Peter Mandelson calls on Brussels to block Nvidia-ARM chip merger – POLITICO


Brussels should intervene and block the acquisition of Britain’s tech jewel ARM by U.S. chip giant Nvidia, according to Peter Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner and former U.K. business minister.

Mandelson argued that Brexit should play no role in the EU’s calculus and sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in which he mapped out what he saw as the broader strategic importance of keeping ARM within a European commercial eco-system.

“ARM is a major European asset, the question of its future ownership is of utmost importance to … Europe’s industrial policy,” Mandelson told POLITICO in an interview.

“The only people who have the ability and the political will to stand up against this acquisition on competition grounds are in Europe,” he said. “Brexit is completely irrelevant, it transcends Brexit. It’s a question of Europe’s technological sovereignty, not just Britain.”

Mandelson, who was one of the big hitters in the British Labour Party, is now chairman of a consulting company, but insisted he wrote to von der Leyen in a personal capacity and that he had no stakes in the deal.

Nvidia last month said it is offering $40 billion to acquire ARM, a U.K.-based chip designer that licenses more than 500 companies with the designs of chips embedded in billions of processors. These companies include U.S. tech giants like Intel, Qualcomm, Apple and Nvidia, but also European chip-makers such as STMicroelectronics and NXP Semiconductors.

It is unclear whether competition authorities will investigate the deal, but Europe’s probe would be of particular importance, according to Mandelson.

“I am not sure Britain has the strength to act alone … It doesn’t suit the tactic of the British government” to oppose such a deal while seeking a free-trade agreement with the United States, he said.

A crucial deal

“Microchips [are] a major strategic asset … as important in this era as steel in the previous era,” Mandelson continued. ARM-designed chips have become key technologies for artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing and high-performance computing.

ARM’s business model “is based on neutrality and independence; it’s an open licensing model,” Mandelson explained. If the acquisition goes through, Nvidia “would have the power to restrict” licenses for ARM chips to competitors, he said.

This means that Europe’s hopes to become a leader in high-performance computing and artificial intelligence could be seriously impaired if Nvidia were able to prevent European companies from using ARM’s designs.

To maintain ARM’s independence, besides blocking the merger, Mandelson contended that “the best solution would be for ARM to be publicly listed on a number of stock exchanges.” He acknowledged the risk of a hostile takeover from Nvidia in that scenario, but a public listing would “equip the company with the means to defend itself,” he added.

Geopolitics

Mandelson believed the tie-up was not just a matter of competition policy, “it’s a matter of geopolitics,” he said.

Nvidia being an American company, the acquisition would transfer powers to the U.S. administration which could then impose export restrictions on chips to protect national security interests and promote foreign policy objectives.

“The U.S. would have the power to shut-off chips … in companies or countries the U.S. doesn’t like,” he said.

The former minister contended that “at the European level, they talk about Europe’s strategic interest, without really seeing how this concept operates in the real world.” ARM is the “biggest example” which touches on the concepts of “sovereignty and autonomy.”

He added: “Europe’s got to have a much better and clear understanding on how geopolitical power can be used to Europe’s detriment. Not just by China, but even by one of its closest allies, the United States.”

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SiFive hires Qualcomm exec as CEO for RISC-V alternatives to Nvidia-Arm


SiFive has hired former Qualcomm executive Patrick Little as its new CEO. His job will be to help establish the company’s RISC-V processors as an alternative to Arm in the wake of Nvidia’s $40 billion acquisition of the world’s leading processor architecture.

SiFive designs processors that can be customized for whatever its customers need, for products on the low end to the high end of the computing spectrum. And they’re based on RISC-V, a free and open processor architecture which was created by university researchers a decade ago. They were motivated by “hardware freedom,” meaning an an alternative to the royalty-based processors like those licensed for a fee and controlled by one company. RISC-V is becoming a bigger deal this week since Nvidia said it would acquire Arm, Little said in an interview with VentureBeat.

“It’s just very clear that the world is moving away from generic processors to workload-focused and optimized solutions,” Little said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity and the timing here is phenomenal. The industry is transforming away from general-purpose computing to something domain-focused. With the news this week, it’s now accelerating and the magnitude has really picked up. Now there are many companies saying it’s time to look at open versus closed solutions.”

Nvidia’s and Arm’s CEOs pledged to keep Arm’s open licensing strategy. But RISC-V can offer a better deal. The challenge is for it to build up its ecosystem of software, tools, testing, and other things to make it a viable and universal alternative to Arm, which has about 95% of the smartphone market and whose licensees ship more than 22 billion chips a year.

Little succeeds Naveed Sherwani, who will step down from the president and CEO roles but will remain chairman of SiFive. If it plays its cards right, SiFive could become a key alternative to the superpowers of the chip industry. This is why SiFive raised $61 million last month from investors that included a couple of chip superpowers — Intel and Qualcomm. To date, SiFive has raised $190 million.

Chip design is an increasingly important trade as Moore’s Law, the prediction by Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore that the density and performance of chips would double every couple of years, is slowing down after decades of holding true. Little said design is how companies differentiate themselves now.

Above: Patrick Little is CEO of SiFive.

Image Credit: SiFive

Little joins SiFive from Qualcomm where he led the expansion into the automotive industry as senior vice president and general manager. Little has over 30 years of operating experience in executive roles in the technology and semiconductor industries, including CEO of eASIC, senior vice president of CSR Technology, and senior vice president at Xilinx.

SiFive’s portfolio of processor Core IP is based on the free and open RISC-V instruction set architecture, and consists of four unique micro-architectures designed to enable different classes of performance, efficiency, and features for application and deeply embedded uses.

SiFive recently announced a collaboration with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center to create a new application programming interface (API) for popular compilers, further enabling applications to use the RISC-V Vector Extension currently under development for high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, and computer-vision applications. That’s an example of moving to the high end.

Little said that customers are pushing the company further up the food chain, and so designs that feature scalar and vector processing and high-performance optimization are taking up a lot of time.

“My job coming here is to unlock the opportunity for the company,” Little said. “We are moving from general-purpose processors to workload configurable processors. That’s a trajectory we’ve been on and now it’s accelerating.”

SiFive has about 500 employees and 15 locations where it helps customers design their chips.

It’s the ecosystem, stupid

There are definitely some geopolitical issues where RISC-V could have an advantage. RISC-V is based in Switzerland, as a neutral entity. Last year, Arm had to go through a legal process to figure out if it should license chips to China’s Huawei, which faced a ban from the U.S. Arm ultimately decided that, as a United Kingdom company, it was not subject to the U.S. restrictions. That equation has changed now that U.S.-based Nvidia will own Arm.

“RISC-V just offers the freedom in every dimension and certainly geographical freedom,” Little said. “There is a gravitational move toward SiFive, and part of that has to do with global openness.”

Arm’s advantage is that RISC-V’s ecosystem isn’t as mature.

“We’ve had many customers go into production now with a complete toolchain and a complete environment,” Little said. “Now the RISC-V ecosystem is moving into broader markets like mobile. The ecosystem is maturing very quickly.”

The RISC-V organization is run by an industry-wide body of supporters that include SiFive. In fact, RISC-V’s founders are all working for SiFive in some fashion.

RISC-V International CEO Calista Redmond said in an email about the Nvidia-Arm deal, “The RISC-V ecosystem is made up of organizations across the silicon industry who have invested in multiple architectures. We anticipate that our member companies will continue to rely on legacy architectures for certain product lines, while also looking to RISC-V to meet the increasingly complex workload requirements of next-generation applications. RISC-V is free and open so no single entity controls the technology, meaning that everyone can help to shape this rapidly evolving frontier of computing.”



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