Discover more from More Than Moore
The Risk of RISC-V: What's Going on at SiFive?
This story was updated on 10/25 with new information.
Original article: A quick one for you. I have received reports, now from multiple sources, that the major torch bearer of the RISC-V platform, a company known as SiFive and formed from the original architects of the RISC-V instruction set, has gone through some major changes.
RISC-V is well known as the royalty free alternative to other core architectures on the market. The idea is that anyone can pick up the architecture, build their own core out of it, add their own custom features to it, then build it without any royalty payments. The problem is that building a core, or building an SoC, isn't that simple. Lots of techniques go into designing a core, and simply having an architecture isn't the end-point, it's merely the start. That's why RISC-V has seen a lot of adoption for people who want to design cores on paper, but then it has taken time to come into silicon. Even beyond that, if you want a chip that is either high performance, or high efficiency, or both, then you still need a team of dedicated core and SoC designers to go make that happen.
RISC-V has seen major pickup in the low-end core space, particularly replacing microcontrollers. Companies like Western Digital have been very public about their RISC-V cores replacing microcontrollers and other functions in their storage devices. Other companies like NVIDIA, Google, and recently Qualcomm, have staked their RISC-V intentions, and since the bust-up between Arm and China, RISC-V is taking a footing over there as well. Some companies are looking at high performance RISC-V cores, such as Tenstorrent (you can watch my video of their 128-core chiplet here) and Ventana Micro. A lot of the companies involved in RISC-V are part of the RISC-V International consortium which essentially manages the ecosystem, with a lot of companies upstreaming key parts of the architecture and microarchitecture for performance, security, and other aspects. A level playing field for foundational support, such as an equivalent to ARM's SBSA L3 that ensures all servers meet specific minimum requirements, is also the target of RISC-V International.
There are also a number of companies in the Core IP business for RISC-V cores. SiFive has been the biggest for a while - it has achieved $365m in venture capital to date up to Series F, as well as sold off part of its assets for $220m in the last 12 months or so. Things have been riding high - it has a portfolio of cores that companies can license for their RISC-V designs, from microcontrollers to scalar cores to vector cores. It still follows the Arm model of licensing a core, but maintains the open-ness and customization that RISC-V offers.
So what is this news today? Through multiple sources, SiFive has instigated a large number of layoffs. Numbers vary, from 100 to 300+, but multiple sources confirm that most of the engineering team, especially the physical design engineers, sales, and product team. The management team have also been fired from what I've been told, leaving the founders and CEO Patrick Little at the helm. That's a heck of a shake up.
But that's not all. The product portfolio is also being gutted. SiFive's business always had two elements - predesigned cores you can pick up, most of which have already been silicon proved, and SiFive even announced two new cores literally only a week ago. The other half of the business is custom cores - where clients would approach the team with specific requirements and then SiFive would actually go and design it, to be installed into a full SoC. My contacts are telling me (although not to the same level of certainty as the layoffs) that the pre-designed core portfolio is no more. SiFive from now on it seems will only be working on custom cores.
I approached SiFive's PR agency to get details. They provided me with an official statement:
“As we adjust to the rapidly changing semiconductor end markets, SiFive is realigning across all of our teams and geographies to better take advantage of the opportunities ahead, reduce operational complexities and increase our ability to respond quickly to customer product requirements. Unfortunately, as a result some positions were eliminated last week. The employees are being offered severance and outplacement assistance. SiFive continues to be excited about the momentum and long-term outlook for our business and RISC-V.”
That statement confirms stuff is going on, but also doesn't say much. It confirms there are layoffs for sure, but then also says 'reduce operational complexity', which often means cutting the product portfolio. 'Responding quickly' means smaller teams more often than not, and 'realigning across geographies' may suggest pulling out of certain markets (i.e., sales). Perhaps a formal announcement will be made in due course.
This is a bit of a stab into the belly of RISC-V, given the prominence with which SiFive has taken to the industry in promoting RISC-V technology. It sounds like SiFive will stick around, however I wonder how long the founders will stay there if the only business being done is custom cores. Perhaps SiFive's big business was custom cores, and this is not much of a change, but given the numbers for layoffs I'm hearing, it sounds like there will be fewer contributions to the RISC-V standards from SiFive from now on. There's also the question of what this means for investors, what questions they'll be asking, and what answers they'll be getting.
Edit 2023/10/24: SiFive’s PR agency reached out to me with a second official statement on the matter.
As we identify and focus on our greatest opportunities, SiFive is shifting to best meet our customers’ fast-changing requirements by undergoing a strategic refocusing of all our global teams.
Unfortunately, with this realignment, approximately 20% of employees across all different business groups and levels were impacted. The employees are receiving severance and outplacement assistance.
SiFive continues to be excited about the long-term opportunities for the company and for RISC-V. The growth of the company has never been stronger and the opportunities never better. We are well funded for years in the future and continue to work with the market leaders in every segment.
We remain focused on our four product groups, essential, intelligence, performance and automotive, and as we explained in a press event earlier this month, have a robust roadmap to meet the needs of these markets. We see tremendous new opportunities in AI and with Consumer products like wearables and mobile as Google brings Android to the RISC-V ecosystem.
We will continue to offer customization for specific customers, offering standard and custom products where it makes sense from a business standpoint.
There’s not much new here in this statement, although it confirms a 20% layoff of employees, which is around 120-130 people. It also states that SiFive is funded for years, in the future, trying to allay fears of any potential customer not engaging for fear of long-term support issues.
One other theory into the mix, after speaking with a few of my peers, is that one of SiFive’s investors could have pulled out, to the tune of $50-100m, with little to zero notice. SiFive has completed a Series F funding round, and it wouldn’t be too far fetched for an investor to feel like their investment hasn’t brought about enough of a return in that time. If they pull out a big chunk o’money that quickly, then immediate layoffs and product pivot is a reasonable reaction.
Update 10/25: SiFive have reached out to me directly to clarify a number of points. In order of the points addressed:
The re-organization was to better align with global operations, the roadmap, and streamline the company to better align with industry demands. As a result, they eliminated inefficiencies and reduced headcount as a consequence. SiFive highlights that it was a consequence, not the objective, and states that this is common as companies scale in the tech sector.
The speculation I made in my first update, after conversing with industry peers, regarding investor funding being pulled is untrue. SiFive is ‘incredibly well funded and has terrific support from investors’.
The reports about the change in roadmap from premade cores to custom cores only are untrue. SiFive states that the roadmap is being enhanced, and the addition of the new cores in the last couple of weeks are part of that enhancement.
My initial reporting suggested that anywhere from 30-300+ employees were being laid off, with those numbers being ‘especially the physical design engineers, sales, and product team’, and management. The numbers I’d heard from multiple sources varied, hence the wide range, although 70-150 had been the most common. The second statement from SiFive’s agency confirmed that the layoffs are 20%, however SiFive directly has offered corrections and explained that all functions had a headcount reduction.
SiFive stated that if I had reached out to them in advance, the points could have been clarified sooner. I responded saying I did reach out, through their PR agency, as that was the only contact point I have with the company. The PR agency SiFive uses is one that I highly respect as well, and so I was confident that the responses I’d received were all SiFive wanted to respond in the matter. Also, as you expect from my reporting, the data I have has been verified by trusted sources. I’m not one to post rumor, as shown by my career.
I have floated the idea with SiFive that, if there is interest, the CEO Patrick Little and I could sit down for an interview. If that happens I’ll be engaging with my social network communities to solicit potential questions and interests from the wider audience.
There's also a video version, based on the initial reporting, for those interested: