China Embraces RISC-V: A Paradigm Shift in Chip Independence

China's recent embrace of RISC-V architecture represents a momentous paradigm shift in the realm of chip independence. By adopting this open-source instruction set architecture, China is breaking away from conventional chip designs and taking a bold step towards reducing reliance on foreign chip technologies. The move not only strengthens China's position in the semiconductor sector but also fosters a new era of innovation, propelling the country towards self-sufficiency in chip development and manufacturing.

Introduction

In a strategic move to reduce reliance on Western chip technology, China is increasingly embracing homegrown chips built using the open RISC-V architecture. RISC-V, a free-to-license API blueprint, offers a faster and cost-effective solution for chip design and manufacturing, providing China with a viable alternative to Western technologies.

China’s Commitment to RISC-V

After years of talking about moving towards RISC-V, the Chinese government has finally demonstrated serious commitment by funding RISC-V initiatives. This sudden interest surprised many, including academic Yun gang Bao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who witnessed the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation China actively inviting proposals for RISC-V research.

China’s previous attempts to create sovereign chips around alternative architectures faced setbacks. However, RISC-V emerged as an excellent solution, providing an open-source platform for chip development without the need to rely on Western blueprints such as x86, MIPS, PowerPC, Alpha, and SPARC.

RISC-V’s Growth and Maturation

RISC-V’s rapid growth and maturation are evident, with increasing adoption at the academic and startup levels since its inception in 2015. This open technology, akin to Linux, allows the base architecture to be freely licensed and tailored by Chinese companies to meet their specific needs. The shift towards RISC-V has been significant, with more universities using it for teaching, and a textbook based on RISC-V now available.

RISC-V as a Response to U.S. Semiconductor Restrictions

Given the restrictions imposed by the U.S. on semiconductor trade and policy, China is compelled to explore internal chip development technologies, making RISC-V an appealing option. This trend mirrors efforts in Europe to create sovereign chips based on RISC-V, reducing reliance on Intel and ARM for chip supplies. The EU-funded European Processor Initiative is actively designing RISC-V chips for diverse applications, including AI, supercomputers, automobiles, and other electronics.

CAS’s Long-Term Strategy for RISC-V in China

CAS is playing a long-term game to establish RISC-V as the default architecture in China’s chip market. To achieve this, the focus is on drawing academic and startup interest in RISC-V, starting from the early stages of education. CAS’s 2019 countrywide initiative to promote RISC-V garnered significant participation, despite the Chinese Academy of Sciences being placed on the U.S. entity list due to its affiliation with the Chinese government.

Chinese organizations, recognizing the potential of RISC-V, formed the China RISC-V Alliance in 2018 with the goal of building a complete open-source chip ecosystem by 2030. With about 70 Chinese companies as members, China is actively fostering a vibrant RISC-V community, closely trailing behind the EU and U.S. in terms of membership count.

Flourishing RISC-V Ecosystem in China

The top 10 RISC-V startups in China have raised substantial funding from venture capital firms, underlining the growing interest and potential in RISC-V-based chip development.

CAS collaborates with leading Chinese companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and ZTE to co-develop XiangShan-v3, targeting performance comparable to ARM’s Neoverse-N2 server CPU design. Although some performance gaps exist when compared to the latest ARM chips, the RISC-V development and verification are closing these gaps.

Chinese companies have already introduced numerous RISC-V boards, with Sophon releasing a 64-core RISC-V CPU. Star Five and All winner also offer RISC-V CPU designs and boards available through Chinese retail sites. The Chinese RISC-V ecosystem thrives on open-source collaboration, allowing the community to improve designs and software.

Open-Source Collaboration and Global Interest

Yun gang’s long-term vision is to establish a platform with complete chip development tools, including open-source chip designs, electronic design automation, and verification tools. The open-source chip ecosystem lowers barriers to chip development, saving time and reducing costs.

The “One Chip One Student” (OSOC) initiative is a notable success, with thousands of undergraduate students participating, enabling them to design RISC-V processors. By encouraging the adoption of open-source EDA tools, Chinese institutions are working towards commercial viability.

Despite U.S. government restrictions on certain EDA tools, China’s RISC-V efforts remain borderless, open to anyone worldwide. The Xiangshan project is already gaining global interest, with more than 400 forks on GitHub.

Conclusion

In conclusion, China’s pivot towards RISC-V represents a paradigm shift in the chip industry, allowing the nation to assert its independence from Western chip technologies. By embracing RISC-V’s open-source capabilities and fostering collaboration, China is well-positioned to reshape the global semiconductor landscape.

Editorial Team
Editorial Team
Articles: 1955