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What’s Next for ARM and RISC-V?

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Introduction

There have been some interesting developments in the world of CPU chips this past week. In this article we’ll look at what’s happening in the ARM and RISC-V worlds. Sure both Intel and AMD have been making interesting announcements, but these feel like more of the same, so if we cover these at all, it will be in a separate article. Here we’ll look at the nVidia purchase of ARM and the responses from some of the major players. RISC-V is finally starting to announce some mainstream CPUs and it couldn’t come at a better time, with people looking for alternatives to ARM, in case they have problems with nVidia.

nVidia Buying ARM is Official

Last Sunday, the news articles started to appear about Softbank’s sale of ARM to nVidia for 40 billion in cash and stock. This isn’t a done deal as there is a certain amount of opposition that could make regulatory approval difficult. I think this could prolong approval, but I suspect it will go ahead. There is speculation that the Chinese government could derail the sale, but I don’t think so as this really mainly involves Japanese, British and US companies and any Chinese involvement is minor. There has been opposition in the UK to this deal, but this comes across as hypocritical as the same people were all for the sale to Softbank when they would directly profit from the deal, but now that it’s the Japanese making the money they are against it. Ultimately I don’t think this will cause jobs to move from the UK to US as the skilled workers required are in such short supply that everyone has to be well taken care of.

Let’s look at the main companies that are heavily invested in ARM technology and how they might be affects:

Apple

If Apple was going to be negatively affected by this deal, they could have easily outbid nVidia and bought ARM themselves. The fact that they didn’t shows they aren’t overly concerned. Further Apple licenses the ARM instruction set, not the actual CPU cores since Apple designs these themselves. Apple is moving ahead full steam with releasing new ARM based CPUs. They just released an iPad Air with their new A14 CPU, an extremely powerful ARM multi-core processor based on TSMC’s new 5nm technology. These new CPUs will power the next generation of iPhone and Mac’s as well.

Samsung

Samsung produces their Exynos line of ARM processors. Samsung also manufactures all the processing chips used in nVidia graphics cards. nVidia is already one of Samsung’s biggest customers and I’m sure they are happy with this deal.

Qualcomm

Qualcomm makes many of the ARM processors used in Android phones. Their expertise is adding cell phone radio components to the chips to produce all-in-one cell phone systems on a chip. I don’t think Qualcomm is threatened by this deal and might like ARM being owned by a fellow American company. This would be similar for Broadcom and MediaTek.

Intel

Intel is feeling threatened both by ARM and AMD in the processor world. Further they are threatened by TSMC and Samsung in the chip manufacturing business. I think their bigger worry is TSMC, as their processors would be much more competitive if based on a better chip technology. Intel won’t be happy about all the attention ARM is given, but whether Softbank or nVidia own ARM is a bit of a wash for Intel.

AMD

AMD has been doing quite well integrating their graphics technology into their CPU chips. This has been a big competitive advantage for them. Now though they face competition from Intel integrating their Xe graphics into their CPUs and now from nVidia producing ARM processors with integrated nVidia graphics. AMD will see this as a major threat to both their CPU and graphics businesses.

Microsoft

Microsoft has been supporting ARM chips with limited versions of Windows. If more ARM based laptops start appearing, Microsoft is going to have to produce a proper full version of Windows for ARM. Microsoft lags Apple in emulation technology and is going to have a harder time supporting older Intel only programs on these new computers.

What About RISC-V

This past week, my blog articles on RISC-V have spiked in readership. I can only assume that the pending sale of ARM has stimulated intense interest in RISC-V as an alternative that isn’t owned and controlled by one company. This is combined with SiFive the company that consists of the people that designed the RISC-V instruction set has announced a number of new CPUs that they claim will lead to affordable desktop PCs and servers. We previously blogged that until there is an affordable RISC-V SBC similar to the Raspberry Pi that adoption will remain limited to a few specialized applications.

If one of the various proponents of the RISC-V can bring a 64-bit multi-core based computer to market for a couple hundred dollars or less with at least similar functionality to a Raspberry Pi then people will really take notice. Until they do that they are consigned to specialty IoT and Arduinno type applications.

Summary

Change always puts people on edge and nVidia purchasing ARM from Softbank is certainly a big change. Whether it turns out to be a change for the good, bad, indifferent or ugly is yet to be seen. Assuming this giant deal can pass the necessary regulatory approvals, then towards the end of next year we’ll start to get an idea of where things stand.

In the meantime, this is a great opportunity for the RISC-V camp to gain some traction. They need to show their open hardware approach which is free of all licensing fees can work and produce competitive general purpose computer CPUs.

Written by smist08

September 18, 2020 at 1:43 pm

Posted in Business

Tagged with , , , , , , , ,

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