China’s Chip-Independence Goals Helped by U.S.-Developed Tech

Date: Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Source: Wall Street Journal

A U.S.-born approach to defining how computer processors work presents a potential steppingstone to chip independence for Chinese tech companies that face growing limits from Washington on buying American semiconductors.

The so-called RISC-V technology offers an openly accessible approach to running the brains that power personal computers, smartphones and servers. It is an emerging rival to two, long-dominant proprietary models from Intel Corp. and Arm Holdings Ltd., a British company that U.S. graphics-chip maker Nvidia Inc. agreed in September to acquire for $40 billion.

The standard is winning global interest, and early users include Chinese online retail and tech giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , which developed what some industry insiders consider the highest-performance RISC-V chip in production. Alibaba has said it is using that chip in its data centers to perform artificial intelligence calculations, and is selling versions of it.

Widespread adoption of RISC-V, pronounced “risk five,” could open the door for China to accelerate efforts to end its dependence on Western chip technology, threaten licensing revenues for Arm and could aid the rise of new rivals to incumbent chip makers, industry executives and analysts said.

“China wants to have its own architecture, but also an architecture where license fees won’t have to be paid. So we see a strong buildup of RISC-V in China,” said Handel Jones, the chief executive of International Business Strategies Inc., an industry consulting and analysis firm.

Chip architectures like RISC-V provide a sort of language for translating software commands into instructions for processors to perform the computations needed to send email, play games or perform other tasks. Those base-level instructions have been largely defined by Intel, whose x86-based chips dominate personal computers and servers, and Arm, which dominates smartphones and other portable devices by licensing its architecture to companies such as Apple Inc. that add their own modifications.

RISC-V is open-sourced, meaning its technical details are public and changes are openly debated. The technology remains far behind in performance to what Intel and Arm currently offer; Alibaba says its chip is comparable to that of a mobile-phone processor from several years ago. However, the standard’s backers—which include prominent researchers and major companies in the U.S.—hope it will do for hardware what the open-source movement did for software, shifting power from big incumbents and democratizing the plumbing of modern computing.

“People are fired by this vision and moving ahead because they see it as a long-term bet,” said David Patterson, one of the pioneers behind RISC-V. While the technology may not be as mature as alternatives, he said the possibilities for its growth were unlimited.

Work on RISC-V, which originated at the University of California, Berkeley, dates back about a decade, but Nvidia’s landmark acquisition this year and the technological face-off between China and the U.S. are fueling new interest.

Adoption of the architecture has accelerated. Membership in RISC-V International, a body that promotes the standard, climbed by 64% last year to more than 750 members, said Calista Redmond, the group’s chief executive. “It’s moving from [research and development] departments into let’s go build something for real and see how it performs.”

For China, the technology offers a framework that could help insulate the country from U.S. export limits. Washington added Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co. to an export blacklist in 2019, and has sought to limit other big Chinese chip companies including manufacturing giant Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. , which was added to the export blacklist in December. Arm’s temporary suspension of its work with Huawei after the Chinese company’s blacklisting by the U.S. further raised the alarm there.

RISC-V alone wouldn’t resolve China’s chip reliance on foreign suppliers. The country is still dependent on other foreign technologies, including key chip-design software and manufacturing tools.

Some U.S. officials view China’s embrace of the standard with alarm. RISC-V was developed partly with backing by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm, and was pursued initially as a tool for academics to work on projects without paying royalties for proprietary systems. As U.S. concerns about China’s technical prowess have grown, some officials worry Chinese access to the fruits of open-source projects, including RISC-V, gives it an advantage.

“Am I giving China a leg up on all these technologies because they can now save 20 years of engineering and catch up to Western technology overnight? It’s not unlikely,” said Serge Leef, a Darpa program manager overseeing semiconductor projects.

RISC-V’s backers say that while Chinese adoption has been strong, the architecture is making rapid inroads in Europe and the U.S., too, and members in the foundation behind it are about evenly split between North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe.

The global body overseeing RISC-V relocated last year from the U.S. to Switzerland. Mr. Patterson, who heads a RISC-V-focused lab based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said the move was meant to address member concerns that their work could be caught up in U.S. export restrictions, but it wasn’t a direct response to the U.S.-China trade tussle.

Competition among regional governments in China for tech leadership is propelling RISC-V efforts there, said Alex Guo, a chip engineer in Shanghai who co-chairs a regional task force for the RISC-V Foundation. The momentum also is driven by the expense of Arm licenses and the fact that RISC-V is more easily configurable because it is open-source, Mr. Guo said.

Arm declined to comment.

Nvidia’s planned acquisition of Arm has raised concerns among industry executives that Nvidia could raise the cost of licensing Arm technology or interfere in its relationships for competitive reasons. Nvidia has said it wouldn’t do that, but rivals see RISC-V as insurance.

Mobile-chip giant Qualcomm Inc. and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. have incorporated RISC-V into some of their flagship chips for smartphones. A large portion of existing commercial applications for RISC-V so far have been limited to so-called microcontrollers, embedded in more powerful systems to perform narrow tasks like routing data from a keyboard.

“We are setting our sights a little bit higher,” said Zvonimir Bandic, a board member of the body overseeing the RISC-V standard and a senior director at data-storage giant Western Digital Corp. , which is using RISC-V in chips that handle data going to and from its drives. The ambition is to have high-end computers using the standard within around five years.


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