Apple Explores RISC-V, Hires “High-Performance” RISC-V Programmers


Apple is transitioning its PCs to Arm-based SoCs, but the company may not be putting all its eggs in one basket as it also explores the emerging open-source RISC-V architecture. This week, the company posted a job alert for high-performance RISC-V programmer(s).

Apple is currently seeking experienced programmers with detailed knowledge of the RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) and Arm’s Neon Vector ISA for its Vector and Numerics (VaNG) group within its Core Operating Systems group. Apple’s VaNG is responsible for developing and improving various embedded subsystems running on iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS.

Known for its secrecy, Apple’s listing doesn’t reveal exactly what it plans to do with RISC-V, but the the job description says that the programmer will have to work with machine learning, computational vision and natural language processing. Among other things, low-level, high-performance programming experience is required. Additionally, the job description also states that Apple is already working with RISC-V.

“You will work in a cross-functional SW and HW team that to launch the project innovative RISC-V solutions and state-of-the-art routines,” the description reads. [emphasis added]. “It’s about supporting the computation needed for things like machine learning, vision algorithms, signal and video processing. Pushing the state of the art in low-level computation and direct them to energy-efficient, high-performance implementations by tightly integrating software and hardware.”

Currently, Apple offers dozens of products across multiple product lines. For example, high-performance devices such as MacBook laptops, iPhone smartphones, iPad tablets, and Apple TV set-top boxes are based on custom system-on-chips (SoCs) that use highly-customized Arm cores. Additionally, devices like Apple Watch, Airpods, and Homepod Mini use Integrated Systems (SiP) powered by Arm’s technologies. Apple also uses Arm cores in its controllers (eg T2, W3, U1, etc.).

All in all, in addition to the SoCs that power headline-grabbing devices, every Apple device these days has plenty of Arm cores (in fact, some controllers are still powered by x86). Each Arm core requires Apple to pay licensing fees to Arm, and as the number of cores for things like SSD controllers and smartwatches will only increase, so will Apple’s payments to Arm. As such, replacing at least some Arm cores with RISC-V cores could save Apple millions of dollars in royalty payments each year, just as Western Digital has adopted RISC-V cores for its low-power solutions years ago.

But bringing custom RISC-V cores into the Apple ecosystem requires the company to prepare a software stack and make sure everything works perfectly. This is where programmers familiar with RISC-V and Arm’s vector architecture come in.

Since Apple is already working on RISC-V solutions, it’s probably only a matter of time before the company replaces some core types with RISC-V. However, it remains to be seen how far Apple will be willing to go with its RISC-V initiative. RISC-V is currently focused on lower performance applications, but the ISA is growing rapidly and the first high performance RISC-V designs will soon appear.

(Image credit: Apple)

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