Qualcomm talks up RISC-V, roasts ‘legacy architecture’ • The Register

Comment As Qualcomm tries to fend off a lawsuit from Arm demanding that Qualcomm destroy its own cores, the Snapdragon giant has hinted that it may have a bigger future with RISC-V.

And that’s all, while Qualcomm criticized the “existing legacy architecture” for having unnecessary features and not meeting certain requirements.

At the RISC-V Summit this week, Qualcomm director of product management Manju Varma said that RISC-V, an emerging alternative to Arm’s proprietary instruction set architecture, has opportunities for the full range of devices Qualcomm designs chips for, from wearables and smartphones to laptops. and connected cars.

Someone is playing a game on a Qualcomm phone

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While Qualcomm continues to use Arm’s instruction set architecture (ISA) and standard CPU designs as the basis for application processing cores inside its system-on-chips (SoCs), the US giant has turned to RISC-V for microcontroller cores. within its chips, starting with the Snapdragon 865 SoC in 2019, according to Varma, who helps drive Qualcomm’s CPU strategy and roadmap across the company’s portfolio.

Varma said the Snapdragon giant is now using RISC-V microcontrollers in SoCs in computers, mobile devices, wearables, connected cars, as well as augmented reality and virtual reality headsets. These microcontrollers perform low-level background work such as hardware management.

This has led to Qualcomm apparently shipping more than 650 million RISC-V cores to date, making ISA “one of the foundational technologies for Qualcomm” and Qualcomm “one of the leaders in implementing RISC-V”.

Qualcomm, we note, is a founding member of RISC-V International, the body that oversees the free, open source ISA, so its support and enthusiasm for RISC-V is no surprise.

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The Qualcomm exec added that RISC-V has opportunities for higher-value use cases than microcontrollers.

“Now, with a common core instruction set architecture that can scale from low-end microcontrollers to high-performance computing and everything in between, it truly enables industry-wide efficiency,” Varma said in her keynote address.

Touted advantages of RISC-V over “legacy architecture”

Qualcomm first turned to RISC-V for the microcontroller in the Snapdragon 865 because it “needed something that was customizable, met our unique requirements, and had a small footprint,” according to Varma. One thing about RISC-V is that it can be extended with custom instructions and functions of the CPU core implementers.

“Solutions from the existing older architecture did not meet these requirements,” she added.

Varma said the main advantage of RISC-V is that it receives feature contributions from various companies and organizations at all levels of the “value chain,” from ISAs and CPUs to system software, operating systems, and the bottom line. user application. This contrasts with the legacy architecture, which is “owned by one entity in the value chain,” she added.

The contribution structure for RISC-V, enabled by its open source nature and managed by the non-profit organization RISC-V International, creates “an opportunity to add features that add value to end consumers. [and] they are defined in agreement with everyone in that value chain,” says Varma.

That’s another area where older architecture falls short, she added.

“Now, we’ve often seen legacy architecture in the past where features were introduced that didn’t really bring value to end consumers,” Varma said.

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With RISC-V, there is an opportunity to define chip designs that have “best-in-class performance, best-in-class power efficiency and value-added features,” she said.

So wait, is Arm a ‘legacy architecture?’

In the three instances where Varma referred to this “old architecture”, she did not refer to it by name. While we can’t say definitively that he’s talking about Arm, there are just a few good reasons to believe that he is:

  1. Qualcomm has historically been the primary licensee of Arm’s ISA and standard chip designs.
  2. Arm claims to be the dominant player in microcontrollers, with its Cortex-M designs accounting for nearly three-quarters of Arm-based chip shipments each year.
  3. Varma compared RISC-V to older architectures in the context of ISA, which can scale from microcontrollers to high-performance computing, representing the range of Arm’s capabilities. As a result, we don’t think she was talking about many other ISAs for microcontrollers. And we didn’t get the impression they were talking about x86.

Then there’s the fact that Arm is suing Qualcomm in an attempt to destroy its own Nuvia cores, which are designed to be compatible with the first ISA.

Arm believes that Qualcomm’s own cores should be destroyed because, in Arm’s view, the Snapdragon giant failed to negotiate a new architectural license agreement after acquiring the Nuvia startup in 2021, where development of the cores began.

Qualcomm, on the other hand, says it can continue to develop its own cores because it has an existing architectural license with Arm that “extensively overlaps” with Nuvia’s.

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While Qualcomm has not said what it will do if it loses the lawsuit, several analysts said the legal dispute gives companies more reason to consider RISC-V as an alternative to Arm, whether Arm wins or not.

As we reported earlier, Qualcomm’s interest in RISC-V is not new. The company began using RISC-V for microcontrollers in products in 2019, and in the same year invested in SiFive, a RISC-V chip designer that competes with Arm.

Varma says RISC-V needs improvement

While Varma spent much of his keynote advocating the benefits of RISC-V, he issued a call for developer community participation around ISA, saying that contributors must work to standardize features and reduce fragmentation, a known problem among developers. .


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“As a silicon vendor, we see the need for standardized RISC-V compatible system IP. We see a lot of innovation in the application processor space. We see a lot of diversity, competition, differentiation, and that’s great. But we need to make sure we standardize system IP to reduce ecosystem fragmentation ,” said Varma.

A Qualcomm executive stated that the RISC-V community must ensure that there is no regression in the features that are offered for ISA.

Varma added more wishlist items for RISC-V:

If the RISC-V community developed “best-in-class architecture specifications” for security, machine learning and AI, and introduced new features faster, the ISA ecosystem “would have a huge advantage at time of market,” Varma concluded. ®


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