Chip design and production has become a game of giants, and SiFive wants to change that by helping smaller outfits to build custom silicon cheaper and faster

BY MAJEED AHMAD

The
semiconductor industry is at a crossroads amid the rising cost of design and production
of chips, and in this backdrop and an unprecedented consolidation wave,
open-source hardware comes across as a tempting prospect. But the million-dollar
question is how to get there?

 

Open-source
software environments like Linux allow designers to code the actual product,
and that’s not possible in the silicon world. Startup SiFive claims that it has
an answer in what it calls the Linux of microprocessors; RISC-V is a free, open,
and extensible instruction set architecture (ISA) that has been pioneered by
the company’s founders at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

The
San Francisco, CA-based startup is helping to build system-on-chip (SoC)
platforms around RISC-V processor cores and its own IPs as well as third-party
IPs. SiFive integrates RISC-V cores with design IPs in a
“chip-as-a-service” model that relies on the premise that basic parts
in an SoC — 80% to 90% — are common.

 

“It’s
all about adding customization,” says Yunsup Lee, SiFive’s co-founder and
chief technology officer. Lee was part of the team at Berkeley that developed
the RISC-V architecture, which is now
managed by the RISC-V Foundation, a non-profit organization tasked to foster the
open-source hardware community around this free instruction set.

Lee and his comrades at SiFive want to
democratize the access to custom silicon by creating new economic drivers for
the chip industry. The firm is offering custom chips as a service while leveraging
the open-source hardware facilitated by RISC-V processor cores. “Not
everybody has access to custom silicon,” Lee added. “Moreover, ARM
and x86 processor platforms are too big for a six-person team.”

SiFive_Arduino

SiFive’s $59 Arduino board is aimed at creating
custom silicon for the maker community.

 

SiFive’s business model

It’s
a whole new chip design landscape in which SiFive is aiming to bridge the gap
between open-source hardware and commercial silicon production. The SiFive
story isn’t merely about open-source hardware, but also how custom silicon can
be implemented in a viable business model.

 

SiFive
— along with integrating free RISC-V core
— provides customer-specific hardware
along with standard interfaces. Moreover, it provides software tools and processes
needed to build a chip. The entire chip is tested and packaged before handing it
over to the customer.

 

So
is it about time for the open-source silicon? Jack Kang, SiFive’s vice
president of product and business development, says that the open-source hardware movement is just begging for
commercial realization and SiFive is striving to remove barriers in its way.

 

SiFive
has recently launched its first open-source SoC —
Embedded Everywhere 310 or FE310 — for IoT applications. It comes with a $59 Arduino
development board — HiFive1 — for developing custom
microcontrollers. SiFive is also making available the RTL code of the FE310 SoC
so that designers can build their own chips on top of the base FE310.

Find out more about SiFive’s first open-source
RISC-V SoC here.