Amazon gets behind free rival to Arm’s microchips - lol risc-v is doa

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Amazon gets behind free rival to Arm’s microchips​


Vacancies in the US tech giant's devices team show it is exploring custom processors before rival Nvidia swallows the British supplier

By James Titcomb San Francisco 20 March 2021 • 9:30pm

Amazon is throwing its weight behind a free rival to Arm’s microchips in a sign that tech giants are seeking alternatives to the British company’s processors as it prepares to be taken over by US chipmaker Nvidia.

Several job postings for roles in Amazon’s devices team, listed in recent weeks, call for engineers with experience in RISC-V, an “open-source” alternative to the Arm architecture that dominates the market for low-power chips. RISC-V is seen as a looming threat to Arm, whose processor designs are used in almost all the world’s smartphones as well as billions of other electronic devices, putting it among Britain’s most valuable tech companies.

Open-source chip architecture allows companies to access designs without paying the licensing and royalty fees that Arm charges.

Companies such as Google and Qualcomm have contributed to the technology, although many experts believe it will be years until it is capable of challenging Arm. However, Nvidia’s $40bn (£29bn) takeover of Arm, announced six months ago, is believed to have increased interest in RISC-V as some companies believe the deal will threaten Arm’s famous neutrality.

Amazon’s Silicon Valley job listings calling for RISC-V experience indicate that the company is developing custom processors to use in devices such as its Kindle readers, although they could relate to as-yet-unreleased products.

The company has already been investing heavily in designing its own chips for the data centres that power Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing unit, and has a custom Arm-based chip in its Alexa Echo speakers.

RISC-V is seen as unlikely to dethrone Arm’s dominance in smartphones, due to years of software being built around the British company’s designs. But it may pose a threat in newer areas such as “internet of things” devices and connected cars.

“Every serious chip company is doing some level of RISC-V work,” said Jay Goldberg, a former chip executive and analyst. “Where we are seeing RISC-V most is in embedded devices.”

Jensen Huang, Nvidia’s chief executive, last year described RISC-V as “a real threat for Arm” that provided “really intense competition”. Signs of growing interest in the rival technology may improve Nvidia’s chances of securing regulatory approval for buying Arm.

The deal is under investigation in the UK and US and is likely to face scrutiny in China and Europe. Several major tech companies are believed to have raised opposition to the deal, including Qualcomm, Microsoft and Google. Regulators are believed to be concerned that Nvidia ownership might lead Arm to favour the US company over rivals. Arm and Nvidia have both denied this would be the case.

Industry sources suggested that Amazon would be more interested in RISC-V due to its ability to closely customise the chips, rather than the cost savings associated with avoiding royalties paid to Arm. The company did not comment.