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China is betting on this chip design to fight US curbs

China is betting that an open-source chip design architecture can help the country achieve self-sufficiency in semiconductors, as the US tightens its restrictions over the export of advanced chip technologies and equipment to Chinese entities.

At an industry event earlier this week, 11 Chinese semiconductor companies unveiled their latest chips based on the so-called RISC-V architecture, a sign of China’s accelerating efforts to move away from popular chip design standards controlled by Western companies.

The new RISC-V chips “represent China’s advanced level of integrated circuit (IC) designs”, according to China RISC-V Industry Consortium – a group made up of local RISC-V start-ups and Shanghai-based integrated circuit (IC) design contractor VeriSilicon Holdings.

RISC-V, the 5th generation of reduced instruction set computer created in 2010 by University of California, Berkeley, is open-source, meaning that the source code is publicly available for free.

On the other hand, X86 – the dominant chip design architecture for desktop and laptop computers – is developed by US tech giant Intel Corp, while the design architecture behind most smartphone chips in the world is controlled by British firm Arm.

As China moves to reduce its dependence on foreign technologies, Shanghai became the first in the country to kick-start RISC-V development. In July 2018, as part of a larger package to boost its chip industry, the city introduced specific financial incentives to encourage companies to develop RISC-V processors and related intellectual property (IP) cores.

The new chips unveiled on Wednesday cover a wide range of applications ranging from personal computers (PCs) and cars to wireless communications and energy management, with some companies claiming that they have achieved significant technological breakthroughs.

StarFive, founded in Shanghai in 2018 under a partrnership with world-leading RISC-V company SiFive, said its new RISC-V central processing unit (CPU) is designed to “directly benchmark” against Arm’s Cortex-A76, launched in 2018. The Chinese company said its new product is made with 12-nanometre process nodes and aims to become the world’s first RISC-V chip compatible with “mainstream notebook and mini PC applications”.

Artosyn, founded in Shanghai in 2011, described its latest communication chip AR8030 as the world’s first 150M-7GHz full-band wireless system-on-a-chip. It is based on a RISC-V CPU core developed by T-Head, Alibaba Group Holding’s in-house semiconductor unit. (Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.)

Timesintelli Technology, another Shanghai-based chip design company, said some of its RISC-V processors can compete with Arm’s Cortex M and Cortex R.

Many of these chips are expected to enter the market next year, according to company executives. Going from the research and development stage to mass production and shipment will mark an important milestone, according to Wayne Dai, founder and chairman of VeriSilicon.

Most of the 10 RISC-V chips introduced in last year’s forum have already reached mass production, with cumulative shipments surpassing 10 million units, Dai said.

While RISC-V presents an opportunity for China to crack the market for CPU designs, the country remains heavily reliant on IP cores developed by US and British firms.

Applications for RISC-V in the near future will be mostly in smart home appliances, wearables, surveillance cameras, car electronics and industrial robots, which are in huge demand in China. South China Morning Post

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