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Nuvia and Rivos—Ex-Apple Startups
Earlier, we noted that Apple leads the world in performance per watt. Its’ M1 processor, for example, boasts Geekbench single-core scores of over 1700. By comparison, Intel’s 11th generation scores slightly higher than Apple’s M1 at 1757 and 1853 for its Intel Core i9-11900KF and Intel Core i9-11900K, respectively.
However, those chips consume vastly more energy—the M1 has a published TDP of 39 watts. The Intel Core i9-11900K has a TDP rated at 125 watts. For Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger to state, Intel will take the performance per watt crown by 2025 sounds too remarkable to be true.
And this is why! Intel isn’t just competing against serious competition from AMD and Apple. They are also competing against new startups like Nuvia and Rivos. Let’s look at why these new chip startups are important.
As we have written about Nuvia before in an earlier issue of Xpresso, Gerald Williams III was Apple’s instrumental chief architect of CPU and SoC at Apple before he left to start Nuvia in 2019. But he reportedly left with 100 engineers from Apple and founded Nuvia with Manu Gulati (former lead SoC Architect at Google) and John Bruno (former systems architect at Google).
His formable team is now a part of Qualcomm after the company acquired Nuvia in 2020. And while Nuvia initially was aiming at performance per watt leadership for chips in the datacenter with its planned Phoenix CPU, Qualcomm leadership seems to have a different idea. The Nuvia team is reportedly working on the Phoenix technology—which is ARM-based—and use it to compete directly with Apple for mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, and small laptop computers on the Chrome and Windows platforms.
If Williams’ departure from Apple wasn’t enough, new chip startup Rivos was also led by an exodus of Apple semiconductor veterans. Rivos Inc. is still in stealth mode and only four months since its formation. Unlike Qualcomm’s Nuvia team, Rivos is focused on RISC-V chip platform technology, not ARM platform technology, and is aiming at the datacenter where Nuvia was supposed to be aiming.
RISC-V is an open specification and open platform, but it is not an open-source processor. Both RISC-V and ARM are based on “reduced instruction-set computing (RISC)” architecture, while Intel X86 has primarily employed “common instruction-set computing (CISC)” architecture throughout its history.
Multiple sources on the Internet explain the difference between RISC and CISC processors. Still, a quick explanation that is key to this article is that RISC allows a lower number of processor clock cycles per instruction and a standardized load-store limits model. The big takeaway from this is that RISC aimed at reducing overall clock cycles is superior for power consumption. In other words, RISC is more energy-efficient than CISC. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the RISC-based ARM chips have led the world in mobile device semiconductors where power is everything.
When Apple first had discussions with PA Semi a few years before the 2007 acquisition, it considered PA Semi chips inside future Mac computers. PA Semi founder Daniel W. Dobberpuhl and his team wished to design an enormously powerful chip based on the PowerPC architecture (RISC) that used little power. Shortly before the acquisition, in February of 2007, PA Semi debuted a 64-bit dual-core microprocessor that was 300 percent more energy efficient than any comparable chip. That chip consumed 5 – 13 watts at 2 GHz.
This was the team that formed the basis of Apple A-series chips, leading the industry in performance per watt. But now, more of these folks from Apple’s semiconductor team are branching out with their chip design startups. This is normal behavior and Apple is reportedly trying to recruit Nuvia engineers.
Like Nuvia, Rivos may be another serious competitor, not just to Apple but to AMD and Intel. The company aims to be the first high-performance RISC-V core. The new chip startup has garnered many senior CPU architects from Apple, Google, Marvell, Qualcomm, Intel, and AMD.
The bottom line is the semiconductor market is incredibly competitive at a time when chip demand is outpacing supply, at a time when leadership is increasingly global, at a time when the core technologies and talent are getting more democratized across geopolitical regions.
Impacts on the CAD Industry
With all these landmark tidal shifts in the semiconductor industry, once dominated by Intel and much more US-based, this next decade may see the complete upending of the Wintel hegemonic structure of the IT industry. Windows itself is being more robustly rewritten for the ARM architecture.
The main impact on the CAD and 3D software industries comes about from the massive code rewrites necessary for companies to respond to the times. At this present time, ARM hasn’t just matched Intel X86, it has critical performance over watt superiority, and that matters with cloud computing as much as mobile computing. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple are all moving towards the ARM-based datacenter because there is better economics.
Such a sea change will be punishing for CAD industry incumbents who lack the experience and expertise in multi-platform and multi-device development.
At any moment a chip designer could design an ARM chip and match the larger die size of AMD, for example. What would that performance be like? How would the industry respond?
Fujitsu’s A64FX is an ARM-based chip that powers the world’s fastest supercomputer. It is the first ARM chip to implement the use of the ARM Scalable Vector Extension (SVE) instruction set to increase vector lengths from standard 128-bit to 512-bit vectors. If NVIDIA does in fact acquire ARM, what is to stop them from entering the ARM server and desktop CPU market and melding their GPU technologies into ARM SoCs and CPUs?
In truth, what is keeping someone like Apple from developing a large monster custom ARM chip with technologies like this? Perhaps only scale and return on investment. Perhaps they should partner with Fujitsu or someone else on new larger-die HPC ARM chips?
With some CAD and 3D developers moving their software solutions over to Apple Silicon (ARM-based Apple SoCs), Architosh has learned that the process is involved. We learned from Vectorworks, the leading CAD solution on the Mac, that over 120 dependencies in the code needed to be rewritten from X86 to ARM. Vectorworks had to work these out with third-party developers. Most CAD, BIM, and 3D software include multiple dependencies—from physics engines, digital terrain modeling engines, CFD engines, geometric modeling kernels like Parasolid and ACIS to innumerable rendering and visualization engines. This will be a disruptive process at various levels depending on each applications’ legacy dependencies. It provides an opening for newcomers to react and develop more quickly with innovative new CAD industry offerings, like Shapr3D for example.
If Intel’s Pat Gelsinger meets his stated mission of Intel taking the performance per watt crown by 2025, then only minor and slow disruption will occur in the engineering software markets like CAD, BIM, and professional 3D. The heavily Windows-dominated engineering software world will largely remain on Intel X86 codebases, while incumbents slowly deploy newly written ARM-based software applications for the plethora of ARM-based devices that will likely remain dominant even past Gelsinger’s 2025 timetable.
However, if Intel fails to meet its new mission—and this author personally feels that the odds are against it obtaining the performance per watt crown—then it will only be AMD who will hold off an ARM onslaught. Operating systems and software applications will rapidly migrate over to a sea of fastest best-in-class next-gen ARM-based computing devices, which have become ever more critical in the “remote-work” reality of the post-global pandemic context.
Such a sea change will be punishing for CAD industry incumbents who lack the experience and expertise in multi-platform and multi-device development. These companies will suffer a similar paradox to Intel—when the thing that has allowed you to streamline and succeed now becomes your handicap to adaptation.
In the first section of this article, it states that chip design leadership remains in US hands. This is somewhat incorrect. Design chip leadership remains in the hands of the West; on the ARM side, that leadership is actually British. On the X86 side, that leadership is more American (eg: Intel and AMD).
In reference to Windows PCs being the center of computing for the CAD industries, the article makes a note about new types of devices (eg: iPad, iPhone, Android equals), but there are more devices coming, like AR and VR devices that couple with the aspirational “metaverse” offerings. The link to Shapr3D is just one of the important anecdotes demonstrating this shifting paradigm.
The section titled “AMD’s Rising Star” notes AMD leading Geekbench 5 scores. Since the arrival of Intel’s 12th generation, Intel Core CPU’s top scores have changed hands. While it states in the article that “for Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger to state, Intel will take the performance per watt crown by 2025 sounds too remarkable to be true,” what we can already see from the Moore’s Law charts is that a lot can change in a relatively short period of time. Intel may well indeed recapture the performance per watt crown.
One final note. While Apple shocked the world with its M1 chip, adding more cores is the key challenge to taking on AMD and Intel in absolute performance terms. They currently have a long way to go and must scale up their custom ARM architecture to get their chips to take on absolute performance leaders in AMD and Intel. And the desktop in the CAD world is still where absolute performance rules and where CAD performance matters most.