Custom chips topped Big Tech’s 2020 design efforts

Custom chip design is now dominating development efforts at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and other big tech companies as they are designing custom chips to take advantage of advances in cloud computing and AI — and to improve their customer’s experience with their products.

Last June, in a very public move away from Intel processors, Apple debuted its own Arm-based custom processor design, dubbed “Apple silicon.” The initiative, which is touted as a collaborative hardware and software effort, aims to deliver “leading performance per watt and higher performance GPUs — enabling app developers to write even more powerful pro apps and high-end games,” says the company.

With growing evidence that the benefits of Moore’s Law-based performance gains are no longer sufficient, major technology companies are increasingly looking to customized chip design as a way to gain competitive advantage, reports The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, others are pursuing stealthy acquisitions as an alternative to doing custom designs internally.

Amazon’s acquisition of Israeli chip maker Annapurna Labs in 2016 has resulted in several new chips and architecture that can deliver 40 percent price/performance benefits to AWS customers that adopt sixth-gen EC2 instances, which are powered by Amazon’s custom-designed Graviton2 processors based 64-bit Arm Neoverse cores, reports Datanami Amazon’s shift to a new architecture has made modern architectures a quick move for customers and is “what enabled the company to bring AMD-based GPUs into the EC2 mix to complement Nvidia GPUs, as well as its custom AWS Inferentia ML inference chip, which launched last year and “boasts a price-performance improvement of on machine learning inference by 35% to 40% versus a typical GPU,” per Datanami’s report

Microsoft, too, is architecting Intel out of their custom Arm-based chips and is reportedly “currently using Arm-based chips from Qualcomm in some Surface PCs, [and has] ported Windows to work on these types of chips,” reports Bloomberg. Additionally, The Verge reports that Microsoft has developed an Arm-based design in conjunction with Qualcomm for its Surface Pro X, and has just introduced introduced a new variant in Q4 of 2020. Microsoft has also developed a customized AMD Ryzen processor for its Surface Laptop 3, per another post at The Verge.

Google has had a homegrown chip effort underway for several years. In 2020, the company is reportedly targeting their Chromebooks and the Pixel for their newest chip design. According to an Axios scoop, the chip, code-named Whitechapel, was designed in cooperation with Samsung, and would be built with Samsung’s state-of-the-art 5nm technology. In a detailed post on the Google AI Blog post earlier this year, Google outlined its approach to chip design and development, noting the slowing of Moore’s Law and the benefits of AI as a catalyst to Google’s new approach to “Chip Design with Deep Reinforcement Learning.”

Facebook’s chip efforts have largely been kept under wraps but the company publicly “discussed that it was developing its own custom ASIC chips to support its AI programs” last year, revealing partnerships with Broadcom and Verisilicon to design customer ASICs that are optimized for Facebook’s transcoding workloads in a Facebook engineering blog. Facebook has long been known to adopt open technologies for their modern architecture and AI, which fueled speculation on their custom chip direction in a recent talk by Facebook’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCunand, as he speculated there will be a “boom in low cost edge AI chips using the RISC-V technology” coming and reports have surfaced that “Facebook’s Oculus team has been involved in RISC-V for a long time.

2021 is shaping up for disruption among the traditional chip vendors as more engineering teams are looking at new ways to make hardware and software work more efficiently.