back to article Arm sues Qualcomm over custom Nuvia CPU cores, wants designs destroyed

Arm is suing Qualcomm, one of its key customers, in a row over the latter's Nuvia custom CPU cores. The Softbank-owned British chip designer filed suit [PDF] against Qualcomm today in a US federal district court in Delaware. Arm has accused Qualcomm of being in breach of its licenses, and wants the American giant to fulfill …

  1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Breach

    So if you remove Snapdragon motherboards from phones and neatly put them in a rack case, attach to the network and run a Linux on them, are you suddenly going to cause an itchy arm?

    1. kat_bg

      Re: Breach

      Yes

      1. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Breach

        You might have an allergy to solder flux then. That no-clean flux can be nasty

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Breach

      That shouldn't cause an itchy arm as you aren't redesigning the CPUs in the process.

      This is a case of acquiring non-transferable licenses for the server designs via an acquisition and retrofitting them to Snapdragon CPUs and claiming your existing ARM licences allowed you to use said designs when the license costs likely differ significantly (ARMv8 around 2% royalty as based on volume - I can't find arm server CPU royalty rates).

      The car analogy is buying the cheapest car at the dealer and then driving off with the most expensive option

    3. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Breach

      That's not what this suit is about. Using mobile-grade processors in a server is not Qualcomm's problem. The license doesn't say what people may do with the chips they buy from Qualcomm; it says what kind of chips Qualcomm can design with ARM's information. ARM evidently has different license requirements for server-grade chips versus mobile or laptop-grade ones, and that's what they'll be fighting about for the next five years.

  2. bleakview

    RISC-V

    Another customer is on the horizon.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: RISC-V

      Except that Android on RISC-V is not quite here yet.

      Also, if Qualcomm moved to RISC-V that doesn't mean their customers would go along with them. Given that say Samsung has their Exynos processor which they don't sell phones running them in certain parts of the world. So they might just start using the Exynos processor in their phones and tablets worldwide. So that would be a loss to Qualcomm. Other phone manufacturers may not want to take the leap as well. So that opens the door for say MedisTek to replace Qualcomm.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. 3arn0wl Bronze badge

        Re: RISC-V

        It's true that software is ARM's last bastion, but...

        AOSP has been running on RISC-V silicon for a while. And there are efforts to port apps over too. (Other) Linux OSs run on RISC-V, of course - offering the potential for smartphone-oriented Linux OSs to steal a march on RISC-V.

        What I'm quite surprised about, is that Google (an early enthusiast of RISC-V) don't seem to be spearheading an Android for RISC-V initiative.

        If Qualcomm were to release a half decent RISC-V processor… That would be huge. And it would likely be adopted by Chinese OEMs. It would prompt other processor designers to produce RISC-V chips.

        Bring. It. On.

        1. juice

          Re: RISC-V

          > If Qualcomm were to release a half decent RISC-V processor

          Realistically, that ain't gonna happen.

          In the first instance, the RV64 RISC-V chip which is meant to be being used in smartphones Real Soon Now is claimed to maybe be equivalent to a Snapdragon 662 chip.

          https://www.notebookcheck.net/First-RISC-V-smartphones-could-launch-in-2022.581456.0.html

          And even if we believe the manufacturers claims about performance, that still puts it as having roughly a third of the performance of Qualcomm's flagship Snapdragon 888 Plus chip.

          https://www.notebookcheck.net/Qualcomm-Snapdragon-662-Processor-Benchmarks-and-Specs.497538.0.html

          It's also worth noting that even the 888P is slower than Apple's A14 chip.

          RISC-V is not currently an ARM killer when it comes to mobile phones. It's definitely not fit for purpose when it comes to flagship devices, or even for mid-tier handsets.

          It can be an ARM killer where power-consumption trumps the need for processing power (e.g. the IoT eco-system), but it'll take years before RISC-V can compete with ARM's chips, and neither ARM nor Apple are standing still in the meantime.

          Secondly, there's then the question as to how Qualcomm would go about using RISC-V. There's three main possibilities:

          1) Just use a standard RISC-V design

          2) Have an in-house team produce a customised RISC-V design

          3) Licence a customised RISC-V design

          The first option gives them zero competitive advantage over other manufacturers. The second option requires them to build, maintain and fund a CPU design team. The third option is pretty much the same as licencing CPU designs from ARM...

          Plus, they'd then have to maintain two separate software stacks for their ARM and RISC-V ecosystems.

          And thirdly, this is Qualcomm. A company which has spent the last 20 years using it's massive patent war-chest to shake down all other mobile phone manufacturers for as much money as it could soak from them.

          I.e. Qualcomm is institutionally adverse to the concept of open-source principles.

          So even if they did decide to use RISC-V, given that it has a permissive open-source licence, does anyone really think that if Qualcomm did start to produce it's own designs, that it'd actually be willing to share them or contribute anything back to the RISC-V community?

          1. 3arn0wl Bronze badge

            Re: RISC-V

            Well, I respectfully disagree : I think it could potentially happen.

            I would presume that, over the year and a half that it took the world's governors to decide that Nvidia ought not to be allowed to get control of the ARM ISA, most of the chip designing companies - including Apple (which we know about) - fossicked around for an alternative, in case the deal was allowed to go ahead, and most of them hit upon RISC-V (which we know because the RISC-V foundation grew 130% over that period). Their contingency plans, I would presume, also included getting started on some RISC-V designs (your option 2), so that they would be able to hit the ground running if the worst case scenario became the reality.

            I am led to understand that RISC-V designs are currently 3-4 years behind the best of ARM designs : i.e plenty good enough for mid-range smartphones. (I never mentioned an ARM-Killer processor). There's no reason that any company can't use RISC-V, and add to the ISA any extensions they want - that's part of the ISA's design from the beginning. So, with Qualcomm/Nuvia's design prowess, they could already have proprietary extensions to accelerate the processors. (My guess is; that since both Apple and Arm are POd with Qualcomm/Nuvia : the latter are using some stuff that only Apple were allowed to use.)

            And why might they opt to do so? To make the point to Arm that they haven't the strength they think they have. (Precisely this sort of scenario.)

            1. juice

              Re: RISC-V

              > Well, I respectfully disagree : I think it could potentially happen.

              That's the nice thing about opinions: we can all differ ;)

              It'd be mildly interesting to see just who has joined the RISC-V foundation.

              But in truth, I'd guess that's being driven more by the US embargos on Russia and China, than any of the ARM/Nividia shenannigans, as well as a maybe a bit of bet-hedging.

              I mean, does anyone remember when IBM set up a press office in Second Life? And all those blockchain projects which were announced with great fanfare have all fallen distinctly silent...

              Beyond that, I can't see any major manufacturers wanting to take the risk of having both ARM and RISC-V product lines. Because it's not just about the CPU design; it's also about the SoC hardware design, and the software.

              And all the support and patching overheads thereof.

              That's a huge set of extra costs, and the margins on low/mid-tier smartphones are already pretty thin.

              Plus, the market is currently contracting for everything other than flagship phones, which reduces the amount of money people are willing to invest.

              Pragmatically, the most likely scenario I can see is that we'll get a bunch of small OEMs (most likely from China, though Vietnam and India are both gearing themselves up to get a slice of the ePie) making budget RISC-V handsets, with budget hardware and shonky software and support.

              Stuff like this isn't exactly going to set the market on fire; if anything, there's a risk that we'll just end up with another flood of "landfill android" devices.

              On the other hand, it'll be interesting to see how the US tech embargos affect things; that may well have a serious effect on the rate at which RISC-V evolves...

              So, yeah. Let's meet back here in 5 years, and the person whose prediction was the furthest out gets to buy the beers ;)

              1. 3arn0wl Bronze badge

                Re: RISC-V

                :) We agree about some of that!

                - RISC-V has been distinguishing itself in MPU / microcontrollers / co-processor class of chips.

                - China is pushing consumer-class RISC-V hard, and will likely be pushing RISC-V kit (probably low-mid range performance) out in the relatively near future, to low-economy parts of the world. India, Vietnam (and perhaps Russia for obvious reasons) also want in on RISC-V. (Maybe the EU do too, with their worries about sovereignty.)

                - Software for RISC-V is still an area which needs a lot of work.

                But if you're looking for a company that is talking about mixing ISAs - look no further than Intel.

          2. 3arn0wl Bronze badge

            Qualcomm is a member of the RISC-V Foundation

            Calista Redmond has just announced that Qualcomm has joined RISC-V International.

            https://www.digitimes.com/newsshow/article.asp?datePublish=2022/09/09&pages=vl&seq=200

      3. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

        Re: RISC-V

        This spat will be a poster child for everyone to move towards RISC-V.

        ARM (or should I say Softbank) is using murky licensing terms to squeeze every penny from their customers' pockets. I hate it when vendors force you to re-negotiate the terms at every possible turn or when the conditions change even slightly.

        ARM needs open and non-discriminatory licensing fees, not making them up as it suits them or differentiating depending on the size of someone's wallet.

        1. ayay

          Re: RISC-V

          I'd agree with you, but this is Qualcomm.

          In this case, we shall call it karma.

      4. Dax-00

        Re: RISC-V

        Android is nothing more than Linux OS.. And it's running RISC V..

      5. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: RISC-V

        Except that Android on RISC-V is not quite here yet.

        Or pretty much on anything.

    2. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: RISC-V

      That if they don't go on the sanctions list for supporting Russia.

    3. pimppetgaeghsr

      Re: RISC-V

      Hard to do but 10 years ago people said Apple could never successfully create their own CPUs then left ARM in the dust.

      1. MrReynolds2U

        Re: RISC-V

        Pretty sure that the current crop of Apple chips (including the M1 SoC and M2) are ARM-based.

        No dust to see here.

        1. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

          Re: RISC-V

          Uhmm, no. The Apple M-series SoC's are based on the ARM ISA but purely of Apple's own design.

          But the M-series' speed is mostly based on the fact that DRAM is extremely tightly integrated with the CPU, making RAM access almost as fast as L1 or L2 cache. Anyone that knows anything about CPU design knows that this is vital to processing throughput.

          The one slight drawback is that you cannot upgrade DRAM on Macs. Considering they're shipping with 16GB or RAM standard I myself don't see this as much of a problem.

          1. Proton_badger

            Re: RISC-V

            Everybody says it's the RAM, but it's much more than the 128bit LPDDR4. The M1(and A14) had an unprecedented wide design. When the A14 came out only the not yet released POWER10 was as wide. It also has a huge reorder buffer, very advanced cache design. These processors are what traditionally was called a Braniac Design. Most processors today have that to some degree but Apple took it quite far in the name of power/perf.

            The downside to such design can be trouble scaling to higher frequencies (classic braniac vs roadrunner) but Apple have done quite well with them.

          2. Def Silver badge

            Re: RISC-V

            Considering they're shipping with 16GB or RAM standard I myself don't see this as much of a problem.

            Seriously? 32GB is pretty much minimum where I work these days, with 64GB becoming more common for most developers in my immediate vicinity. My aging work PC at home only has 16GB and it's struggling at times. (Just as long as it survives another year, I'll be happy though.)

    4. JoeCool

      Re: RISC-V

      Nope. This is just how Qualcomm negotiates IP contracts. Why pay for what you can take ? Arm is no less of an IP law firm, but Qulacomm is notorious.

  3. DS999 Silver badge

    Wow

    I had no idea the architectural licenses were so specific. It has been reported by many that Apple's architectural license is different from the rest (perhaps because Apple used to own 1/3 of ARM) but I wonder if there are some limits that would for instance prevent them from using their designs in a server even if only for internal use?

    However, if those are the terms and ARM notified Qualcomm and they didn't comply with the license it will be tough for them to win this case.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Wow

      Apple's architectural license is so special, I've sometimes seen it referred to as a founders license, as a reference to the fact that Apple helped get Arm started way back in the day.

      This Qualcomm case, from Arm's allegations, seems to boil down to what exactly is in Qualcomm and Nuvia's license fine print, and what exactly is Qualcomm using from Nuvia.

      Ever since Arm started touting off-the-shelf server-grade CPU core designs, I can imagine it really wanting to make the distinction between an architectural license for server and mobile processors.

      Arm is so incredibly secretive and strict about its licensing that this lawsuit, if it somehow ends up at public trial, will blow the lid off all that. This is quite high stakes for Arm.

      C.

      1. Jamesit

        Re: Wow

        I wonder if they'll use any strong Arm tactics to prevent that.

        1. EricB123 Bronze badge

          Re: Wow

          "I wonder if they'll use any strong Arm tactics to prevent that"

          Oh, for the love of Jesus....

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wow

          Those were nice cpu's

        3. Vikingforties
          Coat

          Re: Wow

          Summary of Qualcomm's response; "Yeah, you and who's Arm..y?"

        4. pimppetgaeghsr

          Re: Wow

          They could accuse Qualcomm in court of not being ARM shaped. They are definitely not being their brilliant selves by trying to push PPA boundaries without X, Y, Z committee oversight and consent.

        5. Jamie Jones Silver badge

          Re: Wow

          The long arm of the law will prevail.

          1. Drishmung

            Re: Wow

            This sounds like a job for Gil Hamilton

            1. timrowledge

              Re: Wow

              Finally - someone that would understand why my main ARM powered machine is always named “GoldSkin”. I was mortified some years ago to have to spell it out to Larry Niven...

      2. bazza Silver badge

        Re: Wow

        >Apple's architectural license is so special, I've sometimes seen it referred to as a founders license, as a reference to the fact that Apple helped get Arm started way back in the day.

        Apple have done very well out of that initial $3million investment.

        I've often wondered what happened to VLSI's stake. Today that'd be in NXP, if it'd been kept all the way through. I wonder if NXP has something like a founder's license?

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Wow

          If VLSI's license was non-transferable in the same way ARM is claiming Nuvia's license is, then it would no longer be valid.

          If so it is possible Apple's license has the same restriction, but since Apple survived its hard times in the 90s without getting bought out and is too big for that now I guess they'd be in the clear!

          1. bazza Silver badge

            Re: Wow

            Quite possibly so. It's all so long ago, which is quite sobering. I certainly can't recall articles of the time talking about VLSI's stake in Arm, and what it all meant when they got acquired.

            We're coming up on 20 years of the existence of smartphones. The foundation of Arm is closer to the beginning of smartphones than we are today. All just underlines how far ahead of their time the founders of Arm were, technically and commercially.

            Would something like this have happened anyway, had Arm not come into existence? I'd not want to bet either way!

          2. mevets

            Re: Wow

            Also that the Newton -- a failed product by Apple's standard -- was a huge success by ARMs, that saved ARM from the dust heap.

  4. EricB123 Bronze badge

    Back to school I go!

    I feel the need to go to law school so I can understand an El Reg article like this one.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Back to school I go!

      Better make sure that it is a US law school. Their sometimes crazy laws (county, state and Federal) contradict each other and that is often by design.

      for example, in PA having a dealer branding frame on your numberplate can lead to a hefty fine. Go into NJ and it is not an issue.

      Oh... and be prepared to incur at least $200K worth of student debt before you qualify and understand that the numerous law schools are churning out more lawyers than the market can sustain. Lawyers are filing for bankruptcy in their droves in certain parts of the country.

      1. Zimmer

        Re: Back to school I go!

        'In 10 years we're gonna have one million lawyers, how much can a poor nation stand..' Tom Paxton (some years ago, lovely tune..) I wonder how many there actually are ?

  5. bazza Silver badge

    Could be interesting if the relationship breaks down completely and Qualcomm wake up one day to find Arm has withdrawn all its licences from Qualcomm. There may be terms about "being friendly" in the licenses...

    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Most licenses contain terms allowing it to be canceled if you don't comply with its terms, and ARM's licenses might additionally contain terms allow them all to be canceled if you don't comply with the terms of any other ARM license.

      I can't see ARM taking it to that extreme though, given how much revenue they must make from Qualcomm. If they did do that Qualcomm would immediately countersue for restraint of trade and they have much deeper pockets.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Shooting themselves in the ARM

    Keep it up ARM. Just gives me more ammo for my RISC-V roadmap.

    I remember when you guys used to be Switzerland, now you’re Russia. Guess when you are in the industry long enough, you get to see the heroes turn into the villains.

    1. Trotts36

      Re: Shooting themselves in the ARM

      And who are Qualcomm ?

      1. James 139

        Re: Shooting themselves in the ARM

        Texas.

    2. pimppetgaeghsr

      Re: Shooting themselves in the ARM

      If that is true they would already have acquired a RISC-V startup not a custom ARM core startup. I wouldn't bank on these big boys purchasing M or R class cores anymore though. Those lines are dead as doorknobs soon.

  7. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

    Nonsense licensing

    This licensing spat will further strengthen the case for using free and open-source ISA's such as RISC-V. This case will eventually weaken ARM and in the long run make them obsolete.

    All this is merely food for lawyers and legal advisors who are combing through every punctiation mark in the ISA licenses grated to Quallcomm and Nuvai. One could argue that Quallcomm already has an ISA license and that them buying Nuvia would enable them to use this to continue using the latter's CPU designs. But ARM says "No, we want to individually negotiate with every customer to squeeze the most money out of them." I guess the court will decide, but I believe the judgement may fall either way.

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Re: Nonsense licensing

      It's pretty much Black and White.

      A non-transferable clause is exactly that. Pretty simple.

      1. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

        Re: Nonsense licensing

        Except when it isn't...

        Do you really think Quallcomm's lawyers hadn't considered this? They already have an ISA license so they don't need Nuvia's license as they already have one!

        And Quallcomm is depending on the fog of the U.S. justice system to give them a hand. Worse case they lose the case and need to negotiate a new license. If they win they'll have saved themselves a bundle.

        1. pimppetgaeghsr

          Re: Nonsense licensing

          Qualcomm's lawyers don't exactly have the best track record with winning such cases.

          Sadly this will be another 5 years of corporate lawyers getting fat whilst actual technology development takes a side seat.

        2. MrReynolds2U

          Re: Nonsense licensing

          The same lawyers who looked over the acquisition of Nuvia and thought they were getting full IP use?

          If this goes in ARM's favour, QC may have wasted a lot of money on Nuvia. So, if there is anyone sane at QC anymore they'll re-open a dialog with ARM over the IP.

          Also ARM probably don't want to go to court - it could lead to some of their IP or licenses being pushed into the public eye.

        3. Spazturtle Silver badge

          Re: Nonsense licensing

          " They already have an ISA license so they don't need Nuvia's license as they already have one!"

          But Nuvia's designs were designed under Nuvia's licence, so now that that licence has been revoked the designs are now using unlicensed IP. It doesn't matter if Qualcomm have a licence of their own that covers the same IPs, the provenance of the IP used in the design matters, and in this case the provenance is from Nuvia's licence.

          1. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

            Re: Nonsense licensing

            That's complete nonsense. We're getting into fine print here but technically speaking Nuvia still exists, it's merely a part of Quallcomm now. Even if its license expired, Quallcomm can always argue that it already has a license to the ARM ISA and should be able to use Nuvia's designs.

            This case is not as black and white as some would make it.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Nonsense licensing

      "This case will eventually weaken ARM"

      What weakened ARM in the first place, continues to do so and will be its nemesis is spelled ITAR

      What "Team USA, World Police"'s vendetta against China is achieving is to make the Middle Kingdom self sufficient and proficient in the technologies being embargoed - a more potent and formidable future opponent

  8. JacobZ

    Not looking good for Qualcomm

    If it's true, as ARM claims, that Qualcomm initially acknowledged the restrictions and said it would stop using the Nuvia designs, it's going to be hard for them to argue otherwise now.

    1. pimppetgaeghsr

      Re: Not looking good for Qualcomm

      You would think a company like this knows there are no free lunches in licensing and patenting.

      Who knows, maybe corporate lawyers are intentionally imcompetent, because when S inevitably hits the fan their job security only improves.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Not looking good for Qualcomm

        You would think a company like this knows there are no free lunches in licensing and patenting

        Qualcomm has always been the one doing the bullying on licensing and patents previously. Maybe they thought they could bully ARM, and that ARM would back down since Qualcomm is one of their largest licensees or simply because they're so used to getting their way.

        I can't say I'd be sad to see them get a taste of their own medicine for once!

  9. pimppetgaeghsr

    QvA

    It was always sus when Qualcomm was considering investing in an ARM IPO after this acquisition, sounded like a thinly veiled olive branch at the time, why would they invest in a company that they are effectively now competing with (or at least their customers). I was heavily downvoted for suggesting it, but considering these comment sections are chock full of ARM middle-management types it's no wonder how out of touch some people are here with basic semiconductor industry fundamentals.

    Going with an ARM architecture license is basically paying someone a LOT of money to NOT make your chips, then paying a LOT of money to do it yourself. Says a lot about the state ARM is now in.

    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: QvA

      Says a lot about the state ARM is now in

      Not at all. Do you think Apple is wrong to have chosen that path instead of using ARM designed cores? That seems to be working out pretty well for them.

      The thing is, ARM designs some good cores that require some really talented designers to beat. Qualcomm tried doing so on its own and failed. Samsung failed. Nvidia failed.

      So the "state" ARM is in now is just fine, they are designing some really good cores, but if you are willing to invest enough resources to build the one of the best teams in the world their cores can be beat. Having tried it the hiring route and failed, Qualcomm decided to do via the acquisition route. But it seems they may have cut a few corners legally in doing so!

      1. pimppetgaeghsr

        Re: QvA

        Apple M1 has nothing to do with ARM the corporation, it uses the instruction set and pays royalties but as far as justifying ARM engineers and salaries they could achieve such an outcome right now with just some legal and accounting. Rumour is most of the architecture is dictated by Apple anyway.

        Apple ditched ARM designs before it ditched Intel designs, they saw what was coming and didn't want to be straddled to the same performance as all their competitors.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: QvA

          If I were Apple I would be watching this closely, and thinking quite hard about RISC-V.

          Arm is getting too big for its boots, and a concerted effort by long-term thinkers to evolve the RISC-V toolchain alongside work on IP will relegate them to an also-ran in about 20 years. They really have been short-sighted.

          1. pimppetgaeghsr

            Re: QvA

            Apple's license is perpetual, something they negotiated a long time ago.

            However if anyone could make it work it would be Apple. They could fracture RISC-V as they please.

          2. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: QvA

            Apple is completely immune to this type of stuff, their license is not only different than everyone else's they are not going to be acquired nor do they need to acquire anyone else for their ARM chip designs.

            Apple reportedly has a lot of say in what gets included in ARM ISA enhancements so there isn't anything they'd get by using a different ISA they already have with ARM.

            If they ever did leave ARM it surely wouldn't be for an ISA as poorly designed as RISC-V. I know it has its fanboys, but that's because it is open not because it is good. Apple would clean sheet a new ISA if they were going to leave ARM, but that will never happen.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The bad boy just asks for another slap

    The article show that Qualcomm does not have a license to create cores for server processor. Which pretty well explains why the Qualcomm Centriq server processor is no longer marketed or sold.

    They have tried to breach the license and all they got is a product they cant show/market, and now its said to be used only within china under a different brand.

    Well.. history repeats.

    Qualcomm does not know how to play fair. And Nuvia has dirty hands as well. Pretty obvious corruption going on in the tech companies still today.

  11. Tempest
    Alert

    Did ARM Forget the American Axiom?** . . .

    It's the winning that counts.

    **The word comes from the Ancient Greek word ἀξίωμα, meaning 'that which is thought worthy or fit' or 'that which commends itself as evident'.

    1. well meaning but ultimately self defeating

      Re: Did ARM Forget the American Axiom?** . . .

      It's the whining that counts.....

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