Vodafone's software-defined silicon bet signals a biz model shakeup

It's not through Intel, which remains quiet on plans to enable chip features via code

Want to enable custom features on a chip? That will cost you … and keep sending the message to chipmakers that this can be the new standard for future software-driven tweaks to pricing models.

The idea of businesses paying money to enable certain features on a chip via software is one step closer to reality this week. Base station-on-a-chip maker EdgeQ said Vodafone will develop a next-generation 5G ORAN platform using its devices to enable software-defined custom features.

The Silicon Valley startup named Vodafone as a customer for its EdgeQ-based L1 acceleration card on Wednesday, after previously telling The Register in June that its RISC-V-based chip will appear in mass-manufactured small cell and base station accelerator card products "by the end of the year."

Vodafone's backing of EdgeQ signals a change in how future businesses could pay for features in chips, which have traditionally been available out of the box.

Software-defined silicon, the concept championed by EdgeQ, has been a source of curiosity and anxiety in the IT industry for the past year, since whispers of Intel's plan to enable features in future Xeon processors through software entered the public consciousness. Intel has yet to say when it could introduce its software-defined silicon technology in next-generation CPUs.

EdgeQ is hoping its pay-for-what-you-use pricing model will make it more feasible for organizations to transition from 4G networks to 5G networks by allowing them to spread out the costs for ramping up new deployments and adding new features. This contrasts with the traditional business model, where organizations pay upfront for equipment including any unwanted features.

No timeline was given for the launch of Vodafone's EdgeQ-based platform, but the global telecom giant said the chip startup will allow network operators like Vodafone to "simply operationalize ORAN." Short for open radio access network, ORAN is a set of standards designed to let operators use non-proprietary hardware and software from various manufacturers.

"We see EdgeQ enriching the ORAN ecosystem with its high capacity in-line L1 acceleration card, bringing fresh thinking and innovation to the overall industry," said Paco Martin, head of OpenRAN for network architecture at Vodafone.

Vodafone isn't the only telecom player buying into EdgeQ's approach. The startup said network software vendor Mavenir will use EdgeQ's silicon to develop a small cell with dual-mode 4G and 5G capabilities. Meant for businesses looking to set up private 5G networks, the EdgeQ-based small cell product is set to come out next year.

If companies like Vodafone and Mavenir end up liking EdgeQ's pay-what-you-use pricing for chips, others may adopt the model. There could be a time in the near future when businesses have the option to pay a monthly or yearly subscription to access certain features of a chip, rather than paying for everything upfront.

This could well please finance departments, but it could also rankle IT folks who are not too keen on giving up complete control of the chips inside their systems. ®

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