China loads up on chip technology with new ARM license

ARM has licensed its ARMv8-A architecture to Huaxintong Semiconductor Technology, a joint venture between China's Guizhou province and Qualcomm

China already has the world's fastest computer with its homegrown chip, but the country hasn't stopped loading up on technology to make more of its own chips.

ARM announced Tuesday it has licensed the ARMv8-A architecture to Huaxintong Semiconductor Technology, a joint venture between China's Guizhou province and a subsidiary of Qualcomm.

The Chinese company will make ARM-based chipsets for servers in data centers. The small Guizhou province is considered a big data hub, and the province hosts 2.5 million servers, including some used by China's top telecom companies.

It's not clear whether the server chipsets will be based on Qualcomm technology, which holds a minority stake in the joint venture. Huaxintong Semiconductor Technology is licensing Qualcomm technology and intellectual property, but can design its own custom chips, a Qualcomm spokeswoman said.

Beyond ARM, Chinese companies have access to other chip architectures. Suzhou PowerCore Technology is making chips based on Power architecture for the Chinese server market. AMD is licensing its server chip technology to Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment, a joint venture between AMD and a consortium of Chinese companies.

The China server market is exploding, and the demand for data center equipment is growing. Companies like Baidu and Tencent are building mega data centers, much like Google and Facebook in the U.S. The explosion of data and cloud-based services has increased the demand for networking, storage, and server equipment.

China is a world power, and is building a strong IT industry to support itself, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

The country wants to invest in technology to drive economic growth. In addition to building their own cloud and telecom infrastructures, making homegrown chips keeps factories busy and workers occupied.

"They are trying to build their own semiconductor industry so that they don't rely on anyone else," McGregor said. "And they are trying to break the Intel monopoly."

The mass of data centers coming online has made China a major battleground for server chip architectures, and IBM, ARM, and AMD are looking to take some market share from Intel, which dominates the server market in China. Intel has navigated China's politics through partnerships and investments but has kept its intellectual property close to its chest.

"They will give them a black box, but they won't let China mess with the architecture," McGregor said.

China decided 15 years ago to build homegrown processors for PCs, servers, and supercomputers. The company initially relied on MIPS architecture, but now has access to a wide range of architectures.

The country's latest chip is now powering the world's fastest computer, called Sunway TaihuLight at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China. But the architecture behind the chip remains a secret.

China is still evolving its IT infrastructure and lagging on chip development, McGregor said. The licensing of CPU architectures from Western companies helps companies experiment with new designs, but also builds worker skills so the country can ultimately build viable homegrown chips.

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