10-05-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
One advantage that ARM has always held is its neutral stance on customers, but new UK sanctions against Russia have now seen ARM technology denied to Russia. Why is ARM neutrality important, why do the new sanctions affect ARM, and will these sanctions help RISC-V?
Why is ARM neutrality important?
For the past two years, one of the most talked-about topics in electronics was the attempted acquisition of ARM by Nvidia. Ever since the day of the planned acquisition, governments, businesses, and individuals all expressed their disapproval of the acquisition for numerous reasons, including potential unfair business practices, Nvidia having access to technology before its competitors, and Nvidia having the ability to change ARM architecture to best suit Nvidia technology.
However, one reason that often stood above all was that Nvidia acquiring ARM would potentially see ARM lose its neutrality. Unlike most commercial processor technologies, ARM has a strict position on neutrality such that any customer who wants an ARM license can get one so long as they can pay for it, effectively making it the Switzerland of processors. Additionally, ARM is a UK company meaning that it is not subjected to the many trade restrictions placed by the US, and thanks to the UK leaving the EU, it neither must comply with EU trade restrictions.
This neutrality has meant that ARM has been a key technology for countries including China and Russia, who may otherwise face challenges developing their own processor technologies or accessing major microprocessor and/or microcontroller technologies. But the acquisition of ARM by Nvidia would see the ownership of ARM transferred to a US company, and this would see ARM subjected to US law.
How do new sanctions affect ARM neutrality?
With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia showing no end, the UK has decided to increase sanctions against Russia with the addition of 63 new “No-Sell” entities that includes two of Russia’s most important semiconductor manufacturers, Baikal Electronics and MCST. These new sanctions also prevent ARM from selling its technologies to Russia in an attempt to hold back Russian technology and choke its supply of high-end electronics needed for military equipment.
The two semiconductor manufacturers are expected to be Russia’s temporary answer to replenishing its semiconductor supply while Russia struggles to obtain advanced ICs. However, reports from inside Russia have shown that the processors offered by these two foundries cannot compete with industry-standard devices from other countries, and some reports have even stated that these devices are outright unacceptable for modern applications.
Additionally, it has also been reported that the two major foundries in Russia are only capable of 90nm technology which was the mainstream technology node for 2006. However, it should be understood that modern military equipment won’t necessarily use the latest node as reliability is valued more than capable. For example, some rocket systems and aircraft still use the Z80 processor from the late 1970s as it has shown to be reliable (something that is essential in military missions).
So, how do the new sanctions affect ARMs neutrality? While this technology ban may appear to impact ARMs’ ability to be neutral, one should understand that Russia is conducting an active war against a democratic country bordering the EU. During times of war, extreme measures are often taken, and denying Russia access to ARM could help bring the war to an end sooner.
With the exception of war, ARM rarely denies customers access to their technology (if ever), no matter how bad diplomatic relations are between nations (possibly except for extremes such as Iran and North Korea). Even during the middle of trade wars with China, ARM continued to do business and made its position on neutrality firm.
Will these sanctions help RISC-V dominate?
Despite the sanctions preventing Russia from accessing ARM technology, Russia can simply ignore licensing regulations and manufacture what it needs locally (no Russian government would ever penalise its own essential foundries during times of war). However, many of Russia’s devices are manufactured overseas in countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. These nations will be unlikely to manufacture devices that do not have valid licenses. With Russian foundries only able to produce 90nm devices, Russia’s ability to make high-end commercial equipment has effectively been eliminated.
However, Russia’s inability to access Intel and ARM technology could accelerate the development of RISC-V. While RISC-V implementations can be sanctioned (as they are designed by manufacturers residing in a country), the RISC-V architecture is open-source, meaning that anyone can use it without needing a license. Additionally, any changes to the RISC-V standard will be available to all, and the only challenge that Russian engineers would face would be to implement the new changes.
It is even likely that open RISC-V core implementations will become widely available in the future, which could eliminate the need for proprietary solutions. Furthermore, such cores would be perfectly legal to copy and integrate into custom designs, and these designs could not be refused by foundries on the grounds of licensing.
Overall, it is highly likely that the increasing restrictions faced by Russia will see the development of RISC-V accelerate. The ability for sanctions to limit technology will make the idea of proprietary technology less desirable.