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29 July 2019

Alibaba’s open source processor targets complex cloud workloads like 5G

If demanding telecoms workloads like virtualized RAN and 5G core are to move to the public cloud, the cloud providers will need to ensure their infrastructure is based on processors capable of supporting these functions.

Suppliers like Intel are already investing in accelerators to surround their processors, for cloud hardware that can cope with artificial intelligence (AI), vRAN and other very high performance tasks. But in some cases, the webscalers themselves are also designing or commissioning their own processors to meet the demands of the new generation of cloud-based services and make sure their clouds are a match for specialized private cloud platforms.

Google, Amazon AWS and others have periodically announced such developments, raising new challenges for Intel and other merchant chip providers (Google’s tensor processing unit for AI and neural networks is a good example).

Now China’s cloud giant, Alibaba, has added its weight, announcing a new processor designed by its chip subsidiary, Pingtouge Semiconductor, which is says is the most powerful processor in the world to be based on the increasingly prominent open source architecture, RISC-V.

The Xuantie 910 has been created with infrastructure for 5G, AI, the massive Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles in mind, said the company as it unveiled the chip in its

Alibaba Cloud conference in Shanghai last week. Pingtouge said the processor is 40% more powrful than any other RISC-V model so far, delivering 7.1 Coremark/MHz at a frequency of 2.5 GHz on a 12nm process node,.

Pingtouge, which was set up by Alibaba last September following the acquisition of C-Sky Microsystems, will offer its design to system-on-chip (SoC) developers or for domain-specific applications (DSA), and will also release its code into open source in September, via GitHub.

Xiao Ning, vice president of Alibaba Group, said: “The traditional universal chip model is more and more difficult to adapt to the needs of fragmented AI and IoT scenarios.”

As well as something that Alibaba can leverage itself, this is another achievement which will help China achieve its long-held goal of greater self-sufficiency in chips and other core technologies, especially for critical platforms like cloud, 5G and AI – a goal which has become more important as a result of the past year’s trade and cybersecurity wars with the USA.