Alibaba said to be launching a server chip based on Arms technology this week

  • The e-commerce giant, which runs its own semiconductor design unit called PingTouGe, is reportedly unveiling a new chip soon
  • Chinese companies have been rushing into chip design, which requires less investment than chip manufacturing

Alibaba Group Holding will this week launch a server chip based on technology from British firm Arm Holdings, joining fellow Chinese tech giants Huawei Technologies Co and Baidu in a push on semiconductor development, local financial media outlet Caixin reported on Monday.

The design process for Alibaba’s central processing unit (CPU), which has been under development since 2019, concluded in the middle of this year. It will be minted using the 5-nanometre process, Caixin said, citing anonymous sources.

Alibaba, owner of the South China Morning Post, is expected to launch the server chip during its annual Apsara Conference for developers, slated to take place between Tuesday and Friday this week in the company’s hometown of Hangzhou.

More Chinese firms have been investing in chip design in recent years because of its lower capital requirements compared with semiconductor manufacturing, which requires billions of dollars of investment. Chinese designs, however, tend to rely heavily on foreign intellectual property (IP) and architecture. Huawei’s chip design unit HiSilicon, for instance, had bought licenses from Arm, Qualcomm, Synopsys and Cadence.

The global market share of Chinese companies in semiconductor IP and electronic design automation (EDA) tools is currently estimated to be less than 1 per cent, according to He Weiling, chairwoman at CIP United, an IP supplier and integrated circuit design service company in Shanghai.

Alibaba, which in 2018 founded a semiconductor design subsidiary PingTouGe, also known as T-Head, has also been using foreign IP to craft its own chips. They include Hanguang 800, a neural processing unit unveiled in September 2019 that is designed to accelerate machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) tasks. It was fabricated on a 12-nanometre process, packing up to 17 billion transistors. XuanTie 910, another Alibaba-designed chip, can be used for IoT applications in sectors such as 5G, AI and autonomous driving.

British semiconductor design firm Arm licenses its instruction set architecture (ISA) – a collection of instructions used in the CPU to control a computer system – and IP to major companies around the world, including Apple, Samsung Electronics and Qualcomm. Arm’s technology is pervasive in the smartphone industry. It is also gaining a foothold in other areas such as personal computers and servers.

Author: Che Pan, SCMP

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