Chip Pioneers to Battle it out in Modern RISC-V AI Chips

By Agam Shah

August 25, 2022

Some chip pioneers from the 1980s are raising the ante in modern chip design with new opportunities provided by artificial intelligence and the open-source RISC-V architecture.

Untether AI, which was co-founded by an analog and mixed signal chip pioneer Martin Snelgrove, released a new AI inferencing chip called Boqueria, which has more than 1,400 optimized RISC-V processors.

That chip will compete with Esperanto’s ET-SoC-1 AI inferencing chip, which has over 1,088 cores, and started sampling earlier this year. Esperanto’s co-founder is Dave Ditzel, who is known for pioneering work on RISC chips, which includes the development of Sun’s SPARC processors.

Tenstorrent is also building a RISC-V chip for AI under the guidance of CTO Jim Keller, who is known for his breakthroughs in mobile and PC chips through stints with Apple, AMD and Intel.

These companies are among many chip startups focusing on AI. The RISC-V instruction set architecture, which is free to license and customize, has spawned low-cost chip development opportunities for a host of new applications that include AI.

Untether announced the Boqueria chip at the Hot Chips conference this week. The company claimed the performance crown in AI inferencing performance, with 2 petaflops of performance on the FP8 data type. The chip also performs 30 teraflops per watt.

That’s an overall improvement from the company’s predecessor AI chip, RunAI, which was released in 2020 and delivered 500 teraflops of performance, and an efficiency of 8 teraflops per watt.

“In inference, you want to make sure that you’re doing things as efficiently as possible and using the right data types to ensure the necessary accuracy, but at the same standpoint, providing energy efficiency,” said Robert Beachler, vice president of product and hardware engineering, during a presentation at Hot Chips.

The company said its benchmarks on performance and performance-per-watt outperformed comparable chips on MLPerf, which is emerging as an industry standard AI benchmark. 

But the company hasn’t opened its benchmarks to MLPerf, and plans to do so when it has the resources available. 

Untether AI took a new design approach to ensure efficiency in data movement by putting more compute resources where data exists. For example, a computing element is directly attached to memory cells.

“When we sat down to architect for AI inference acceleration, the first thing we saw is that 90% of the energy in doing neural network computing is in movement of data, either from external memory or on internal caches. And only 10% is really done in the computer,” Beachler said.

The chip has 729 memory banks, with two RISC-V CPU cores running at 1.3GHz for each memory bank.

“Because the processing elements have their own dedicated memory, we have tremendous memory bandwidth on the order of a petabyte of memory bandwidth,” Beachler said.

Boqueria supports the PCI-Express interconnect. The company can plug in up to six chips in a single PCI-Express card to run large natural language processing networks. A six-chip PCI card will consume 400 watts of power, but typical workloads will run at the 200- to 300-watt range. 

Boqueria can also be scaled down to fewer memory banks for customers who don’t run large-scale inferencing applications. The family of AI will scale from sub-one watt all the way up to the new chip described at Hot Chips.

“This allows us to address multiple different price performance points and form factors,” which includes integration in chiplets with direct die-to-die interconnects to other chips in a system-on-chip package, Beachler said.

The chip supports many data types, from INT4 to FP16, for better accuracy. The company researched different data types, and concluded that the 16-bit data types, like BF16, provide as much as accuracy as FP32, but using lesser power and compute resources.

“We’ve also found that we’ve developed a new FP8 data type that quadruples the efficiency from BF16, but at the same time preserves the accuracy necessary for today’s AI workloads,” Beachler said.

The RISC-V CPU in Boqueria is a standard architecture with more than twenty custom instructions to take advantage of the design and inference workloads.

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