With U.S. chipmakers subject to President Donald Trump’s trade ban, the Chinese e-commerce platform operator Alibaba is leaving little to risk by launching an open-source microprocessor in its drive to liberate itself – and, potentially, China’s IT industry – from reliance on foreign producers.
Unveiled at an Alibaba Cloud Summit event in the company’s home city of Shanghai last week, the XuanTie 910 chip from Alibaba’s subsidiary, Ping Tou Ge Semiconductor, is a rebuke to the Commerce Department’s Entities List of at least five Chinese tech companies.
In May, the Commerce Department added the Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei to the list which effectively prevents American technology companies from doing business with it. After talks with Chinese leaders in June, Trump temporarily removed Huawei from the list, but a bipartisan group of Congress members introduced legislation in July that would prevent Trump from revoking the ban unless Congress approved.
While Alibaba has not been blacklisted, the company’s production of the XT-910 comes amid both Alibaba’s push into cloud services and China’s view it should step away from U.S. suppliers. And it has a performance kicker if the company’s claims made about speed and cost prove correct.
RISC V (“risk-five”) is an open-source hardware instruction set architecture (ISA) based on established “reduced instruction set computer” (RISC) principles. ISAs form the machine-language interface between the software programs that run computer processing and storage operations and the hardware on which they run.
Set to hit the market before the end of the year, the 12-nanometer chips each feature 16 processor cores that can handle 64 bits of data at 2.5 gigahertz. Combined with the need for fewer instructions, the XT-910’s ability to perform operations out of order can lift clock speeds higher by 40% versus those achieved in the fastest RISC V ISA implementations, the company says.
Closing the Gap
As much as $11 billion is at stake for U.S. companies this year because of the ban, imposed in stages. While the Commerce Department and Congress members claim the ban was implemented for national security, Trump himself has sought to make good on an oft-repeated vow to bring manufacturing jobs lost to China and elsewhere back home.
Google, Nvidia and Western Digital are among the U.S. companies affected by the ban on Huawei, Alibaba’s rival in the Chinese cloud. They also occupy board seats at the RISC V Foundation, the California-based nonprofit that guides the architecture standard’s development after it was frozen for public release in 2014
Alibaba and Huawei are among 25 Chinese foundation participants. Some 275 companies, universities and research entities are members committed to develop and implement RISC V tech.
By using fewer routine instructions, RISC ISAs require fewer transistors to form the interface between software and hardware, making them easier to deploy in smartphones and tablet computers and less costly to operate in data centers. In addition to the 64 bit architecture, RISC V can run standard 32 bit ISAs, as well as those for compact 16 bit designs.
Initially undertaken by the University of California at Berkeley, RISC V’s open-source instructions set means that developers in China and elsewhere can customize transistor arrays and tailor them for specific applications. The ISA supports vector math operations for floating-point instructions that accelerate computer processes.
RISC V blueprints can be found on the Internet, including on the GitHub code repository that is owned by Microsoft, as are diagrams for configuring processor cores and software stacks to the architecture. They permit the construction of systems-on-chips and allow engineers to test designs with the help of field-programmable gate arrays.
With DIY Supply
Alibaba has made no secret of plans to develop its own chips.
The company funds 300 researchers in eight countries, including at Berkeley and at Stanford University, as part of the DAMO Academy initiative it created in 2017. Those capabilities got a boost when Alibaba acquired the Chinese company Sky-C Microprocessors in 2018. That year, Sky-C, billed as China’s sole volume designer of CPUs, was mated with captive product developers to form the Shanghai-based Ping Tou Ge.
Alibaba hopes to introduce dedicated chips for artificial intelligence applications and quantum computing as it leverages the combined R&D.
By making its own chips, Alibaba believes it can halve the costs it and other Chinese makers pay to license foreign designs and source silicon. Using the RISC V ISA means that Alibaba also can charge a fee for the IP it creates for proprietary applications, in addition to selling chips.
Alibaba signed a deal in April to license embedded analytics from UltraSoC, an IP vendor from Britain’s University of Cambridge. The C-Sky subsidiary is incorporating the functionality into proprietary RISC V designs for low-cost motherboards. The company’s C-Sky ISA runs processing kernels for the open-source Linux operating system.
Alibaba in February linked up with Verizon and last week began letting American companies sell in its retail marketplace.
The company also became the exclusive distributor of San Francisco-based Salesforce’s CRM software and services in China, a partnership deal that was announced at last week’s Shanghai event.
Despite the Trump trade ban on Chinese high-tech hardware, American chip makers still may track developments via the RISC-V Foundation and online code repositories. However, Alibaba’s efforts to commercialize the RISC-V ISA means they will do so in competition with Chinese suppliers.
Alibaba’s Chairman Jack Ma is on record that he hopes to derive half Alibaba’s revenues, which reached above $56 billion in fiscal 2019, from outside China.
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