Just two years ago, chip company SiPearl was a bootstrap startup that helped Europeans achieve a long-term goal of becoming technologically independent and reducing their dependency on the US, China and Taiwan.
Today, it has become a preferred company for the world’s largest chipmakers to gain a foothold in Europe. SiPearl this week announced a hardware and software collaboration with GPU provider Nvidia, adding 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, already widely used in high-performance computing systems for scientific applications and AI.
SiPearl is also working with HPE to jointly develop high-performance computing with 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 [Nvidia’s] Graphic card. We want to work with all leading companies, we are very proud to work with Intel and Graphcore. This is good evidence that they care and that our position in Europe is quite unique,” said Philippe Notton, CEO of SiPearl HPCwire.
There are good reasons for some of the top chipmakers to choose SiPearl. The Rhea CPU emerged from an EU-funded initiative called the European Processor Initiative (EPI), which focuses on the development of “Made in Europe” chips.
The European DNA of the Rhea CPU, based on ARM’s Neoverse V1 CPU design, is attracting the attention of European high-performance computing companies and universities, including Atos, which participates in EPI and builds exascale systems.
“Europe is getting stronger and is now doing what the US, China and Japan have been doing for decades,” Notton said.
SiPearl has benefited from Europe’s desire to rely on domestic technology, particularly given the growing strategic and political importance of semiconductors. SiPearl has had to mature quickly to serve the needs of European customers after a series of events including Covid, chip shortages and supply chain issues.
“We have privileged access to the local market and the European Chips Act will help us,” Notton said, adding, “If a supercomputing center wants something with Intel or Nvidia, we’re ready for it.”
This year’s European chip law proposes €43 billion to boost chip manufacturing, research, the supply chain and ecosystem operations. Intel earlier this year announced it would invest €33 billion to build a state-of-the-art chip fab in Magdeburg, Germany, which is expected to be operational between 2025 and 2027. Intel is also building a new R&D center at Plateau de Saclay, France, near SiPearl’s office in south Paris.
SiPearl designed the Rhea chip to be universally compatible with many accelerators. It supports high-bandwidth memory and DDR5 memory channels. The company has filed patents for the combined architecture “to ensure we have maximum throughput to the accelerator,” Notton said.
The company also focuses on software optimization. SiPearl is working with Intel on Takelit OneAPI parallel programming, which will provide the hooks for the Rhea CPU to work with the chipmaker’s Ponte Vecchio GPU, which is shipping later this year.
The Rhea chip is expected to be used in an exascale supercomputer as early as 2023. Rhea’s successors are already being developed, but for SiPearl, the first thing to do is prove that the team can deliver a product with its first generation Rhea chip.
“Thereafter, [releasing] Generation two through generation three should be — I can’t say simpler, but let’s say less complex,” Notton said.
The European Processor Initiative has a strong focus on chip design based on the open source RISC-V architecture. But Notton chose Arm initially because it was well established and came with less risk, and also because RISC-V as a mainstream CPU wasn’t ready for prime time.
“The Arm Technologies… You won’t have any legal issues as the same technology is used by Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm. It’s very, very stable,” Notton said. “When you build a project, you don’t want us to run the risk of being sued by the competition.”
The EPI is developing several RISC-V accelerators like EPAC that Notton hopes to pair with the Rhea CPU in the future.
SiPearl has more than 100 employees today, having started with a handful of employees in 2020, and expects to increase the headcount to more than 1,000 by 2025. But Notton acknowledged there are challenges, including fundraising and talent shortages.
SiPearl is expanding its operations outside of its base in France, using the Made-in-Europe story as a recruitment pitch to bring talent back from places like the US
“The potential is huge,” Notton said.