Splitting the Technology ‘Stack’

The affects of the US/China trade war on the technology we use

Alasdair Allan


As the trade war between the US and China escalates with increasing levels of tariffs being imposed on trade between the two countries, we’re starting to see some intriguing ripples spread out. With the possibility that sanctions by the US could cut off Chinese access to Arm, one of these unanticipated ripples is the rapid adoption of RISC-V in China.

This new found interest in RISC-V is exemplified by the announcement from Ping-Tou-Ge Semiconductor, the chip division of the Chinese behemoth Alibaba, of the Xuantie 910. The 64-bit RISC-V chip has 16 cores and operates at 2.5GHz and, unofficially at least, is the fastest RISC-V based processor yet created.

Ping-Tou-Ge announcing the Xuantie 910 at the Alibaba Cloud Conference in Shanghai. (📷: Alibaba)

The announcement coming as China’s government sets an, almost certainly unreachable, target that 70 percent of all chips used by Chinese industry should be domestically produced by 2025.

But while RISC-V is open source, it is not free. Any large company that is going to build a chip around the RISC-V architecture is going to need to license a commercial core or alternatively, if they have enough resources and expertise, they will need to design their own core.

That means that while Chinese company might now be looking very seriously at RISC-V to replace the still ubiquitous Arm, they will be moving in that direction only very reluctantly. The amount of effort involved shouldn’t be underestimated. But if they do begin to move in that direction, the movement might well be unstoppable, and hugely damaging to established companies like Arm and Intel here in the west.

“Chinese companies that rely on RISC-V don’t have to rely on a supplier like Arm or Intel. There’s no…