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Apple is looking to build chips using the open-source RISC-V architecture


Apple is looking to build chips using the open-source RISC-V architecture

A post on the Careers at Apple website might be giving us a clue about Apple’s future plans regarding the chips it uses to drive its devices. Currently, the company relies on ARM Holding’s chip architecture for its chipsets, but the tech giant is seeking a RISC-V High-Performance Programmer. RISC stands for reduced instruction set computer and is an open-source chip architecture.

Apple job posting hints at the use of RISC-V architecture in future chips

Since it is open-source, device makers who use it do not have to pay royalties or a licensing fee. Currently, Apple does pay a royalty to use ARM’s architecture. While RISC-V does deliver savings in energy consumption, it also does not support the performance level you see with ARM. Besides being more power efficient, RISC-V can lower the costs of manufacturing chips; with all of the ARM-based components used in Apple’s many devices, using the open-source RISC-V could save Apple millions of dollars each year.

But it would not be practical for Apple to completely replace its ARM-based chipsets like the A-series and M-series SoCs with RISC-V components. That’s because such a move would take years of planning and Apple most likely would have made such a move before embarking on its switch to Apple Silicon for the Macs and the iPad Pro. It should be pointed out though that ARM chips are RISC and in fact, ARM stands for Advanced RISC Machine.
On ARM’s website, it defines RISC as being “a microprocessor architecture that utilizes a small, highly-optimized set of instructions rather than the highly-specialized set of instructions typically found in other architectures. RISC is an alternative to the Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) architecture and is often considered the most efficient CPU architecture technology available today.”

RISC-V offers more efficient and faster execution of the CPU’s instructions

ARM adds that “With RISC, a central processing unit (CPU) implements the processor design principle of simplified instructions that can do less but can execute more rapidly. The result is improved performance. A key RISC feature is that it allows developers to increase the register set and increase internal parallelism by increasing the number of parallel threads executed by the CPU and increasing the speed of the CPU’s executing instructions. ARM, or “Advanced RISC Machine” is a specific family of instruction set architecture that’s based on reduced instruction set architecture developed by Arm Ltd.”

As for the job listing, Apple writes, “The Vector and Numerics Group is tasked with designing, enhancing and improving various embedded subsystems running on iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS. The group is looking for an exceptional high performance programmer to complement the team and make a difference. As a member of our fast paced group, you will have the unique opportunity to delight and inspire millions of Apple’s customers every day.”

If you are considering this position, Apple lists the qualifications:
  • 5+ years low-level algorithmic development in signal processing or machine learning primitives.
  • Detailed knowledge of RISC-V Instruction Set Architectures (ISA) and vector ISA of ARM.
  • Strong understanding of computational efficiency.
  • Excellent coding skills in ASM and C.
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills.
  • Ability to manage multiple tasks and self-prioritize.

Obviously, a job like this requires a strong educational background in math, computer science, and computer engineering. While an advanced degree is preferred, you might be able to snag the job without it.

RISC-V is more energy-efficient, uses fewer transistors, and allows users to build cheaper chips

While Apple doesn’t seem prepared to make a wholesale change to RISC-V, it could decide to replace some of its ARM-built chips with new chips based on RISC-V. Regardless of what it has in mind, Apple is indeed looking for someone that can help it work with the open-source architecture. The description of the job states that “The programmer will work in a team that’s “implementing innovative RISC-V solutions and state of the art routines. This is to support the necessary computation for such things as machine learning, vision algorithms, signal, and video processing.”

According to ARM, “RISC provides high performance per watt for battery operated devices where energy efficiency is key…for chip designers, RISC processors simplify the design and deployment process and provide a lower per-chip cost due to the smaller components required. Because of the reduced instruction set and simple decoding logic, less chip space is used, fewer transistors are required, and more general-purpose registers can fit into the central processing unit.”

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