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Alibaba’s chip unit joins initiative to develop RISC-V software ecosystem

T-Head, the chip unit of Alibaba Group Holding, has joined a global initiative to develop a software ecosystem and accelerate commercialisation for RISC-V, as the open-source chip design architecture is increasingly seen as a potential alternative for proprietary Arm and x86 architectures.

The RISC-V Software Ecosystem (RISE) Project, hosted by Linux Foundation European, a non-profit organisation enabling innovation through open source, has brought together 13 global industry leaders as its founding members, according to a press release issued by the organisation earlier this week.

It aims to enable “commercial-ready software” for application processors using the RISC-V architecture for mobile phones, consumer electronics, data centres, and automotive.

Founding members include some of the world’s largest semiconductor companies, including Intel, Qualcomm and Nvidia from the US, Samsung Electronics from South Korea, and MediaTek and Andes Technology from Taiwan. T-Head, created by Alibaba in 2018 as its subsidiary to focus on chip design, is the only founding member from China.

Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

“It’s an exciting time to be part of the RISC-V community … However, this momentum must be supported by performant, secure, reliable and commercial-ready software,” said project chair Amber Huffman.

Members will “contribute financially and provide engineering talent to address specific software deliverables” prioritised by the project’s Technical Steering Committee, according to the press release. It added that the efforts will support the global open standard activities and achievements of RISC-V International, the non-profit home for the open-standard RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA).

“T-Head has been contributing to the software ecosystem through initiatives such as putting various operating systems onto RISC-V and contributing an integrated development environment to the RISC-V community,” Meng Jianyi, vice-president of T-Head, was quoted as saying.

“Together with other global business leaders for the RISE Project and our partners across sectors, we can further drive the growth of the open-source software ecosystem,” Meng added.

RISC-V, an open-standard ISA created in 2010 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, gained rapid popularity after its ISA specifications were made available to developers in 2015 under RISC-V International.

Currently, chips with proprietary architectures continue to dominate the global market. X86, developed by US tech giant Intel, is still the dominant microprocessor design architecture for desktop and laptop computers, while the architecture behind most of the world’s smartphone chips is controlled by British firm Arm.

Alibaba is doubling down on its efforts in RISC-V chips through T-Head, as China bets on the open-source architecture to achieve greater self-sufficiency in semiconductors amid US sanctions.

Some of China’s major tech companies – including Alibaba, Tencent Holdings, Huawei Technologies Co and ZTE Corp – are members of RISC-V International.

T-Head has introduced eight RISC-V processors since its establishment, and four of them – based on its self-developed XuanTie IP – have been made open-source.

The unit is also stepping up its commercialisation of chips for consumer and industrial fields. T-Head is working on a collaborative project with Alipay, the popular mobile payment application created by Alibaba affiliate Ant Group, to bring secure payment functions to wearable devices through embedded RISC-V chips, Alipay said in March. South China Morning Post

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