Alibaba releases RISC-V processor amid Chinese tech shift toward self-reliance

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Alibaba’s semiconductor affiliate Pingtouge released on Thursday a new RISC-V-based processor, a move that accelerates Chinese tech industry’s self-reliance amid the ongoing US-China trade war.

Why it matters: RISC-V, an open-source hardware instruction set architecture (ISA), is not covered by the US export restrictions, meaning Chinese firms like Huawei are able to use it without violating any export restrictions. The ISA is considered as a rival to commercial vendors of computer designs, such as ARM and MIPS.

  • RISC-V is a globally recognized open-source standard, eradicating trust issues that may arise for Hangzhou-based Alibaba and Shanghai-based Pingtouge.
  • Using RISC-V ISA is much more cost-effective because Pingtouge doesn’t need to license an expensive ARM core, Stewart Randall, head of electronics and embedded software of Shanghai-based consultancy Intralink, told TechNode on Thursday.

“Alibaba does not need to license any core from ARM, MIPS, or anyone else. They design their own core based on the RISC-V ISA and added extensions.”

—Stewart Randall

Details: Pingtouge says that the processor, dubbed Xuantie 910, is currently the most high-performance RISC-V processor in the industry.

  • It can be applied to the designing of chips for the fifth-generation wireless networks, artificial intelligence, as well as autonomous driving, said the company.
  • The processor could potentially double chip performance while reducing costs by 50%, said the company.

Context: The US government in May put Huawei on a trade blacklist, barring American companies from selling the Chinese telecom equipment giant any components containing technology it deems a national security threat if misappropriated.

  • UK-based chip-designer ARM was forced to sever ties with Huawei following the US sanctions as the company utilizes American technology in its products.
  • Huawei is also a member of the RISC-V Foundation, an organization that directs its development and adoption, and is thus also able to use the open-source architecture.