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China's Semiconductor Industry: the Promises of RISC-V Open Source Architecture 

China's Semiconductor Industry: the Promises of RISC-V Open Source Architecture 
 Jean-Yves Larguier
Expert in the Semiconductor Industry and Contributor to EastIsRed

At the heart of technological rivalry, processors are essential elements of the integrated circuits, performing calculations and executing instructions on which software layers are built. Mastering the instruction set architecture (ISA), which defines the most basic instructions a chip can execute, as well as the design of processors, are among the most pressing challenges for China. The news regularly reminds us how strategic access to microchips is.

As China increasingly faces restrictions of access to foreign semiconductor technology, open source has emerged as an attractive alternative in the area of instruction set architecture. Indeed, thanks to its open-source approach, independent from any company or country, RISC-V represents a real alternative to the dominant architectures of Intel x86 and ARM. RISC-V is rapidly emerging to profoundly disrupt the global semiconductor and computing industry. The rise of this promising architecture offers China a new opportunity to catch up on processor design; and more generally on the semiconductor industry. In other words, as the United States have tightened restrictions on access to certain cutting-edge technologies, RISC-V could help China reduce its reliance on foreign technologies.

The importance of ISA for China has been highlighted by recent news stories. For two years, ARM China has been at the center of a legal imbroglio whose stake is access to the intellectual property of ARM processors, with the Chinese subsidiary's attempt to spin off from its British parent company. More recently, the acquisition of OpenFive by the British Alphawave IP sparked the ire of Republican Senator Marco Rubio and the no less measured reaction of Chinese authorities. Senator Rubio pointed out that Alphawave's ties to China's Wise Road Capital posed a national security risk. Lately, the US government announced restrictions on sales to China and Russia of high-end graphics chips, typically from Nvidia or AMD, widely used in supercomputers and artificial intelligence.

How can China benefit from this new technology? Would RISC-V be promising enough to allow China to catch up on processor technology and reduce its dependence on foreign proprietary architectures?

What is RISC-V?

RISC-V ISA is an open architecture that can be used freely, unlike proprietary architectures. Originating from the University of California, Berkeley, RISC-V (where V refers to the 5th generation developed by the university) was developed in 2010 as a university project with the aim of having a simpler, more efficient, evolutive, and extensible architecture. This minimalist ISA intends to be effective for all computing devices, from the smallest to the fastest. Following an academic approach, the Berkeley team published all the RISC-V ISA specifications and design implementation that quickly caught the attention of private sector companies.

This simplicity and the open-source nature of the architecture quickly made RISC-V attractive. To regulate the nascent community, the non-profit RISC-V International Foundation was founded in 2015 to manage the RISC-V ISA standard and work on extensions that are modular add-ons to the base ISA.

This simplicity and the open-source nature of the architecture quickly made RISC-V attractive. 

The foundation organizes a large community of 2,700 members across 70 countries with giant corporate actors such as Google, Alibaba, NVIDIA, Huawei, Western Digital, and more than a hundred universities and research institutes. This large community has made crucial contributions to the growth of the RISC-V ecosystem, from product development to the deployment of RISC-V in all application domains.

Initially seen as a low-cost alternative to entry-level processors and microcontrollers, RISC-V has gained in performance. Today, it meets a wide range of applications, ranging from the Internet of things (IoT) to artificial intelligence, automotive, and computing. 2021marked an inflection point for RISC-V, with the shipment chips embedding RISC-V cores crossing the two billion threshold (compared to 29.2 billion for ARM). Even if the best RISC-V processors lag three to four years behind competing architectures, this open-source architecture benefits from the strong global momentum driven by the motivation of many players to gain expertise and sovereignty in this strategic field.

A worldwide phenomenon

In recent years, the semiconductor supply chain has encountered several disruptions, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the US-China technological competition. China, as a result, has accelerated its drive to reduce its semiconductor supply chain vulnerabilities. In China and elsewhere, the race for technological sovereignty is a clear driver of the RISC-V open source dynamic. The move of the RISC-V Foundation - renamed RISC-V International - from the United States to Switzerland in 2019, a clear sign of its wish to remain independent from the US, is another reason for China to embrace RISC-V. 
The open RISC-V architecture hence plays a central role in sovereignty/supply chain security strategies of States by offering alternatives to innovate and compete. Stimulated by RISC-V's technical simplicity, economic affordability and "political security", many states aim to leverage this open ISA in their national semiconductor strategy, RISC-V is thus present in the European Chips Act, the European Processor Initiative, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, the Russian initiative led by the conglomerate Rostec and Yadro, and the Indian campaign Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan.

As China is engaged in a technological catch-up race, particularly in semiconductors (14th Five-Year Plan), RISC-V has the full attention of Chinese universities and companies. Pioneered by returning Chinese students from Berkeley, the Institute of Computing Technologies (ICT) of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) has been a leading promoter of open RISC-V architecture, first in academic circles. In 2015, ICT-CAS is a founding member of the RISC-V Foundation, later joined by many Chinese companies and research institutes as premium members: Alibaba, Huawei, ZTE, UNISOC, RIOS Lab (founded as part of the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute), among others.

As China is engaged in a technological catch-up race, particularly in semiconductors (14th Five-Year Plan), RISC-V has the full attention of Chinese universities and companies.

As of 2022, Chinese players hold half of the seats on the board of directors of RISC-V International and numerous technical steering committee seats. These positions give China extensive decision-making powers regarding the evolution of the RISC-V standard and its extensions, as well as the RISC-V technical programs and roadmap, that best serve their future application needs.
As in other regions of the world, China has set up local RISC-V organizations affiliated with RISC-V International to promote RISC-V in China:

Government policies have found relays with local administrations, notably in Shanghai and Shenzhen where their support allows the emergence of start-ups in 2018 focusing on the design of cores and RISC-V chips such as Nuclei System Technology, StarFive, Huami, and RiVAI.

Which results, contribution and impact for China?

After mixed experiences on national processors from the early 2000s not based on ARM (like Loongson processors, using MIPS architecture and Sunway processors, using a proprietary RISC architecture) primarily used for Chinese administration computers and servers, work on RISC-V represents a big leap forward. Indeed, Chinese universities and companies have rather succeeded in their bet, designing very interesting small to large products, and contributing to the RISC-V ecosystem.
Hence, the adoption of RISC-V processors has been very rapid for entry-level microcontroller segments for industrial or IoT applications, such as those developed by GigaDevice and Huami. If for ecosystem maturity reasons, RISC-V is still far from being attractive for the mobile or PC processor market, the challenge in China, as elsewhere, is now to develop RISC-V processors adapted to the server segment, the Artificial Intelligence and HPC (High-Performance Computing). In these strategic segments, China is advancing at high speed.

Besides ICT-CAS and RIOS Lab research institutes, which publish their work and implementation, some Chinese companies are great contributors to open-source.

Besides ICT-CAS and RIOS Lab research institutes, which publish their work and implementation, some Chinese companies are great contributors to open-source. Just to mention one example, the Chinese tech giant Alibaba is leading many projects around RISC-V. On the chip design side, its subsidiary T-Head Semiconductor develops high-performance RISC-V cores (XuanTie) and RISC-V chips for artificial intelligence, and actively contributes to the open-source community by sharing some of its design of XuanTie processor cores and related software.

Alibaba Cloud is also working on porting Android to the RISC-V architecture in collaboration with Google. This major contribution to the RISC-V ecosystem paves the way for the Android world and will place RISC-V in even more direct competition with ARM.
The results of Chinese companies and universities, therefore, seem convincing, especially in certain specific areas. It must be remembered that even if the RISC-V architecture is open and free, and if certain designs are shared in open-source, designing such cores and such chips in technologies from 40 nm to 14 nm represents a very complex enterprise. If the deployment of RISC-V to several domains progresses rapidly, Chinese companies are still far from giving up ARM cores for the development of their chips, or x86 processors for their servers. The dominant position of ARM architecture, thanks to performance advantage and a mature software ecosystem, is far from being challenged, even though open source creates alternatives.


China is taking full advantage of the incredible dynamic around RISC-V, its open-source approach and growing ecosystem, which day after day is becoming a credible alternative to the dominant x86 and ARM architectures. If China intensifies its effort to develop a more substantial software environment, then RISC-V may well compete on equal terms with other architectures. While RISC-V will not be enough for China to achieve semiconductor independence, it allows China to be less vulnerable to intellectual property, without isolating itself in a proprietary ecosystem restricted to China and a few partners.
However, the most efficient processors will always be conditional on access to cutting-edge foundries, mainly TSMC and Samsung, while the national foundry SMIC only mass-produces in 14nm. Manufacturing capabilities remain the biggest weak spot in China's semiconductor industry, followed to a lesser extent by Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software.
Sovereign withdrawal trends in this segment of the microelectronics industry could ultimately break the momentum of RISC-V. The authorities of certain countries might be tempted to limit the contribution of their companies and universities to the open-source community, to the point that decoupling of open-source data is not an unlikely scenario. However, China is surely preparing itself for the worst scenario. Hasn't it already set up its own open-source sharing platform, Gitee, like the American GitHub for fear of sanctions? In the event of a split within the RISC-V community, China would certainly have the means to continue to innovate, but the main challenge would be to bring together enough international players so as not to find itself isolated and therefore fall behind a mainstream community.

I would like to thank Pierre Sel, co-founder of EastIsRed, for his guidance on this analysis.

Copyright: STR /AFP 

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