SK hynix shimmies towards AI silicon by driving merger of South Korean Nvidia challengers

Sapeon and Rebellions think they can do better together

Two South Korean members of the AI Platform Alliance – a group that advocates an open alternative to Nvidia – have proposed a merger to accelerate their work and achieve greater scale, and perhaps give local chipmaker SK hynix a way into the market for AI silicon.

The partners are named Sapeon and Rebellions. The former offers a CPU designed for inferencing workloads called the X330, plus servers to house them. Rebellions offers a SoC designed to run large language models, plus an NPU design.

Sapeon's shareholders include Korean chipmaking giant SK hynix and SK Telecom, which are both driving the merger. In a statement, the telco revealed the AI outfits have agreed to the merger as they feel it will enable the creation of an entity capable of competing in global markets.

The two have apparently decided that timing is of the essence, as the next two or three years are perceived as a "golden time" in which to establish companies capable of becoming major AI players. A quick merger is therefore planned, with Q3 targeted for completion of the deal and launch of an integrated business planned to happen before the end of 2024.

SK hynix plans to help the merged company develop AI silicon in South Korea.

It's unclear if that means manufacturing them. If that is SK hynix's plan it's a big move – the chipmaker currently specializes in memory and NAND storage.

Sapeon was spun out by SK Telecom in 2016. Rebellions is just four years old, but has already won a deal to supply Samsung with AI silicon – and to have those products manufactured by the Chaebol using a 4nm process with HBM3e integration.

As SK hynix also makes HBM3e, it is unclear if that deal will survive in its current form.

The deal between Samsung and Rebellions was hailed as a rare example of collaboration between South Korean companies on all aspects of chip production from design to manufacturing. When the deal was announced, Samsung signalled it would aid its own attack on the AI silicon market.

SK hynix and SK Telecom now assert that mashing up Sapeon and Rebellions will do the same – and that the nation can only benefit from the creation of such a combo and a move into chips for AI.

Which is more or less exactly what South Korea's president said a couple of weeks back, when he called on South Korean tech companies to move beyond memory and into processors. ®

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