Without a doubt, RISC-V is generating a lot of buzz and I’m sure a lot of new designs, especially in spaces that are super-cost competitive or demand added differentiation in the processor. I doubt this is having meaningful impact on Arm business, in $$ rather than press. It takes a long time to replace an ecosystem of that size and the confidence markets have in Arm products. It’s not even clear it would make sense to displace Arm in the foreseeable future, any more than it would make sense for Arm to displace Intel in servers. In both cases, there are subset markets that can be better served by an alternative but there’s no apparent (to me) reason to switch most applications.
Still, I’m sure Arm is feeling some heat. I’m guessing they are also under pressure from customers needing to respond to highly fluid demand, such as system builders moving into SoC design, where what IPs they need and how many they need may not be very clear until relatively late in the development cycle. Perhaps some of those design teams might also wonder if life would be a lot easier if they could instead work with other platforms.
After all, the Arm business model for development wasn’t very flexible; you had to decide and pay up-front those IPs you wanted to license. Many RISC-V implementations are open-source and free to use as a starting point, or available under attractive terms compared to Arm options. And, no doubt, there is some appeal to the thought that you might be able to get processor IP for free, with no up-front payment and perhaps no royalties, even if you have to do more design work yourself.
Arm now offers Flexible Access, a new engagement model intermediate between DesignStart ($0 for access to Cortex-M0, M1 and M3, software trial for 90 days, royalties when you go to production) and the standard licensing model where fees vary with IP you want to use, single or multi-use access, levels of access and so on.
In Flexible Access you get access to a much wider range of core and support IP (eg system and security IP), can choose between an option of one tapeout per year or multiple tapeouts per year at (per the current website details) $75k or $200k annually. Again you pay royalties on production volumes. Arm already has several partners active in this engagement model, including AlphaICs, Invecas and Nordic Semi.
IPs included under the plan include most Cortex-M, -A and -R processors, TrustZone and CryptoCell IP, a number of Mali GPUs, system IP such as the AMBA fabric generators and other tools and models for design and software development. Global support and training are also included.
OK, so it’s not free, but it definitely is more flexible. A lot of customers don’t know exactly upfront which IP they are going to need or how many they are going to need. The big systems houses – hyperscalars, communications equipment and similar – won’t particularly care about cost but they do need flexibility. Smaller and more cost-sensitive ventures needing to react quickly to updated spec demands from their customers should definitely appreciate this new model. And I would imagine for all of these customers, easier access to this range of Arm IP has to be a more attractive and safer option than launching a RISC-V adventure.
Not everyone has the stomach for the inevitable risk in embracing open hardware standards or the need to differentiate on the processor. WD knows exactly what they want from RISC-V and has years of experience and large teams building similar designs around Arm cores; their work with RISC-V must feel like a relatively incremental step for them. But IMHO (and I’m not alone) this step will be a big and unnecessary unknown and risk for many. That said, more heat on Arm (or any near-monopoly) is never a bad thing. They’ll work harder and we’ll all benefit.