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China Doubles Down on RISC-V Chip Development Amid Potential US Restrictions

It has become clear that Chinese institutions and firms will press ahead with R&D on RISC-V, disregarding any potential restrictions from the US.

October 31, 2023
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Linwen
Editor-in-Chief, The China Academy
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In the era of the Internet of Things, various application terminals exhibit fragmented and diverse characteristics, creating new demands for kernel architecture. The open-source and open nature of the RISC-V architecture has emerged in response to these demands. It simplifies processor design by providing a flexible framework enabling chip designers to modify and create their own processors based on the RISC-V instruction set. Its unique openness ensures that RISC-V is not bound or controlled by any single entity in its evolution and expansion, leading to rapid development domestically.

However, this very openness is overshadowed and threaten by potential restrictions from the US government. A few weeks ago, Mike Gallagher of the China Task Force in the U.S. House of Representatives, in a compelling statement to Reuters, emphatically stressed the imperative for the U.S. Department of Commerce to wield its authority and “mandate that any American individual or company obtain an export license before engaging in collaborative ventures related to RISC-V technology with Chinese entities.” Gallagher and his fellow lawmakers fervently implore the Biden administration to take decisive action on RISC-V.

Since RISC-V is an open standard specification, it cannot be prevented from being downloaded and used by anyone. This raises the question of how the United States can regulate it. The answer is quite clear: it cannot.

In fact, the openness of the RISC-V standard, free from monopolistic control by any single company, is the driving force behind its global adoption and the catalyst for the next phase of chip technology revolution. However, American politicians are contradicting this trend by excluding themselves from the upcoming wave of transformation.

So, why do these politicians fear RISC-V? The underlying reason is that RISC-V disrupts the monopoly held by the established X86 and ARM systems, creating a new ecosystem where the United States does not enjoy an absolute advantage.

According to statistics, among the 22 senior member organizations in the RISC-V International Foundation, 12 are from China and 7 are from the United States. Among the 179 strategic member organizations, 49 are from China, 41 are from the United States, and 43 are from the European Union. Furthermore, the mentioned RISC-V servers, 10-gigabit switches, and other products are all manufactured by Chinese companies.

If the RISC-V ecosystem flourishes, the global processor landscape will no longer be monopolized by the United States. Thus, the true concern of American politicians lies in losing their dominant position in the processor industry. However, what they have proposed could be counterproductive in achieving their stated goals, and risks dividing an otherwise open community, severing the tie between Chinese and American researchers and engineers.

Nonetheless, Chinese RISC-V community is making strides.  As an illustrious chip company within the esteemed China Mobile conglomerate, XinSheng Tech has recently unveiled CM6620, their first mass-produced cellular IoT communication chip, boasting an astonishing standby power consumption of less than 0.9μA and a channel sensitivity that pierces through the noise at -118dBm. CM8610 is the first Chinese LTE Cat.1bis communication chip based on a 64-bit RISC-V core, adopting advanced 22nm process technology. It boasts high integration and minimal peripheral BOM design, with an edrx standby current of 0.74mA and a minimum receiver sensitivity of -101dBm. The secure MCU chip CM32M435R operates at a maximum frequency of 144MHz and integrates security capabilities such as PUF, TEE, and physical side-channel attack prevention. It also features a complete set of digital and analog interfaces, suitable for various application scenarios.

XinSheng Tech is not the only Chinese firms with exciting breakthroughs with RISC-V, and solution providers have also joined the game. On October 19, S2C, an EDA tool provider announced that the Beijing Open Source Chip Research Institute has adopted S2C’s ChipShuttle VU19P prototype verification system in its development of the “Xiangshan” RISC-V processors. This collaboration has not only accelerated product iterations but also facilitated the development of various high-end chips by multiple enterprises based on the “Xiangshan” platform.

To advance the “Xiangshan” project, S2C has provided the VU19P prototype verification system, which serves as a platform for testing software functionality and performance on real hardware. This allows the software and hardware engineers working on “Xiangshan” to collaborate in parallel, significantly expediting the process. This system offers both flexibility and scalability to meet various design and application requirements.

According to the Beijing Open Source Chip Research Institute, the wide variety of RISC-V cores necessitates customers to evaluate different options. By utilizing S2C’s system, they can effectively showcase processor performance and accomplish crucial tasks like SPEC benchmarking, IO verification, and BSP driver development. This comprehensive approach spans the entire hardware design to software integration lifecycle, enabling their customers to choose the most suitable solution and fostering collaborative research and development centered around the ‘Xiangshan’ core.

On the other hand, universities are mobilized to supply enough talents for the future of RISC-V development. In the latest news, Shandong University held a ceremony to mark the establishment of the RISC-V Open-Source Club. According to the Institute of Integrated Circuits of Shandong University, the establishment of RISC-V Open-Source Club has made Shandong University the first Chinese university focusing on the construction of RISC-V ecosystem with full-stack capabilities of CPU cores, CPU products, system software and basic software. It represents an effort to organize scientific research, actively encourage the participation of young students in innovation and entrepreneurship, and foster talent development. The belief is that through collaborative efforts between industry and universities, the Shandong University RISC-V Open-Source Club will assume a pivotal role in constructing an open source ecosystem within the university, driving the advancement of the RISC-V ecosystem, and nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship among university students.

At this point, it has become clear that Chinese institutions and firms will press ahead with R&D on RISC-V, disregarding any potential restrictions from the US.

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Linwen
Editor-in-Chief, The China Academy
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