April 23, 2012
China Mulls National CPU Architecture Spec
SAN JOSE, Calif. – China government officials kicked off a program last month that aims to define a national processor architecture. If the initiative is successful, the processor could become a requirement for use in any projects seeking government funding such as purchases of computers or smartphones.
At least five existing processor architectures are up for consideration as the basis of the standard. The initiative also could be used to define its own instruction set architecture (ISA) or extend an existing one.
Officials of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology hosted the first meeting of the so-called China National Instruction Set Architecture initiative in March.
Representatives of about 20 China organizations attended the meeting, including communications giants Huawei and ZTE as well as a number of academic groups.
The effort is one of several led by China’s leaders in an effort to set its own standards and thus own intellectual property rather than paying for IP from foreign companies. China has already set its own standards in everything from CD/DVD players to surveillance video systems.
The China-led TD-SCDMA standard for third-generation cellular systems was its highest profile effort to date. Results of that effort have so far been mixed, but market traction has been strong enough with China Mobile, the world’s largest carrier, that China-led work on a 4G standard, TD-LTE, already in advanced field trials at China Mobile.
China has flirted with the idea of its own processor standard for years, especially with its efforts on the Longsoon, or Godson, processor that is roughly based on a MIPS core. Observers were mixed on whether the latest effort will be successful.
“I got the impression it’s a matter of months,” before the processor group chooses a national standard, said Robert Bismuth, vice president of business development at MIPS Technologies. “I actually think this will happen,” Bismuth added. “Longsoon is really launching in systems into the government sector.”
That could be wishful thinking for the company that is reportedly up for sale at a time of declining revenues. “China has several cores based on MIPS, but MIPS will eventually shut down and sell their IP and patents,” said one China executive who asked not to be named.
ARM cores are too expensive for some China electronics companies who want lower cost alternatives, said the China executive who has licensed for ARM and PowerPC cores. “We can’t have just one option of ARM, so PowerPC has an opportunity,” he added.
It costs a minimum of $5 million to license ARM’s high-end Cortex A9 core, the executive said. The price tag has driven at least one tablet project to choose PowerPC and Linux over ARM and Android, the China executive said.
An ARM executive expressed skepticism about the China processor plan. “We are of course aware of this initiative. It is not new, and has been in discussion for many, many months,” Tudor Brown, president of ARM said in an e-mail exchange.
“We understand China’s initial desire to have its own ISA, and we continue to cooperate and discuss with the key people involved to reach a good solution,” Brown said. “A key issue is not the ISA itself, but the ecosystem that surrounds any ISA,” he added, noting the size of ARM’s ecosystem.
“While defining an ISA is a relatively short term activity, building and deploying a vibrant ecosystem takes a lot longer,” Brown continued.
Indeed, ARM is well entrenched not only in mobile systems where it dominates but also among China’s chip makers. ARM has more than 34 licensees in China while MIPS has more than 20, according to a report on China’s fabless chip designers published by EE Times in late 2011.
In the computer sector, Intel and the x86 architecture dominates all system sales, including those in China. Against such established giants, creating an ecosystem for a new PC or mobile processor architecture would be a difficult task.
Nevertheless, Chinese government leaders “want China to be on a equal footing with the West,” said Bismuth of MIPS. “They want a common software ecosystem and the only way to get that is with a common ISA,” he said.
“They are willing to license an existing architecture and diverge from it--they are not unwilling to pay,” Bismuth added.
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