Nvidia sees Huawei, Intel in rear mirror as it grapples with China ban

Commerce Sec threatens redesigned AI-capable chips will be curtailed 'the very next day'

Nvidia chief Jensen Huang reckons Huawei and Intel are potential challengers for the GPU-maker's crown in the AI accelerator space, and says it is working out a deal with the US to keep selling products to China.

The Santa Clara-based GPU biz continues to rake in the cash thanks to the booming interest in AI, disclosing recently that it had tripled revenue in Q3 of this financial year, when compared to last.

Speaking at an event in Singapore, Huang said there is a growing group of semiconductor rivals that pose a threat to Nvidia’s position as top dog for AI accelerator hardware. Chief among these is fellow Santa Clara chipmaker Intel and the Chinese technology giant Huawei.

Huawei has faced having to find chips from elsewhere because of US sanctions, but it has had considerable assistance from Beijing. According to Bloomberg, the company has already received $30 billion in funding to build its own chip fabrication facilities, and is also supported by a shadowy network of enterprises backed by government funding to create a self-sufficient chip ecosystem.

Rumours of Huawei's involvement in covert semiconductor plants across China surfaced earlier this year, as The Register reported at the time.

Huawei already has its own Ascend AI chips, and some experts have rated these as comparable with at least some Nvidia products. Without access to cutting edge fabrication technologies, however, it is unlikely they could match the performance of Nvidia's latest lineup.

Huawei did recently surprise the world with the Mate 60 Pro smartphone, powered by an Arm-based chip that was developed - or so it appears - in-house by Huawei and manufactured by Chinese chipmaker SMIC.

Intel has its own Data Center GPU Max accelerators, already featured in the Dawn supercomputer now being deployed at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is also pushing the idea of the “AI PC” using the upcoming Meteor Lake processors integrated neural-processing units (NPUs).

Keeping the China sales pipeline flowing

Huang also told reporters in Singapore his company was working closely with the US authorities to make sure it could sell products to the Chinese market that comply with the latest export restrictions, according to Reuters.

"Our plan now is to continue to work with the government to come up with a new set of products that comply with the new regulations that have certain limits," Huang said.

Washington's updated restrictions, announced in October, put a halt on sales of Nvidia's GPU products to the Middle Kingdom, even the downrated GPUs it had developed specifically for that market.

Nvidia was last month reported to be working on new GPUs that came in under the performance threshold limits on AI accelerators sold in China. A lot is riding on this, as 20 to 25 percent of Nvidia's datacenter revenue is generated by sales in China.

Yet those effort may be in vain if US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo has her way.

Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California last weekend, Raimondo reportedly said the US would have to keep tightening restrictions in order to prevent China working out how to get around them.

"If you redesign a chip around a particular cut line that enables them to do AI, I'm going to control it the very next day," she said, referring to semiconductors bound for the Middle Kingdom. "We cannot let China get these chips. Period." ®

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