Startup SiFive Aims for Open-Source Chips

The company was founded by inventors of the open RISC-V architecture, which was created to enable developers to more easily create custom SoCs.

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The open-source RISC-V chip architecture was created to help developers more easily and cheaply customize processors that run their devices, and last year an industry consortium was formed around the technology. Now the inventors of RISC-V want to see if they can build a business based on the architecture.

SiFive, a startup founded by some RISC-V (pronounced "risk-five") inventors, including Yunsup Lee, Krste Asanovic and Andrew Waterman, launched July 11 and will showcase its new portfolio of system-on-a-chip (SoC) platforms at the RISC-V 4th Workshop July 12 at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass.

The San Francisco-based company wants to bring the broad range of benefits of open-source development—such as affordability, customization and accessibility—to a chip industry that is seeing rapid consolidation and that is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a few big vendors, such as Intel and ARM.

"We want to democratize the access [to silicon development] to the customer," Jack Kang, vice president of product and business development at SiFive, told eWEEK.

The problem in the chip industry is that it's become tremendously expensive, in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars—to develop new processors, according to Kang. Moore's Law—the prediction made five decades ago about the rate of growth in the number of transistors in a chip that has driven development ever since—is coming to an end, which is helping drive up the cost of producing processors, said Yunsup Lee, a SiFive co-founder and its CTO and one of the inventors of RISC-V.

The result is that developing processors becomes the purview of a handful of vendors that need to court large customers in order to justify the high costs of developing processors, the SiFive officials said. Smaller system and device designers are getting priced out of the market for high-performance chips, and have little-to-no chance to find one that can be customized to fit their particular needs.

That situation drove the development of the RISC-V architecture and the launch last year of the foundation around it. The inventors, who were with the University of California, Berkeley, saw an opportunity to apply the principles of open-source software to the chip-making business, and in the process give smaller system makers access to chips that can be easily and affordably customized for their needs.

That is what Linux and other open-source efforts have done in the software industry, and there are some groups—in particular, the Facebook-led Open Compute Project—that are trying to apply the same ideas to data center hardware systems, including servers, storage appliances and networking gear. SiFive is the first to embrace the RISC-V architecture and try to commercialize it.

SiFive is unveiling two platforms that include everything from the software specification, board operating system support packages, development boards and base silicon. The platforms enable customers to take the base silicon and customize it to their needs. SiFive then incorporates the customizations and enhancements into the platform and delivers the silicon to the customer, both at a lower cost and more quickly.

The Freedom Unleashed family of chips—the Freedom U500 Series—is aimed at systems running applications like machine learning, storage and networking. The platform includes high-performance multi-core RISC-V CPUs that can run up to 1.6GHz or higher and support for accelerators like field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and cache coherency, and are built using Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.'s (TSMC) 28-nanomter manufacturing process.