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SiFive’s Design Democratization Drive

SiFive’s Design Democratization Drive
by Camille Kokozaki on 04-25-2018 at 7:00 am

There is something endearing and refreshing in seeing a novel approach unfold in our Semi-IP-EDA ecosystem currently settled in its efficient yet, let us say it, unexciting ‘going through the motions’, constantly comparing, matching, competitively and selfishly sub-optimizing what the art of the possible can be.

Enter a new breed of technologists, industry veterans, academics and evangelists articulating and embarking on testing and applying a new business model, building on agility, collaboration and continuous delivery and improvement, emulating moves from the playbook of the widely successful parallel industry of Software, DevOps, IT and Social Media. I am talking about Open Source initiatives like the RISC-V movement, crowd-sourced and building on standardization of an instruction set architecture (ISA) while allowing differentiation for each company with a set of extensions built on top of those common constructs and testing new fresh and promising approaches to business as usual. What is also admirable is the well-intentioned strive to make a better world allowing contributions from parts of the world where opportunity and access to funds and technology are lacking. SiFive is now articulating and executing on this vision.

At the just held GSA Silicon Summit in San Jose, Naveed Sherwani, SiFive’s CEO outlined in his Closing Keynote the elements of this vision and practice. He challenged the audience to explain how Instagram, a 13-employee startup, ended up being a $1B acquisition. The answer was that it provided a minimum viable product (MVP) on top of an existing stack of tools, infrastructure, and technologies that did not need developing from scratch. He posited that in our industry MVPs cost too much ($1M-$7M+), Design takes too long (9-24 Months + Fab Time) and too many experts are needed (14+ disciplines from architects to package and test and all the expert steps in between). He challenged the industry to set the following goals:

  • Reduce Cost by 90%
  • Reduce Time to 1 Month + Fab cycle
  • Reduce needed expertise to System Level

Experts need not panic that they will be made obsolete, they just need to move to a higher level of abstraction (such as moving from writing assembly code to developing application code).

The options for the industry are, moving forward, the following:

  • Automation
  • Reduction of Options
  • Cloud leveraging
  • Deployment of new business models

SiFive’s approach to realizing this has 4 key components:

  • Freedom Designer (Core/Subsystem/Chip)
  • Cloud Platform offering
  • DesignShare
  • Operations (Fabrication/Package/Test/Logistics)

By allowing the definition and reuse of templates in the Freedom Designer, the individual core blocks can be specified, documented and incorporated into the design fabric. By providing a Cloud Platform Offering an IP can be verified while allowing the protection and security of the crown jewels and intellectual property of the offerors. With DesignShare, 3[SUP]rd[/SUP] Party providers supply their IP to SiFive’s Platform at zero cost, increasing design starts, and collecting NRE and royalties when production starts. This also allows interoperation of their IP with other vendors’ and customer internal IP at no initial cost for use and verification by the target customer, deferring the IP charge to a later stage and reducing development and verification time. The initial DesignShare participants were … shared with the audience.


While not explicitly addressed by Naveed, my take on this is that it requires a paradigm shift with some resilience to concerns about ‘Now my competitors can compare my metrics to theirs’ and other reservations about this business model. I view it instead as sharpening the edge and leveling the playing field while concurrently stepping up to match all (if I can mix my metaphors with abandon). Another question from IP providers might be ‘Is this a race to the bottom, selling wise?’. I think not, as selling more design starts is more revenue, albeit deferred, and there is nothing like emerging momentum to make all join with a fear of missing out on the wave.

SiFive is proposing to build a Core, Subsystem, and Chip Design Factory Software Platform with predesigned blocks and components, bringing down design cost 10x from a typical $7.5M down to $750K.


Naveed then walked the talk by showcasing HiFive Unleashed, the World’s first multi-core RISC-V development board booting Linux

Naveed summarized the dramatic benefits of this business model reducing prototyping cost, allowing more startups, design starts, and IP providers, reducing the needed expertise and allowing design contributions by excited young technologists from the abstracted software and hardware worlds. A pledge to offer his software free to all universities and to the fifteen poorest countries was admirable in terms of commitment and smart in setting the stage for a new generation of millennial contributors and entrepreneurs to innovate and prosper. Not specifying which millennial helps preserve inclusiveness in this ongoing revolution, count me in.

Disclosure: I am an active participant in the RISC-V ecosystem which includes SiFive

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