Why it matters: What do you do when the US is threatening to cut off access to every piece of important tech ever? Join the open-source RISC-V Foundation, of course. Unrestricted access to some of the most advanced existing processor technologies, and a guaranteed window to peek at what the other Foundation members, including Google and Nvidia, are doing. Chinese retail giant Alibaba has established a new R&D branch to take advantage of the open-source RISC-V instruction set and their first product is here: the Xuantie 910.
The Xuantie, or XT for short, is said to be the most powerful RISC-V processor yet. Based on a 12nm process, it features 16 cores operating at 2.5 GHz, supports 64-bit processing, compact 16-bit instructions, and in-development vector operations. More importantly, however, it is very good at out-of-order operations, which is something RISC-V processors have struggled with. Intriguingly, the processor also supports 50 extra instructions on top of the standard 32.
At Alibaba's Cloud Summit presentation, they revealed the processor achieves a CoreMark score of 7.1/MHz, while the nearest competitor, SiFive's U74, reaches just 5.1/MHz. If a manufacturer's testing is to be believed, that's a 40% performance increase.
Alibaba is unlikely to manufacture their own processors for some time. While they're apparently still deliberating the business model for the XT 910, some elements will appear on GitHub, and a full design might be purchasable. A physical slot-in CPU might be available, or it might be part of an add-in accelerator card or a system-on-chip. As for who might want to buy it, Jianyi Meng, senior director at Alibaba Group, has plenty of generic buzzwords to get you excited over.
"The breakthrough is more than a mere performance enhancement of RISC-V processors. It means more IoT areas that require high-performance computing such as 5G, AI, networking, gateway, self-driving automobile, and edge server can now be powered by this latest RISC-V processor, which was previously used for simple embedded devices like smart-home appliances," he said in a press release that's mysteriously disappeared.
Beijing has stated it wants 40% of processor demand to be met by local supplies next year, though last year, that rate was just 15%. If the trade war continues on its current course Beijing might need 100% of demand to be met by Chinese suppliers, and if that eventuality occurs, designs like the XT 910 will be absolutely pivotal.
Image Credit: PCB circuit board by Umberto