China 'readies production' of homegrown high-bandwidth memory

Breaking the AI performance bottleneck is key for Middle Kingdom's ambitions

ChangXin Memory Technologies, aka CXMT, could become China's first domestic producer of high-bandwidth memory modules, which are crucial to building the accelerators used in AI and high-performance computing.

Nikkei Asia reports from the usual unnamed sources that CXMT is setting up testing and manufacturing equipment capable of producing high-bandwidth memory (HBM) stacks in volume.

Memory bandwidth remains one of the biggest bottlenecks for AI and supercomputing performance, and chip houses have begun prioritizing it over floating point performance with the latest generations of hardware. Much of the speed increase promised by Nvidia for its upcoming H200 processor, and potentially its China-market H20, comes down to the use of faster HBM3e memory. If Nvidia's benchmarks are to be believed, the faster memory will translate into nearly double the inference performance for models including Llama 2.

CXMT reportedly began prioritizing development of HBM manufacturing capacity over the past year, aided by export licenses granted to American outfits Applied Materials and Lam Research to sell older, less sophisticated memory manufacturing equipment to the Chinese chip fab.

Because of this, CXMT's first-gen HBM isn't expected to be anywhere near as performant as that produced by market leaders SK hynix, Samsung, or Micron. However, any capacity to produce HBM domestically will be a boon for Chinese chip slingers unable to get the tech elsewhere due to export controls.

Late last year, America added several Chinese chip players working on GPUs for AI, including Biren and Moore Threads, to the US Entities List. These measures effectively barred them from acquiring goods, services, and intellectual property developed using American tech. If you find yourself on the list, you'll supposedly find it difficult to do business with organizations in or connected to the United States.

Similarly Huawei, which landed on the US Entities list in 2019 and reportedly working on a new version of its Ascend 910 built using homegrown silicon, also stands to benefit from a ready supply of HBM. So, despite the fact that CXMT accounts for just a fraction of global DRAM production, US export restrictions have created a massive market for Chinese-made HBM.

In addition to HBM, CXMT has also made steady gains in more mainstream memory production in recent months. Last year, it began production of LPDDR5 modules commonly deployed in smartphones and notebooks. Nikkei reports that the chipmaker has also begun deploying additional equipment at its second plant in Hefei, the capital of China's Anhui province, to scale production in this tech.

While CXMT may be able to get its hands on foreign chipmaking equipment for now, this may not be true for long. In 2022, YMTC - a rising star in the Chinese memory market - was added to the US Entities List and this week was designated as a military collaborator. It wouldn't be surprising to see CXMT show up on that roster before long, especially if its HBM starts showing up in Chinese military supercomputers. ®

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