Last week, UK-based semiconductor design company Arm announced plans for the next generation of chips. The v9 architecture comes ten years after the release of v8, which is currently the standard used for mobile phone central processing units (CPUs) and many other processors.
There are some good articles on the new features v9 brings to the table, most notably the Realms feature, which promises to increase security by running applications while data is protected from inspection or intrusion by the host or any other software running on that host. The new architecture will also bring AI/ML extensions for AI support across its CPUs, network processing units (NPUs), and graphics processing units (GPUs), and the ability to improve performance by accelerating workloads in a CPU environment in ways that previously required external hard accelerators.
In short, v9 architecture brings massive new capabilities to Arm CPUs—and OEMs will jump on it for their next lines of high-end equipment and devices. If Chinese companies want to stay competitive globally in the next decade, they need to use it. But the window of opportunity for some of them to buy an architectural license may be closing.
Stewart Randall is Head of Electronics and Embedded Software at Intralink, an international business development consultancy which helps western tech businesses expand in East Asia.
I’ve written an overview of major architectures in China elsewhere, but here’s a brief recap: Many Chinese companies design Arm-based chips, but most will license complete Arm cores on a single-use or multi-use basis, so they don’t have to design a core themselves.
More ambitious chip design companies may get an architecture license, which allows the licensee to change the design itself. This is what you need to create a customized core like the Kirin line of phone CPUs, designed by Huawei’s HiSilicon for use in its phones. But it’s difficult to build a core from scratch, so you have to be highly skilled.
Currently, only two companies in China have an architecture license for v8: Huawei and Phytium Technology, a fabless chip design company focused on Arm server chips..
Arm’s press release included several quotes from high-profile partners around the world, including representatives of three major Chinese smartphone brands; Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun, Vivo CTO Shi Yujian, and Oppo Head of Research Levin Liu. Notably absent were Huawei and Phytium Technology.
Both Huawei and Phytium previously bought architectural licenses from Arm, in part as a way to advertise their independence and control. To help them sell such a message Arm also created Arm China, a separate company that has its own issues.
The smartphone makers that did make the press release, have never been architectural licensees of Arm v8. This could change as they look to develop their own chips. All these companies have been investing heavily in building their own internal chip design capabilities.
However, I think for the time being they will stick with application processors from Qualcomm or MediaTek. As part of Arm’s presentation MediaTek announced that its first smartphone chip using the v9 architecture will be available by the end of 2021, sooner than any Chinese handset OEM would be able to design their own. That’s a lot sooner than they’re likely to be able to make their own.
Chinese handset companies will likely license Arm cores for individual designs, such as Xiaomi’s recent image signal processor design. Xiaomi’s previous attempt at an application processor was somewhat of a failure, and it makes sense for the company and others like Oppo and Vivo to focus first on simpler designs that can help them differentiate their products and also help them gain valuable real-world chip design experience.
So what are we to make of the absence of current licensees Huawei and Phytium? Are they not considered key partners, can they license v9 architecture, and does it even make sense for them to?
Can Huawei buy the v9 architecture?
Huawei has struggled to access semiconductors and IP since the US placed it on a list of companies which require licenses to buy US or US-linked technology. The absence of either company in Arm’s presser could imply that one or both won’t be able to upgrade to v9.
In response to such speculation, Arm has said that it can continue to license its IP to China including Huawei, concluding that its IP is of UK-origin and so not subject to the US ban. Ian Smythe, vice-president of solutions marketing at Arm said, “Following a comprehensive review, Arm has determined that its Arm v9 architecture is not subject to the US Export Administration Regulations,” adding that Arm had informed US government agencies of this conclusion.
That might not be the last word for Huawei. Ultimately, the US government may conclude that Arm’s Austin facility, which contributes to a lot of its high-performance architectures, means that Arm’s IP is sufficiently of US-origin to face export restrictions.
Phytium on thin ice
Phytium is not on the export ban list, and as such does not face the same restrictions as Huawei. However, it is on a list of “military-linked” companies that face restrictions on cross-border investments.
Also, the Washington Post reported today that that the Trump administration was planning to put Phytium on an export blacklist, but “ran out of time”. The article also reported Phytium chips are used at supercomputing centers that design advanced weapons systems for the People’s Liberation Army. This could heighten Washington’s scrutiny of the company, potentially leading to sanctions.
My best guess is that they will go ahead and secure a v9 license without much trouble, but they may be trying to keep a low profile in the hope that the US will not decide to target them. Watch this space.
Now or never
An architectural license gives Huawei and Phytium a certain amount of security: Once granted, the license is permanent, meaning Huawei would be able to continue designing new v9 chips indefinitely whatever actions Washington takes. But under present circumstances it might not be too useful.
An architectural license does not mean the licensee is licensing a specific core. They receive a set of specs for Arm’s cores and a testing suite. This allows the licensee to customize their own processor to fit their application. They can make cores that are faster, smaller, or less power hungry than standard Arm cores, or otherwise differentiated from standard Arm licensees.
Qualcomm and Apple rely on such licenses to create their chips, as did Huawei for its Kirin series. There are only a handful of such licensees globally, mainly because it costs a lot and requires a lot of time and internal expertise to create your own custom Arm core, while there are perfectly good cores available to license at a much cheaper price.
A license alone isn’t enough to make chips. If Huawei is able to buy an architectural license and does so, it still has no access to the EDA tools it needs and the fabs to actually manufacture a high-end Arm-based chip.
But it could be now or never. As competing companies move to v9, Huawei’s v8 license will soon be obsolete. It could actually make sense for the company to go in on an architectural license it can’t use for now in the hope that further down the line either restrictions on the company are removed or domestic self-sufficiency gets to a point where Huawei can get back into the high-end chip game.
With Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm also on the horizon, Arm could soon become a US-owned company. It could make sense for Huawei to lock in access to its IP now, although the same concerns could also motivate China to block the deal.
Access to IP is a chokepoint for semiconductors in China. As I’ve written before, RISC-V may help with this to some extent, but it isn’t as mature as Arm yet, and processor cores are just one of many different types of IP within a chip.
Despite RISC-V’s growth, Arm’s v9 architecture will be a core component for handset, server, IoT and automotive chips for the coming decade. For Huawei it may make sense to get in now, while it still can.
For its part, Arm will want to be free to license to Chinese companies and will be happy to take Huawei’s money. However, the reach of the US government can be long and if the Nvidia acquisition goes through I struggle to see companies on the entity list being allowed access.
Some domestic analysts argue that Huawei should not rely on architectural licenses. “You may get a v9 license this time, but what about v10 or v11, etc? Does endlessly licensing foreign IP mean independence?” (my translation).
It would be strange to see China without any Arm architectural licensees, but that is a prospect.
We may also see new Arm licensees. Perhaps the likes of Oppo or Vivo will decide it makes sense for them. We all know they are investing huge sums into their own IC design capabilities.