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China's Kylin Linux targets second RISC-V platform

Is state-approved Ubuntu distro how the Middle Kingdom will replace PCs with home-grown kit?

China's military-derived and government-approved Linux distribution, Ubuntu Kylin, has revealed plans to target a second RISC-V platform.

Ubuntu Kylin is Ubuntu’s official version for China and was developed in partnership with Chinese authorities, including the military.

In March 2022, a version of the OS was released for the HiFive Unmatched board – a SiFive product in the Mini-ITX form factor and packing a five-core Freedom U740 SoC.

In the announcement of the RISC-V release, Kylin's developers admit the platform lacks broad software support. The release therefore includes a self-developed browser and productivity suite, among 20 packages coded just for the distro's RISC-V debut. The distro is available in English here and the somewhat finicky instructions to install it are here [PDF].

Last week, Kylin developers revealed plans to work towards a release on another RISC-V product, described as a StarFive development board. StarFive is a Chinese RISC-V designer and packager and offers a Raspberry-Pi like dual-core development board named the HiFive Vision.

Work to bring Kylin to the board will be conducted under the Summer of Open Source project, alongside efforts to add personalized theme uploads to Kylin, and a more interesting project to develop a dependency conflict analysis tool.

China is keen to build a complete computing stack that it controls, to reduce dependence on foreign technology it fears could represent a security risk or to which access could be denied by trade and/or security sanctions.

Open source software and silicon such as Linux and RISC-V therefore have obvious appeal – perhaps more than ever in light of a recent report suggesting China's government and military users have been told to replace all foreign-sourced PCs within two years.

Local champion Lenovo stands to profit from that edict, and has made significant efforts to pre-load Linux on its higher-end PCs and workstations. But Lenovo is an x86 shop, and while China possesses domestic licences of the architecture, its output would struggle to meet local needs, is not at the same level as product from Intel or AMD, and could be crimped by sanctions.

RISC-V offers the promise of uninterrupted supply, but at the time of writing also cannot match the performance of Intel's or AMD's finest – and will struggle to do so within China's two-year PC replacement deadline.

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