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    China’s semiconductor developers eye shift to RISC-V architecture amid growing chip demand in cars, data centres and AI, executive says


    By Che Pan in Beijing

    China’s growing demand for semiconductors used in electric vehicles, high-end servers in data centres and artificial intelligence applications provides a vast opportunity for RISC-V processors to flourish, according to a proponent of the open-source, royalty-free chip design, even as integrated circuits (ICs) built on proprietary Arm and x86 architectures continue to dominate the global market.

    That assessment was made by Peng Jianying, chief executive of Shanghai-based RISC-V intellectual property (IP) vendor Nuclei System Technology Co, before an audience of custom auto chip designers at a RISC-V semiconductor event in Beijing on Wednesday.

    RISC-V is an open-standard instruction set architecture (ISA), based on established reduced instruction set computer principles, that represents the fifth generation of cooperative projects done by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Their research on this ISA design was published in 2010.

    This architecture has since gained rapid popularity across the global semiconductor industry after its ISA specifications were made available to developers in 2015 under the non-profit RISC-V International, which promotes its development. Adoption in China has experienced fast growth since 2018, the same year when Nuclei – the country’s first RISC-V IP vendor – was founded, Peng said.

    A prototype RISC-V chip. Photo: Handout

    “Pricing is one of the biggest factors for chip designers to consider RISC-V IP,” Peng said at the Beijing event.

    Peng, a former design engineer at US semiconductor developer Marvell Technology, indicated that many fabless IC design firms in China are looking to switch to RISC-V.

    They are considering that move not only to help fast-track their projects, but mainly because of plans by British chip IP supplier Arm to change its decades-long pricing model to boost revenue ahead of its initial public offering in the US later this year, according to the Nuclei chief executive.

    Most chip design start-ups rarely initiate projects completely from scratch, Peng said. They license ready-to-use IPs from third-party vendors such as Arm and US-based Synopsys and Cadence Design Systems. Peng pointed out that the global IP market is forecast to top US$10 billion by 2025, up from US$6.6 billion in 2022.

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    The increased adoption of RISC-V architecture in China reflects the urgency in the domestic semiconductor sector to reduce dependence on foreign IP suppliers and achieve self-sufficiency in chip design, where such reliance is greater than in manufacturing, as the US tightens trade restrictions covering advanced IC technologies and manufacturing equipment.

    Some of China’s biggest technology companies – including Alibaba Group HoldingTencent HoldingsHuawei Technologies Co and ZTE Corp – are already members of RISC-V International. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

    China has also set up an industrial association, the RISC-V Industry Consortium, to facilitate the architecture’s domestic adoption. This body is led by semiconductor industry veteran Wayne Dai Wei-ming, the founder and chief executive of Shanghai-listed industrial services and chip IP licensing firm VeriSilicon.

    In December, a dozen Chinese semiconductor companies launched 11 new RISC-V chips – covering a wide range of applications such as for cars, computers, wireless communications, energy management and security – during a local RISC-V event.

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    The strong interest in RISC-V on the mainland has also given start-ups like Nuclei a role to help advance the development of home-grown IP based on that open-source architecture. Nuclei’s business model is similar to that of SiFive, a California-based provider of commercial RISC-V processor IP.

    Still, Nuclei’s Peng said Intel Corp’s x86 architecture continues to dominate chip design for personal computers and servers. Arm, owned by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp, provides the default chip design for chips used on Android smartphones.