SiFive Is Setting Silicon Free with Open-Source Chips

Moore's Law is dead, just not in the way everyone thinks. SiFive believes open source hardware is the way forward for the semiconductor industry.

Moore's Law is dead...just not in the way everyone thinks. Technological advances keep allowing chips to scale, but the economics are another story – particularly for smaller companies that can't afford chips in the volumes that the big chipmakers would like from their customers.

The solution, according to San Francisco-based startup, SiFive, is open-source hardware, specifically an architecture developed by the company's founders called RISC-V (pronounced “risk-five”). Done right SiFive, which was awarded Startup of the Year at the 2016 Creativity in Electronics (ACE) Awards, believes that RISC-V will do for the hardware industry what Linux has done for software.

The Freedom Everywhere 310 from SiFive is the industry's first commercially available system on a chip based on the free and open RISC-V architecture. (Image source: SiFive]

“We've talked about the demise of Moore's Law for so long it's kind of become this Chicken Little, 'the sky is falling' story," Jack Kang, VP of Product and Business Development at SiFive told Design News. " But now it's happening”

Kang said that Moore's Law is not dead in the sense that chipmakers can still manufacturer smaller transistors that are faster and lower-power, “But we can't make them any cheaper. We're still making transistors smaller, going to smaller nodes, but it's no longer economically feasible for many customers in many markets to go to these nodes. Before, we could just go to the next node and things would be better, faster, and cheaper, now it's no longer cheaper. In fact, it's getting way more expensive.”

Which is not necessarily a problem for the Apples, Samsungs, and IBMs of the world, but what about the smaller companies, startups, even makers and inventors? “For traditional chip companies the ideal customer is one customer at an infinite volume,” Kang said. But the proposition has placed chipmakers into a position where they must function like venture capitalists, only doling out chip hardware instead of investment dollars. “With each customer that comes in chipmakers are trying to gauge if they're going to be successful,” Kang said. “They're looking at justifying the cost. And the design cost is becoming prohibitive for all but a very few companies.” He added that this is only compounded by the growth of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, which is creating more and more market fragmentation.

But it's not just customers feeling the squeeze according the Kang. The push for growth on the part of chipmakers is also running into a wall in terms of supporting customers, begging a question that has become the core of SiFive's philosophy: Why can't the customers support themselves? The deepest levels of traditional chip hardware are locked off from customers (closed if you will), meaning any time a customer runs into an inevitable software bug that they must then return to the chipmaker for a fix. Not to mention they're restricted in what they can build around the chip. “Even the Raspberry Pi is a great example of quote 'open-source hardware,' but then the chip is not open-source. You hear things from developers like, 'I can't use the video accelerator

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