SiPearl Emerging as Heavyweight for ‘Made in Europe’ Chips

By Agam Shah

May 30, 2022

Just two years ago, chip company SiPearl was a bootstrapped startup helping European achieve a long-term goal to being self-sufficient on technology, and to cut reliance on U.S. China, and Taiwan.

Today, it has become a go-to company for the world’s largest chipmakers to establish a foothold in Europe. SiPearl this week announced a hardware and software collaboration with GPU provider Nvidia, which adds on to a partnership the startup already has with Intel and AI chipmaker Graphcore.

The partnership will focus on SiPearl pairing its Rhea supercomputing CPU with Nvidia’s GPU, which is already being widely used in high-performance computing systems for scientific applications and AI.

SiPearl is also partnering with HPE to jointly develop high-performance computing using the Rhea processor for European customers. The partnership will also focus on the development of networking technologies and HPE Cray Programming Environment for such systems.

“Our collaboration with Nvidia is to bridge our CPU Rhea with [Nvidia’s] GPU. We want to partner with all the leaders, we’re very proud of working with Intel and Graphcore. It’s a good proof that they care about us, and that our position is quite unique in Europe,” Philippe Notton, CEO of SiPearl, told HPCwire.

There’s good reason for some of the top chipmakers to go with SiPearl. The Rhea CPU emerged from an EU-funded initiative called the European Processor Initiative (EPI), which is focused on creating “made-in-Europe” chips.

The European DNA of the Rhea CPU, which is based on ARM’s Neoverse V1 CPU design, is attracting the attention of European companies and universities in high-performance computing, including Atos, which is a participant in EPI and building exascale systems.

“Europe is getting stronger, and now doing what U.S., China and Japan have been doing for decades,” Notton said.

SiPearl has benefitted from Europe’s desire to rely on homegrown technology, especially with semiconductors growing in strategic and political importance. SiPearl had to mature quickly to address the needs of European customers, following a string of events, including Covid, chip shortages and supply chain issues.

“We have privileged access to the local market and the European Chips Act is going to help,” Notton said, adding “if a supercomputing center wants something with Intel or Nvidia, we will be ready for it.”

This year’s European Chips Act sets aside €43 billion to boost the chip manufacturing, research, supply chain, and ecosystem operations. Intel earlier this year said it would invest €33 billion to establish a cutting-edge chip factory in Magdeburg, Germany, which will begin operations between 2025 and 2027. Intel is also establishing a new R&D hub at Plateau de Saclay in France, which is close to SiPearl’s office in south Paris.

SiPearl has designed the Rhea chip to be universally compliant with many accelerators. It supports high-bandwidth memory and DDR5 memory channels. The company has patents pending on the combined architecture “to ensure that we have maximum throughput to the accelerator,” Notton said.

The company is also focused on software optimization. SiPearl is working with Intel on the OneAPI parallel programming tooklit, which will provide the hooks for the Rhea CPU to work with the chip-maker’s Ponte Vecchio GPU, which will ship later this year.

The Rhea chip is slated to be used in an exascale supercomputer by as early as 2023. The successors to Rhea are already being developed, but for SiPearl, the first step is to prove that the team can deliver a product with its first-generation Rhea chip.

“After that, [releasing] generation two to generation three should be – I cannot say easier, but let’s say less complex,” Notton said.

The European Processor Initiative is focused heavily on chip design based on the open-source RISC-V architecture. But Notton opted to initially go with Arm because it was well established and came with less risk, and also because RISC-V wasn’t ready for primetime as a mainstream CPU.

“The Arm technologies … you will not have any legal issues because the same technology is used by Apple, by Samsung, by Qualcomm. It’s very, very stable,” Notton said. “For us when you’re building a project, you don’t want to have risk in terms of a lawsuit from competition.”

The EPI is developing several RISC-V accelerators like EPAC, which Notton hopes he can pair up with Rhea CPU in the future.

SiPearl today has more than 100 staff after starting off with a handful of employees in 2020, and expects to expand its headcount to more than 1,000 by 2025. But Notton acknowledged there are challenges that include fundraising and talent shortages.

SiPearl is expanding operations outside its base in France, and is using the made-in-Europe story as a recruitment pitch to attract talent back from countries like the U.S.

“The potential is huge,” Notton said.

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