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2 September 2019

China’s GigaDevice launches RISC-V alternatives to ARM microcontrollers

The open source RISC-V processor architecture has received a boost from the US-China trade and technology wars, as a possible alternative to ARM designs if Chinese companies are restricted in their access to the Softbank-owned firm’s IP.

When Huawei was initially placed on the USA’s ‘entity list’, which means US firms have to obtain a licence to supply the Chinese company, ARM said it would break ties with the vendor, even though Huawei had recently given a huge boost to ARM’s server market ambitions by launching its own infrastructure chips.

It will be interesting to see whether Huawei is still able to deal with ARM China, a local joint venture set up specifically to give Chinese firms independent access to ARM’s IP, but the crisis has spurred China’s desire for technological self-sufficiency, especially in chips for key applications like 5G and AI (Huawei has just launched a very powerful AI processor).

All this will place a spotlight on RISC-V, which already has considerable development support in China. For instance, Qualcomm recently participated in a $65m round of funding for RISC-V start-up SiFive, which has established a Chinese subsidiary, SaiFan, to serve the local market as an independent local entity, presumably with the hope of working around any US sanctions against Chinese technology.

Now Beijing-based firm GigaDevice claims to have launched the world’s first general purpose microcontroller (MCU) based on RISC-V, targeting IoT applications. GigaDevice is best known as a large manufacturer of non-volatile memory (NVM), but a few years ago it started to produce drop-in replacements for ARM-based GD32 MCUs, and it claims complete compatibility between those GD32s and its own new GD32V RISC-V alternatives.

GigaDevice executives insisted that the company retains a strategic partnership with ARM and said that adding RISC-V line is about providing customers with more options – a statement that has clear warning signs for ARM given the geopolitical situation. The company appears to be working closely with Huawei – at a recent round table about RISC-V, Gigadevice executives were joined by Xuming Liu, director of the Huawei LiteOS ecosystem (LiteOS is the vendor’s homegrown IoT operating system and developer platform, which supports the kind of applications that would run on MCUs).

Other Chinese manufacturers using RISC-V include Huami Technology, whose  Huangshan No.1 AI chip is based on the open architecture; C-Sky Microsystems with its RISC-V processor CK902; and RiVAI with another AI chip, Pygmy.

EETimes China reported on the GigaDevice launch event, at which Ni Guangnan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, explained the appeal of RISC-V at a time of heightened patent wars and IP tensions. “RISC-V is based on the standard loose BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) license. Users are free to use the design CPU, or develop and add their own. They can extend the instruction set and choose whether to publish it publicly, sell it commercially, or replace it with other license agreements, or use it completely closed source.”

The first line of GigaDevice MCUs are targeting “mainstream development requirements”, particularly those that want a smooth migration bridge from ARM MCUs. There are 14 configurations available at launch, each built on the Bumblebee 108 MHz core, which was co-designed with Nuclei System Technology. The 14 models differ mainly in terms of the amount of flash memory and the packaging and claim to be up to 15% faster than chips based on ARM designs, with half the power consumption.

GigaDevice said at the event that its expertise in memory technology is a key differentiator. Deng Yu, the general manager of its MCU business, said: “TI acquired Luminary from ARM, but TI’s acquisition is not successful. Luminary does not have the Flash gene, so some products will have problems with the program. But we have experience in Flash. We can ensure that such problems will not occur.”

The firm is also offering development tools to support the chips, including a basic IDE (integrated development environment), debugging tools, embedded operating system, and cloud solutions; plus various development boards.

GigaDevice says it has shipped more than 300m MCUs (many of them ARM-based), and its pace is accelerating – it says it took less time to go from 200m shipments to 300m than it did to reach the earlier 100m and 200m landmarks. It expects to reach the 400m mark next year, which would equate to about 10% market share within China.

Early examples of real use cases, provided by the company, include a micro thermal printer chipset from GEZ Microchip; and a USB multi-touch device for interactive displays.