Amid intensifying tech war, 1 US chip design firm sees opportunity in China

US semiconductor intellectual property (IP) provider SiFive is promoting its processor cores to chip designers in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen this week, tapping into China's enthusiasm for the open-source RISC-V architecture.

As Washington restricts exports of advanced chip technology to its geopolitical rival, China is putting its hopes on RISC-V, an open-standard instruction set architecture (ISA) that gives chip developers the ability to configure and customise their designs, giving China more room to manoeuvre.

Arm often charges high licensing and royalty fees and gives customers little freedom to design their own chips, according to Krste Asanovic, a founding father of RISC-V and co-founder of SiFive.

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Asonovic received a rock-star reception at the SiFive RISC-V China Technology Forum in Beijing on Wednesday, with a packed room of engineers and researchers waiting in line to take photos with him. Jack Kang, SiFive's vice-president of business development, said at the event that the company has decided to expand its team and investment in China to tap "huge opportunities in the Chinese market".

Kang said the country's huge demand for semiconductors in artificial intelligence (AI) and electric vehicle applications will generate huge demand for its chip cores.

The San Mateo, California-based firm, founded in 2015, was the world's first company to produce a chip with the RISC-V architecture, and is now a key supplier of commercial RISC-V processor intellectual property cores. China has been keen to adopt RISC-V amid its self-sufficiency drive in semiconductor technologies, with prominent chip experts throwing their weight behind the open-standard ISA.

SiFive is free to export its commercial IP cores to mainland Chinese clients, except to those on the US trade blacklist known as the Entity List, Kang said.

Asanovic promoted the merits of RISC-V to his Chinese audience and lamented that non-open standards are stifling innovation, creating monopolies, and are "a problem of fragmentation" as a single central processor unit (CPU) can have different ISAs provided by different IP suppliers. "The idea [of RISC-V] is to create a stable and reorganised ISA that everybody can use for everything," he said.

RISC-V gained popularity across the global semiconductor industry after its ISA specifications were made available to developers in 2015 under the non-profit RISC-V Foundation, which was renamed RISC-V International in 2020, when it was incorporated in Switzerland. Since then, its membership has grown more than eightfold to 3,664 from 435 in 2019, according to Kang.

Jack Kang, SiFive's senior vice-president of business development, speaks in Beijing on Wednesday. Photo: Handout alt=Jack Kang, SiFive's senior vice-president of business development, speaks in Beijing on Wednesday. Photo: Handout>

Chinese companies and government-funded organisations have been intrigued by the opportunity to create their own CPUs thanks to the advent of RISC-V, with private companies like Nuclei and Alibaba Group Holding's T-head chip design unit creating their commercial IP portfolios around RISC-V. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

China also set up the RISC-V Industry Consortium to facilitate the architecture's domestic adoption. The industry group is led by semiconductor veteran Wayne Dai Wei-ming, the founder and chief executive of chip IP licensing firm VeriSilicon.

Ni Guangnan, a prominent Chinese chip expert and principal advocate of RISC-V, said that as the global CPU market is dominated by X86 and Arm architectures, RISC-V provides China with a path to change the situation and develop more self-reliance in CPUs.

The state-backed Institute of Computing Technology has introduced the RISC-V-based Xianshan cores that have already been adopted by Chinese chip design firms for development of high-end AI chips and GPUs, according to a report from Chinese media IT Home in May.

However, while RISC-V can help Chinese chip designers, it does not solve China's problem of how to manufacture advanced semiconductors given Western export restrictions on chip-making tools. For instance, SiFive's P400 cores are tailored for a 7-nanometre manufacturing process, a technology China lacks. If manufactured with the less-advanced 14-nm or 28-nm node, its performance could be affected, according to Asanovic.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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