Sep
10
2018
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Intel acquires NetSpeed Systems to boost its system-on-a-chip business

Intel today is announcing another acquisition as it continues to pick up talent and IP to bolster its next generation of computing chips beyond legacy PCs. The company has acquired NetSpeed Systems, a startup that makes system-on-chip (SoC) design tools and interconnect fabric intellectual property (IP). The company will be joining Intel’s Silicon Engineering Group, and its co-founder and CEO, Sundari Mitra, herself an Intel vet, will be coming on as a VP at Intel where she will continue to lead her team.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but for some context, during NetSpeed’s last fundraise in 2016 (a $10 million Series C) it had a post-money valuation of $60 million, according to data from PitchBook.

SoC is a central part of how newer connected devices are being made. Moving away from traditional motherboards to create all-in-one chips that include processing, memory, input/output and storage is an essential cornerstone when building ever-smaller and more efficient devices. This is an area where Intel is already active but against others like Nvidia and Qualcomm many believe it has some catching up to do, and so this acquisition in important in that context.

“Intel is designing more products with more specialized features than ever before, which is incredibly exciting for Intel architects and for our customers,” said Jim Keller, senior vice president and general manager of the Silicon Engineering Group at Intel, in a statement. “The challenge is synthesizing a broader set of IP blocks for optimal performance while reining in design time and cost. NetSpeed’s proven network-on-chip technology addresses this challenge, and we’re excited to now have their IP and expertise in-house.”

Intel has made a series of acquisitions to speed up development of newer chips to work in connected objects and smaller devices beyond the PCs that helped the company make its name. Another recent acquisition in the same vein include eASIC for IoT chipsets, which Intel acquired in July. Intel has also been acquiring startups in other areas where it hopes to make a bigger mark, such as deep learning (case in point: its acquisition of Movidius in August).

NetSpeed has been around since 2011 and Intel was one of its investors and customers.

“Intel has been a great customer of NetSpeed’s, and I’m thrilled to once again be joining the company,” said Mitra, in a statement. “Intel is world class at designing and optimizing the performance of custom silicon at scale. As part of Intel’s silicon engineering group, we’re excited to help invent new products that will be a foundation for computing’s future.”

Intel said it will to honor NetSpeed’s existing customer contracts, but it also sounds like it the company will not be seeking future business as Intel integrates the company into its bigger business.

Apr
02
2018
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SiFive gets $50.6M to help companies get their custom chip designs out the door

With the race to next-generation silicon in full swing, the waterfall of venture money flowing into custom silicon startups is already showing an enormous amount of potential for some more flexible hardware for an increasingly changing technology landscape — and Naveed Sherwani hopes to tap that for everyone else.

That’s the premise of SiFive, a startup that’s designed to help entrepreneurs — or any company — come up with a custom designed chip for their needs. But rather than having to raise tens of millions of dollars from a venture firm or have a massive production system in place, SiFive’s goal is to help get that piece of silicon in the hands of the developer quickly so they can see if it actually works based off a set of basic hardware and IP offered, and then figure out when and how to move it into full-scale production. The company starts by offering templates and then allows them to make some modifications for what eventually ends up as a piece of RISC-V silicon that’s in their hands. SiFive today said it has raised $50.6 million in venture financing in a round led by Sutter Hill Ventures, Spark Capital, and Osage University Partners.

“The way we view it, is that we think we should not depend on people learning special languages and things of that nature to be able to modify the architecture and enhance the architecture,” Sherwani said. “What we believe is there could be a high-level interface, which is what we’re building, which will allow people to take existing cores, bring them into their design space, and then apply a configuration. Moving those configurations, you can modify the core, and then you can get the new modified core. That’s the approach we take, we don’t have to learn a special language or be an expert, it’s the way we present the core. We’d like to start with cores that are verified, and each of these modifications does not cause to become non-verifiable.”

SiFive is based on a design framework for silicon called RISC-V. You could consider it a kind of open source analog to designs by major chip fab firms, but the goal for RISC-V chips is to lean on the decades of experience since the original piece of silicon came out of Intel to develop something that is less messy while still getting the right tasks done. Sherwani says that RISC-V chips have more than 50 instruction sets while common chips will have more than 1,000. By nature, they aren’t at the kind of scale of an Intel, so the kinds of efficiencies those firms might have don’t exist. But SiFive hopes to serve a wide array of varying needs rather than mass-producing a single style of silicon.

There are two flows for developers looking to build out silicon using SiFive. First is the prototype flow, where developers will get a chance to spec out their silicon and figure out their specific needs. The goal there is to get something into the hands of the developer they can use to showcase their ideas or technology, and SiFive works with IP vendors and other supply chain partners — during this time, developers aren’t paying for IP. Once the case is proved out (and the startup has, perhaps, raised money based on that idea) they can switch to a production flow with SiFive where they will start paying for IP and services. There’s also a potential marketplace element as more and more people come up with novel ideas for operational cores.

“For any segment in the market there will be a few templates available,” Sherwani said. “We’ll have some tools and methodologies there, and among all the various templates are available show what would be the best for [that customer]. We also have an app store — we are expecting people who have designed cores who are willing to share it, because they don’t need it to be proprietary. If anyone uses that template, then whatever price they can put on it, they can make some money doing that. This whole idea of marketplaces will get more people excited.”

As there is an intense rush to develop new customized silicon, it may be that services like the ones offered by SiFive become more and more necessary. But there’s another element to the bet behind SiFive: making the chip itself less ambiguous and trying to remove black boxes. That doesn’t necessarily make it wildly more secure than the one next to it, but at the very least, it means when there is a major security flaw like Intel’s Spectre problems, there may be a bit more tolerance from the developer community because there are fewer black boxes.

“All these complications are there and unless you have all this expertise, you can’t do a chip,” Sherwani said. “Our vision is that we deliver the entire chip experience to that platform and people can be able to log in. They don’t need a team, any tools, they don’t need FPGAs because all those will be available on the web. As a result the cost goes down because it’s a shared economy, they’re sharing tools, and that is how we think dramatically you can do chips at much lower cost.”

While there is a lot of venture money flowing into the AI chip space — with many different interpretations of what that hardware looks like — Sherwani said the benefit of working with SiFive is to be able to rapidly adapt an idea to a changing algorithm. Developers have already proven out a lot of different tools and frameworks, but once a piece of silicon is in production it’s not easy to change on the fly. Should those best practices or algorithms change, developers will have an opportunity to reassess and redesign the chip as quickly as possible.

The idea of that custom silicon is going to be a big theme going forward as more and more use cases emerge that could be easier with a customized piece of hardware. Already there are startups like Mythic and SambaNova Systems, which have raised tens of millions of dollars and specialize in the rapid-fire calculations for typical AI processes. But this kind of technology is now showing up in devices ranging from an autonomous vehicle to a fridge, and each use case may carry different needs. Intel and other chip design firms probably can’t hit every niche, and the one-size-fits-all (or even something more modular like an FPGA from Intel) might not hit each sweet spot. That, in theory, is the hole that a company like SiFive could fill.

Aug
22
2017
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Microsoft Brainwave aims to accelerate deep learning with FPGAs

 This afternoon Microsoft announced Brainwave, an FPGA-based system for ultra-low latency deep learning in the cloud. Early benchmarking indicates that when using Intel Stratix 10 FPGAs, Brainwave can sustain 39.5 Teraflops on a large gated recurrent unit without any batching. Read More

Nov
02
2016
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Broadcom acquires Brocade in $5.9 billion deal

Broadcom headquarters Broadcom, Ltd bought Brocade Communications Systems today for $5.9 billion, giving the company a strong offering in networking storage business. It’s quite a nice deal for Brocade shareholders, who gain a 47 percent premium over the $8.69 closing price last Friday night (October 28th). Under the terms of the deal, Broadcom will pay $12.75 per share. It’s an all-cash $5.5… Read More

Jun
01
2015
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Intel-Altera Deal Marks Second Big Chip Company Merger In Less Than A Week

Intel logo outside their headquarters. This morning Intel confirmed it had bought Altera, maker of programmable chips, for $16.7 billion. That may seem like a big number until you consider that Avago Technologies Ltd. bought wireless-chip maker Broadcom last week for $37 billion. It’s a good week to be in the chip business. According to published reports, the deal has been in the works for months, but perhaps the… Read More

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