The United States Of America holds a very dominant position in the global tech trade. That’s because US companies have primarily set the standards of the modern tech infrastructure, holding most of the IPs and licensing them to other companies. This has worked out well most of the time but on the rare occasion a country finds itself in a conflict with the US, its domestic tech companies will have a hard time carrying out business as usual. China, as we know, is in some sort of a trade war with the US and recently the White House blacklisted Huawei and many of its subsidiaries, which meant trade with US companies were restricted.
Apart from losing access to key Google Software for their android phones, they also lost access to the ARM architecture. Chip Designer ARM suspended business with Huawei to comply with US sanctions. Designing and producing software from scratch is an uphill task but doable for sure. The same can’t be said for CPU architecture which has been developed and matured over decades with millions of lines of underlying code and several instruction sets. The sanctions were eventually lifted and Huawei dodged a potential disaster, but it was a rude awakening for China. According to a recent report, Chinese retail giant Alibaba is working on a new processor based on the RICS-V architecture.
The chip was presented this week at Alibaba’s Cloud Summit. According to TheRegister.uk the chip will have 16 cores clocked at up to 2.5GHz, built on a 12nm process node. It will be based on the RV64GCV instruction set, so expect a 64-bit chip with a 12-degree pipeline, 16-bit-wide instructions, and instructions for multiplying and dividing integers.
The processor will be used in applications including 5G telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving, and can lower the costs of related chip production by more than 50%, Alibaba said. Alibaba told Caixin the processor from Pingtouge, which is also known as T-Head, will soon be available for commercial sale, without providing a timetable or price range.
Ciaxinglobal’s article also states that Pingtouge will allow devs to download some of the source code for free on Github.
SiFive’s U74 is the world’s highest performance RISC-V application processor, maxing out at 5.1 CoreMark/MHz. Now if Alibaba’s claims are true about the Xuantie 910, it will take the crown as the world’s highest performance RISC-V processor with a 7.1/MHz score on CoreMark.
Xuan Tie 910’s performance breakthrough is due to technological innovations: the complex out-of-order execution architecture is the industry’s first RISC-V process to achieve 2 memory approaches per cycle. More than 50 instructions systematically improve the computer’s, storage and multi-core capabilities of RISC-V.
RICS-V The Way For China Ahead?
Some Microarchitectures like ARM are called open source, but it is in a very limited sense. Their ISAs aren’t actually open-source and ARM’s core business model involves them licensing their designs to commercial partners. Both of the leading microarchitectures are owned by US companies and this a problem because they are subject to sanctions. This gives the US huge leverage over China, and any sanction on these licenses can decapitate Chinese tech companies.
RISC-V is much more than an open ISA, it is also a frozen ISA. The base instructions are frozen and optional extensions which have been approved are also frozen. Because of the stability of the ISA, software development can confidently be applied to RISC-V knowing that your investment will be preserved. Software written for RISC-V will run on all similar RISC-V cores forever. The frozen ISA provides a solid foundation that software managers can depend on to preserve their software investments. Because the RISC-V ISA is open, this translates to hardware engineers having more flexibility over the processor implementation. With this power, software architects can become more influential in the final hardware implementation. They can provide input to hardware designers to make the RISC-V core more software centric.
– Ted Marena, Marketing Executive For RISC-V Foundation
RICS-V can be a great alternative here. It has an open-source ISA, so sanctions won’t be as effective. RISC-V is also supported by major tech companies like Nvidia, Google, and Tesla. Adoption and cost are some of the challenges faced by architecture, but progress has been great so far. Costs will come down with increased adoption as it is with an economy of scale. China has urged some of its big tech companies to put more R&D resources in semiconductors and RISC-V’s development can take away the uncertainty which is faced when using foreign IP. Obviously, it will be some time before RISC-V sees meaningful adoption but the future seems bright for open source hardware.