Alibaba is set to produce the next generation of Chinese processors with the RISC-V instead of Arm architecture.

The international processor market is complicated, but one inarguable fact is that there is an increasing demand for processors. China's goliath supplier, Alibaba, has just announced that their chip subsidiary, Pingtouge, will utilize an open-source architecture, RISC-V, rather than Arm.


Alibaba and the Move to RISC-V

Alibaba, one of China's largest online retailers and technology companies, has acquired the semiconductor technology firm, Pingtouge, making it their silicon chip subsidiary. Pingtouge has developed a brand new processor that will be used to drive embedded systems, automation, automotive, and edge computing applications.



But what makes this new processor unique, and potentially damaging to both ARM and the US sanctions, is that the core is based on the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture. The importance of the use of RISC-V comes down to two main factors with the first factor being that the RISC-V core is open-source. Therefore, anyone is free to integrate it into their products while requiring no licensing or royalties and it is this that makes it next to impossible for the US to place a sanction on a freely-available IP core whose specification and design can be downloaded with ease.

The second reason that makes the move to RISC-V very important is to do with its popularity and support. Any engineer can design a processor but, in order for the processor to be useable, it requires software support. For example, this would include compilers for commonly used languages (such as C, C++, and Java), operating systems, and applications for those operating systems. A newly-designed processor whose architecture is fundamentally different from standard designs (such as x86 and ARM) will not be able to use any software tools.

However, the RISC-V is a public project with many contributors and now that it has been adopted by multiple commercial interests: SiFive, Andes Technology Corporation, IAR Systems, and Western Digital. This means that software support for RISC-V devices is already established, which massively helps designers port code as well as move code environment entirely.


Intellectual Cores: A Short History of RISC and Arm Processors

The first single-chip processors (such as the intel 8080 and the Z80) were proprietary cores and housed in their own IC package. These processors needed to be integrated into a larger design which included memory management, I/O, peripherals, and power management. This use of off-the-shelf parts with common processors made many companies millions, including IBM, HP, and Compaq.

However, as technology progressed, so did the architecture of processors that were used in low-end applications. This new architecture focused on a simpler instruction set, which made CPUs simpler and more efficient and were referred to as RISC (reduced instruction set computer), compared to CISC ((complex instruction set computer).

Interestingly, RISC-based systems do not include as many instructions as typical desktop processors, which means they have to execute more code to perform the same function. For example, a RISC-based computer may not include floating-point mathematics, but a CISC-based system may include all kinds of specialized mathematical operators. Therefore, the RISC system has to run more instructions to handle floating-point numbers (this is a simplified example).

One of the first RISC processors to enter the market was the Arm processor, which was designed by Acorn in the mid-1980s. Since then, Arm is found in many millions of products ranging from the Raspberry Pi core to the STM32 range of microcontrollers. What makes Arm different to classic processors is that it is not a physical product but a design that is licensed to vendors. The Arm company does not produce Arm processors and has no hardware capabilities which makes the ARM processor an intellectual property core.


Why Open Source?

Open-source-based technologies allow for any individual or company to produce products using platforms that are potentially very popular. The use of open-source technology can also improve confidence in a product's security as open-source projects are fully exposed to the public. Assuming that engineers do not adjust the design, the embedded core will be understood fully by outside designers which includes bugs, security leaks, and fundamental operation.

As open-source projects typically involve many contributors varying backgrounds, ways of thinking, and testing methods, bugs are found more quickly and fixes provided. These fixes are also public, which makes it very hard for a contributor to submit a fix that actually induces a flaw for future malicious use.

How will Chinese engineers interact with this open-source paradigm? 

According to a 2017 article in Intellectual Asset Management, Japan has so-far been more likely to adopt open-source software collaboration than China, despite that Chinese corporations have been contributing to Linux for almost 20 years. 


Note the presence of Huawei. Information from the Linux Foundation via a graphic used courtesy of Intellectual Asset Management. Click to enlarge


Suffice it to say, Chinese contributions to open-source projects are not unheard of. What this new embrace of RISC-V will mean for Chinese engineers is yet to be seen. 


Have you worked with open-source projects in China? What have your experiences been when utilizing open-source information? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 


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