Arm Giving Customers Keys to Designs as Open Source Threatens Royalties


The decision by ARM, the British chip designer, to make some of its patents available to license holders demonstrates the power of the open source movement to remake the rules of microchip development.

Spurred by competition from alternate versions of its blueprints that earn more than $20 billion in royalties annually, the multinational company is now offering access to some closely guarded codeOpens a new window  — free of charge.

Beginning next year, license holders can draw on formerly proprietary Instruction Set Architectures (ISAs) that form the machine-language interface between software programs and the hardware on which they run. Using them, ARM’s customers can customize chips for specific workloads at the central processor level to boost clock speeds and reduce power consumption.

Coupled with changes in its pricing scheduleOpens a new window that gives the license holders access to ARM’s range of Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) schematics, the company is hustling even as its designs dominate the tech industry. And open-source architectures are the reason why.

Custom Disruption

Specifically, the RISC-VOpens a new window (pronounced “risk-five”) open architecture developed at the University of California at Berkeley is giving ARM executives fits. That’s because their customers are using it to build chips that rival the process efficiencies in ARM’s designs which work in both Android and IPhone smartphones.

One of the customers is the storage specialist Western Digital Corp., which in February released cores built with the RISC-V architecture for its solid-state memory drives. In May, Android-developer Google married the architecture with its Tensor Flow software for open-source processors that execute artificial intelligence applications at the network edge.

Last month, China’s Alibaba released a chipOpens a new window built on the open-source architecture for data centers that support its cloud platform. Chinese companies are embracing RISC-V to lessen reliance on foreign patents amid the trade war.

Although ARM is not a US corporation, it’s abiding by Washington’s trade war sanctions that threaten its royalty revenue model. It cut ties with Huawei, the Chinese 5G gear and smartphone makerOpens a new window , after that company was blacklisted by the Commerce Department.

IoT explosion on horizon

Nevertheless, ARM’s execs expect their remaining partners, including Apple, Qualcomm and Samsung, to push out 50 billion chips based on its architectures over the next two years. Strictly a design and software shop, Arm collects a royalty on every chip produced by the fabricators and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that build their wafers, motherboards and mobiles with its architecture.

With the number of Internet of Things-connected devices expected to triple to 75 billion by 2025, Arm is intent on safeguarding that monopoly. Its first move is opening instruction sets for the Cortex-M33 processers its customers use in low-power device applications, like motion sensors and industrial appliances.

The company says accommodating user-defined instructions will lessen the need for GPUs and other acceleratorsOpens a new window that are built into systems on chips (SoCs) for those applications. SoCs can lengthen process cycles and increase power drain, which ARM says is crucial for battery operated devices.

Safety in software

ARM execs didn’t rule out opening up the instruction sets for more complex designs when they announced the moveOpens a new window at the company’s annual TechCon event in San Jose, Califor nia. Instead, they touted penetration, price and protection to customers.

With partners producing 150 billion chips in the three decades since the founding of ARM, now a subsidiary of Japan’s Softbank, licensees can draw on an extensive software library to customize its instruction sets. Under the recalibrated fee schedule, developers no longer need to dole out millions for access to ARM’s tech until their microcontrollers go into production.

What’s more, active contributor networks will work to lock down vulnerabilities that only promise to grow as more machines – around 130 a second at current rates – are connected in the Internet of Things. To that end, the company is offering its TrustZone toolkit for the 64-bit ARMV-8 architecture that runs the Cortex CPUs.

Still, with nearly 300 companies, universities and research organizations committed to developing RISC-V, those factors may not be enough to deter more ARM customers from taking a chance on the rival architecture.