One of the most interesting projects to see in tech these days is RISC-V. The nonprofit and the wider community are building an open source and standardized instruction set architecture (ISA) that chipmakers can use to design their own chips that are not encumbered by licenses and patents typical of other ecosystems like Arm's.
Building an ISA and the tools that come with it is hard work – and expensive. This is one of the reasons why the industry is practically impervious to the open source movement, which is a mainstay in software circles today. For years, the RISC-V community has developed, made coherent and implemented its vision of the future of computing. The company has received huge amounts of support along the way, with members as diverse as Google, Oculus, Huawei, IBM, Nvidia (which is currently buying Arm), Qualcomm, and more joining the organization.
Now the ecosystem is beginning to mature and prepare for wider adoption outside of hardware labs and test data rooms.
SiFive is one of the most famous companies advancing the commercialization of RISC-V technology. Founded by a number of inventors and leading researchers in the technology (which centered around Berkeley), it has also managed to attract big names like Chris Lattner, who led the development of the Swift programming language, which is now the primary choice for developers in the Apple ecosystem. The company has raised $ 190 million to date, including most recently a Series E round valued at $ 61 million. Among the most notable investors is Sutter Hill, who made a massive return on Snowflake Computing earlier this year.
Today at the Linley conference, SiFive, a key stop on the… processor announcement circuit launched its PC-focused RISC-V board called "Unmatched". The aim of the product is to make it easier for developers to purchase PCs or host server farms and to enable them to test their code on the RISC-V architecture. This should make entry into the RISC-V universe more inviting for a wider range of engineers.
This is all part of a revised go-to-market strategy driven by SiFive's new CEO Patrick Little. Little joined the company last month from Qualcomm where he led the company's expansion into automotive technology and has a multi-year background in the industry. Its mission is to put the technological work developed by SiFive in the hands of most users.
"We're just trying to drive adoption and open the platform so software can be developed on a large scale," said Little. He noted that developers have consistently asked for a mainstream PC Card with a standard form factor. "They wanted plug and play on a familiar PC platform," he said.
The HiFive Unmatched PC card houses the SiFive FU740 SoC and has a five-core processor based on SiFive's 7-core, which the company claims is the fastest commercially available core today via RISC-V is available. The board is based on the mini-ITX form factor.
In addition to the PC card, at the Linley conference last week, the company announced the launch of its SiFive Intelligence VIU7 series, a vector processor designed for AI and graphics workflows based on the RVV (RISC-V Vector Extension) focused IS ON.
These announcements form the basis for more new products tailored to meet the industry's key computing needs.
Indeed, a major new driving force for the company is Nvidia's announcement to acquire Arm. That news quickly spread throughout the industry as chipmakers grappled with a future in which the merger would control a wide range of the AI, graphics, and mobile processing markets. More and more companies are looking for alternatives and RISC-V is one of the few available on the market today.
An open source ISA means that "a company can design around this platform for years, or even decades, without fear of it disappearing," Little said. "It has grown from an operational goal to a strategic imperative."
There is little ambition for SiFive. "Leadership is our choice because the opportunity is fantastic right now and we are really just trying to match those assets with the right opportunities." Given market trends and the fact that open source hardware looks less like a pipe dream, SiFive is well positioned to capitalize on the potentially larger shifts in processing we've seen in years.