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Alibaba, Tencent enlisted to help sanction-weary China build RISC-V chips

PRC and chums see open-source chip architecture as safer alternative to Arm

China is reportedly leaning on domestic tech giants Alibaba and Tencent to design RISC-V chips as part of the country's efforts to insulate itself from the effects of the United States' growing silicon sanctions.

This is according to a Wednesday report by The Financial Times, which said China has "enlisted" the two companies. That word has quite the insinuation, given the country's "military-civil fusion" doctrine, where private firms must share their technologies, and any software vulnerabilities, with China's military.

The report said Alibaba and Tencent are part of a new consortium of companies and research institutes set up by the Chinese government that aims to create new intellectual property for chips based on the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA). This means China is looking to cook up core designs and other silicon building blocks that will serve as the basis for future chips.

China views RISC-V as a safer alternative to the proprietary Arm ISA over fears that the latter will be subject to future US sanctions. After all, Arm, is British but has a big American presence, and its owner, SoftBank, hopes to list Arm on a US stock exchange next year.

The FT also said the consortium, called the Beijing Open Source Chip Research Institute, has already developed a high-performance RISC-V chip named Xiangshan. The newspaper said the chip is meant to rival Arm technology, but it didn't specify which core design in Arm's portfolio.  

Alibaba and Tencent have already launched their own Arm-based chips, but there is apparently trepidation at both companies about Arm's future in China.

The newspaper reported that Alibaba and China's ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, already had plans underway to develop RISC-V chips for AI and datacenter applications. This goes beyond what we previously knew about Alibaba's RISC-V plans, which were mostly limited to edge and IoT appliances.

One senior engineer at T-head, Alibaba's chip division, told the newspaper that the company's goal is to replace its Arm chips "in our most advanced products." The FT also quoted a Tencent engineer, who called Arm "too risky now."

While one Chinese official described the consortium's RISC-V efforts as being on the "right track," the official added that the ISA's fragmentation issues have slowed down efforts to replace Arm designs.

China's creation of the Beijing Open Source Chip Research Institute is the country's latest step in embracing RISC-V as a way to escape sanctions led by the US. China has been heavily involved in RISC-V's development over the past few years through RISC-V International, the ISA's governing body that relocated its headquarters from the US to Switzerland in 2020 over geopolitical concerns. ®

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