The Rise of Custom Silicon

August 7, 2023 / Ben Bajarin

This is an excerpt from the latest Episode of The Circuit with Ben Bajarin and Jay Goldberg.


While much of the technology industry relies on merchant silicon from companies like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia, research shows more major players are quietly turning to custom chip designs.

In a recent discussion, industry analysts Ben Bajarin and Jay Goldberg explored the expanding world of custom and semi-custom chips, especially among hyper-scale cloud providers and automakers.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) claims its latest ARM-based Graviton processors deliver 40% better performance for 60% less energy than standard x86 chips. AWS started with internal workloads on Graviton years ago to optimize its software stack before offering Graviton instances to clients. Experts believe AWS is positioning Graviton as a high-performance, not just budget, alternative to merchant silicon.

The hosts also revealed that semi-custom networking chips are surging in popularity, though rarely publicized. Google, Alibaba, Tencent and other giants use custom silicon to accelerate their data center networks. While opaque to end users, these chips allow hyperscalers to operate more efficiently.

Automotive also stands out for its embrace of custom designs, frequently using RISC-V instruction sets. Chinese electric vehicle makers are leading the charge. Unlike hyperscale semiconductors, car companies could eventually market custom self-driving chips as a key differentiator.

While ARM architectures still dominate mobile and compute applications, the analysts speculate we may soon hit an inflection point where more RISC-V cores ship annually thanks to massive adoption in embedded devices. With silicon playing an expanding role in product development, custom chips give companies unmatched opportunities for optimization and differentiation.

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