Apple looking for RISC-V designers – A move away from ARM?

06-09-2021 | By Sam Brown

Recently, Apple made job postings asking for engineers with RISC-V experience. What challenges does NVIDIA present to ARM, what is Apple’s history with ARM, and why could it be looking towards RISC-V?

Apple looking into RISC-V

Recently, Apple made job postings asking for engineers who have RISC-V experience meaning that Apple is looking into RISC-V. Like ARM, RISC-V is a CPU architecture with a reduced instruction set, meaning that it has fewer instructions than CISC CPUs such as Intel and AMD.

Such a processor presents multiple advantages, including smaller core size, better parallel performance, and better use of hardware space. While CISC processors are ideal for supercomputers and business machines, RISC processors are suitable for mobile and everyday computing applications.

However, Apple pushed the abilities of RISC CPUs into the realm of desktop computing with their Apple M1 SoC. Developing their own processor has led to some significant advantages, including the ability to fully customise their hardware, remove their dependence on Intel developments, and improve control over the supply chain.

The Apple M1 utilises ARM as the CPU architecture, and while Apple design and manufacture the M1 they are required to license and pay royalties on each M1 device used. If Apple switched over to the RISC-V, an open-source processor architecture, Apple would have no licensing or royalty requirements for the M1 devices, which would reduce the cost.

Why could Nvidia be a problem for ARM?

Nvidia is in the process of trying to acquire ARM, which has the whole industry up in arms as well as many government bodies around the world. While it is most likely that the sale will not go through, the possibility of a deal is already sending shockwaves throughout the industry.

ARM cores have many selling points that make them highly advantageous; they are well supported, found in billions of devices, and easy to obtain. Furthermore, ARM will license their devices to almost anyone who asks, meaning that no company or country is left in the dark regarding the latest ARM technology.

Nvidia wanting to purchase ARM has many worried that they will try to manipulate ARM from the inside with better access to technology, shutting out competitors, and making changes to the structure that benefit Nvidia devices. Nvidia being an American company also means that ARM would be subject to US law, which could be problematic for nations such as China, which is barred from key technologies.

The move by Nvidia to purchase ARM is now seeing companies who rely on ARM technology reconsider their position. The development of RISC-V also presents companies an opportunity to move towards an open-source platform that may compete with ARM on both hardware and software support while facing no licensing or royalty fees.

Could RISC-V replace ARM?

The short answer to this is no, and this is often the case when open-source hardware or software enters any market. A good example is the operating system market; Linux is open-source and entirely free yet virtually insignificant in the desktop market. This is nothing to do with Windows vs Linux performance or whether one GUI is better than another. It is simply because most of the population are comfortable with Windows products. However, Linux dominates the mobile and server fields thanks to its open-source nature and ability to function reliably, proving that Linux lack of popularity is nothing to do with performance or price.

In the case of RISC-V vs ARM, RISC-V may be the free, open-source processor, but ARM has several advantages that RISC-V will arguably never get. Firstly, ARM is one of the most extensively supported architectures with untold libraries, compilers, and programming environments. RISC-V, however, is still in the early days meaning that those programming on RISC-V will have to either port libraries or make them from scratch.

Another advantage of ARM over RISC-V is that ARM is produced commercially by a singular body, whereas RISC-V is a collaboration of many organisations worldwide. Problems faced by ARM cores can be addressed to dedicated teams by ARM that are well funded. However, a designer facing issues with a RISC-V will have no one to turn to except for a few individuals online who provide support as a passing hobby.

By Sam Brown