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Year in Review: Arm Flexes IP to Battle RISC-V

January 21, 2020

Author: Tom R. Halfhill

RISC-V is generating enough heat to be felt as far away as Cambridge, England, or so it seemed in 2019 as Arm, the industry’s leading intellectual-property (IP) vendor, took steps to counter its open-source competitor. In addition to shipping its most powerful CPU cores yet, Arm revealed its first multithreaded design, rolled out new vector extensions, opened one of its architectures to user-defined instructions, announced its first neural-network accelerator, and expanded a “try before you buy” program that lets customers evaluate its products while deferring licensing fees.

These measures reinforced the company’s leadership position while giving customers more flexibility. Nevertheless, the open-source alternative continued to evolve and spread. In 2019, vendors such as Andes, Cortus, and SiFive began licensing new RISC-V CPUs that boost performance, strengthen security, and implement new extensions. The battle between Arm and its upstart challenger dominated the IP-related events of 2019 and will heat up in 2020.

DLAs gained momentum in 2019 as processor-IP vendors introduced new cores, engines, and software to accelerate AI workloads. Arm’s first accelerator supports multicore configurations delivering up to 32 trillion operations per second (TOPS). Ceva launched an engine that exceeds 12 TOPS, and Synopsys began licensing cores that can execute 35 TOPS.

For signal processing, two major vendors—Cadence and Ceva—began licensing new DSP cores that improve performance and security. Another, Synopsys, announced its first true DSP core. Graphics IP made less news in 2019, mainly because Arm has crushed most competition. The company reasserted its lead by introducing the new Valhall GPU architecture, while Imagination Technologies announced the next-generation IMG A-Series GPUs. One major IP customer, Apple, began using its own GPUs in smartphones and tablets.

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