SiFive rolls out fully open source chip for IoT devices

In an interview, Jack Kang, VP of Product and Business Development at SiFive, discusses the FE310 chip, which will allow IoT vendors to build their own custom SoC on top of it

iot internet of things public domain
Credit: Pixabay

SiFive is a relatively new fabless chip manufacturing startup that is developing fully open source chips. Its new FE310 chip is its first chip (and apparently the first open source chip) targeted at IoT devices.

Specs of FE 310, according to SiFive:

The FE310 features SiFive's E31 CPU Coreplex, a 32-bit RV32IMAC core running at 320+ MHz. Additional features include a 16KB L1 Instruction Cache, a 16KB Data SRAM scratchpad, hardware multiply/divide, debug module, one-time programmable non-volatile memory (OTP), flexible clock generation with on-chip oscillators and PLLs, and a wide variety of peripherals including UARTs, QSPI, PWMs and timers. Multiple power domains and a low-power standby mode ensure a variety of applications can benefit from the FE310, which was fabricated in TSMC 180nm.

SiFive has also released an Arduino based software development board called HiFive1, along with the FE310 chip. In addition to that, the company has also released the RTL (register-transfer level) code for FE310 under an open source license that will allow chip designers to customize their own SoC on top of the base FE310.

I talked with Jack Kang, VP of Product and Business Development at SiFive, to understand the chip’s impact on IoT world.

Bhartiya: What kind of IoT devices and vendors are you targeting with FE310 SoC?

Kang: The FE310 is the first part in the Freedom Everywhere family of customizable SoCs designed for IoT, microcontroller, embedded and wearable applications. It’s ideal for system architects and designers who want the power of customized silicon, but do not have millions (if not billions) of dollars’ worth of capital to access personalized silicon.

We are specifically targeting markets (such as the IoT) that represent emerging sources of demand that we know will be significant in the future. For example, no one knows what company or device might “win” in the IoT, but all agree there is a huge amount of experimentation going on in the market that cannot be supported by the traditional silicon business model. The fact that IoT is inherently a fragmented market means that new ideas—and customization of silicon to accomplish those ideas is vital to the success of that market.

Bhartiya: Hardware is only half the story, software is the other half of the story. Can you tell us about what kind of software is there to run on these SoC for IoT vendors?

Kang: The great part of RISC-V is the amount of open-source software that has been written for it. Tools such as Binutils, GDB, OpenOCD, GCC, LLVM, CompCert are all available. Many are in process of being upstream. IoT operating systems such as FreeRTOS support the FE310. SiFive provides a full Freedom E SDK to go along with the Freedom E310, as well as an Arduino IDE for the HiFive1 Dev Kit. More software is being rapidly developed—we believe that with HiFive1 and the Freedom E310 now available, software developers can develop software even quicker and faster.

Bhartiya: Security has become a huge issue for IoT. How do you look at security and how does FE310 SoC help in securing devices?

Kang: Security will always be an important component of IoT. Let’s say you have a unique method of doing security and you want a specific custom security block in your chip. Being able to customize your IoT microcontroller to enhance security is a key differentiator in utilizing the Freedom Everywhere Platform.

Additionally, the open RISC-V instruction set architecture also defines multiple Privilege Levels (Machine/User), which allows for trusted computing and physical memory protection even in embedded devices.

Finally, due to the open-source RTL, we believe that having visibility into what goes into your chip ultimately creates the most secure implementations.

Bhartiya: What benefits are there for IoT vendors if they plan to go with FE310 SoC?

Kang: We believe the benefits of the FE310 are truly enormous. Perhaps the most important benefits are the cost, time-to-market, and customizability. You simply cannot get access to quality, custom silicon starting at around $100K. SiFive has the ability to quickly turn around a custom design for a customer within months.

The FE310 is also the first commercially available SoC for purchase based on RISC-V. We have seen a number of other companies announce RISC-V solutions, but SiFive remains the only chip provider with working silicon for sale. By leveraging the RISC-V open-source model, SiFive can cut development and license costs by as much as 80 percent, which lowers the barrier to entry for smaller IoT vendors looking for custom silicon.  

Finally, the IoT sector is currently a very fragmented market. People believe it will be big, but no one knows (exactly) who the winners will be. SiFive offers a path to customization to support a fragmented customer base, while the Freedom Platforms and RISC-V open-source architecture provides IoT vendors the stability their solution needs.

Bhartiya: Many people often overlook the backbone of IoT: the backend infrastructure, that runs those services that people use, so what PaaS or other platforms customers can use with  FE310 SoC?

Kang: This is really a system question -- there is nothing limiting people from using the Freedom E310 in the field and connecting to a wide variety of backend infrastructures. With the ability to customize the FE310, we think there will also be the ability to add device specific authentication or security that will enable even faster deployment of these types of platforms.

Bhartiya: IoT vendors are not going to manufacture their own SoC, so from where do they get FE310 SoC?

Kang: The FE310 SoC is currently available for purchase as part of the HiFive1 board, which you can buy via CrowdSupply. The HiFive1 board is priced at $59. Vendors who want to purchase SoCs directly should contact SiFive to either buy the FE310 directly or to customize their own.

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