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Could the NVIDA-Arm Deal reinvigorate RISC-V?

Nvidia’s contentious acquisition of Arm has led to speculation that the firm won’t be able to maintain its neutrality, and that rivals could come to occupy a larger share of the open source chip market.

Chief among these competitors is RISC-V, the royalty-free chip firm started by Californian academics in 2010. The company’s open ISA architecture was already growing in popularity prior to the ARM-Nvidia deal, and only gained momentum as the US-China trade war escalated and Huawei announced they were considering RISC-V as a backup in the event that Arms’ core designs became restricted.

RISC-V designs have also found favour in Chinese universities, where academics are nurturing homegrown talent with open-source standards that can be freely built upon.

In the West, RISC-V has found equal success, hitting it big with licensees including Western Digital and SiFive, and building a flourishing open source ecosystem controlled from headquarters in the neutral territory of Switzerland, which is less vulnerable to trade war sanctions.

Growing interest in RISC-V was made clear in June, when best-known proponent SiFive raised $65.4m from big backers including Qualcomm ventures, Samsung, and Intel. Then in September, the Nvidia acquisition turned even more heads, leading to speculation that a resurgent RISC-V could fill the gap left by ARM’s neutrality.

Should the Arm deal go awry and the firm lose the ability to act as a neutral supplier, then it is not outside the realm of possibility that RISC-V could eat into Arm’s market share, particularly in China.

Yet at the same time, the expanding chip market is creating more room for competition, leaving plenty of space for more Arm-based and RISC-V chip architectures to serve data hungry, demanding tasks, including 5G services, next gen wireless connectivity, cloud computing, big data, internet of things (IoT) and machine learning.

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