The Chinese tech giant Alibaba’s cloud computing unit revealed at a conference that its Apsara operating system will be compatible with processors based on Arm, x86, RISC-V, among other architectures.
According to market research firm IDC, Alibaba Cloud is one of the fastest-growing businesses for the Chinese eCommerce behemoth and will be the world’s fourth-largest public cloud service in the second half of 2020.
Intel’s x86 in personal computing and Arm in mobile devices have dominated the worldwide chip market. However, RISC-V, an open-source chip architecture that competes with Arm’s technologies, is gaining traction worldwide, especially for Chinese developers. RISC-V was started by academics at the University of California, Berkeley, and is free to use without license or patent fees. It is also not subject to export controls in the US.
The Trump Administration’s bans on Huawei and its rival ZTE over national security concerns have effectively cut relations between the Chinese telecom titans and American tech firms, including major semiconductor suppliers.
The Arm was forced to choose between its relationships with Huawei and claimed it could continue to license to the Chinese company because it is based in the UK.
The US sanctions led to a burst in activity around RISC-V in China’s tech industry as developers prepared for potential US tech limitations, with Alibaba at the forefront of the movement.
Alibaba Cloud, Huawei, and ZTE are among RISC-V International’s 13 premier members, which means they have a seat on the organization’s Board of Directors and Technical Steering Community.
T-Head, the eCommerce company’s semiconductor division, released the Xuantie 910, a RISC-V-based core processor for cloud edge and IoT applications, in 2019. Alibaba Cloud could be well prepared for a future of chip independence in China if its operating system can work with numerous chip systems rather than just one predominant architecture.
Mr. Zhang Jianfeng, President of Alibaba Cloud’s Intelligence group remarked that “a cloud operating system can standardize the computing power of server chips, special-purpose chips, and other hardware, so whether the chip is based on x86, Arm, RISC-V or a hardware accelerator, the cloud computing offerings for customers are standardized and of high-quality.”
Meanwhile, some argue that Chinese companies adopting alternatives like RISC-V will increase the polarization of technology and standards, which will not be ideal for global collaboration until RISC-V is widely embraced elsewhere.
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