to keep his options open, which could include staying private longer. He also didn't dismiss takeover interest.

"It's a very popular theme inside the company: that we think we're 'IPO-able' in the coming few years," he said.

"Whether or not anyone from the outside tries to work closer or acquire SiFive is anyone's guess. But I think for us, it doesn't matter anyway because we're just heads-down creating the value." ®

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