French cloud Scaleway starts renting Alibaba's RISC-V SoC

€15.99/month server offered with Ubuntu or Debian, and a zero percent Service Level Agreement

French cloud provider Scaleway has fired up an instance type powered by a RISC-V system-on-chip (SoC), developed by Chinese tech giant Alibaba's T-Head offshoot.

Scaleway announced the new instance type, the EM-RV1, late last week at the very keen price of €15.99 per month for servers equipped with 16GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 128GB of eMMC storage.

The servers are said to consume between 0.96W and 1.9W per 1.8GHz core, and to be so small that a 52U rack holds up to 672 of the machines – although it is unclear if they're physical or virtual. Each server comes equipped with a 100Mbit/sec ethernet network card and the service includes public IPv4 and IPv6 addresses. Ubuntu, Debian, and Alpine Linux will run on the instances.

The machines use the T-Head C910 SoC with the following specs:

  • RV64GCV 4 cores 1.85 GHz
  • GPU (OpenCL 1.1/1.2/2.0, OpenGL ES 3.0/3.1/3.2, Vulkan 1.1/1.2, Android NN HAL)
  • VPU (H.265/H.264/VP9 video encoding/decoding)
  • NPU (4TOPS@INT8 1GHz, Tensorflow, ONNX, Caffe)

The Register has previously sighted the SoC on a development board that Alibaba claimed included parts it uses in its own ecosystem and CPU cores that can reach 2.5GHz. It is unclear whether Scaleway has throttled the SoC to keep things cooler, or is using a variant of the SoC.

Scaleway execs pitched the instance type as the first step towards Europe developing a truly sovereign cloud that features home-grown processing power.

"RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture for CPUs, will become the dominant architecture in a world where more and more countries seek to regain sovereignty over semiconductor production," opens Scaleway's announcement, adding "A revolution in the microprocessor landscape is in the offing, based on the adoption of a universal language, free from commercial licenses and geopolitical constraints."

Using a chip from China – a nation credibly suspected of using its presence in tech supply chains to enable economic espionage – is an interesting way to establish sovereignty and free users from geopolitical constraints.

Scaleway nonetheless thinks it's achieved an important first by offering RISC-V powered cloud servers.

That it's done so is also surely an important first for T-Head, which can now point to an offshore customer for the C910 at a time many Chinese chip development projects are seen as defensive efforts to ensure the Middle Kingdom can create silicon to approach the efficiency of products it is no longer permitted to import.

While T-Head suggests the C910 is suitable for AI on the edge, it's not a challenger for today's so-hot workloads of AI model development and inferencing. Nor is it a serious contender for the mainstream applications handled by Intel Xeons and AMD EPYCs.

Scaleway hopes the EM-RV1 instance changes that, by giving developers easy access to RISC-V machines so they can understand what it takes to code for the architecture.

Similar efforts didn't do a lot to propel the Arm architecture to greater prominence. That changed to some degree when major clouds adopted Arm CPUs for instance types that – like Scaleway's EM-RV1 – offered impressively low prices, and paired them with software designed to run on the silicon.

One thing to watch out for is that Scaleway considers these instances a beta or lab service, which means it offers them with a zero percent service level agreement – with the details only explained in French [PDF]. ®

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