Alibaba Rumored to Participate in Server Arm Flea Race


The cold chip war between China and the United States continues to heat up like a processor with a bit too small heatsink, and the scuttlebutt is that this week Alibaba, the Chinese online retailer and cloud service provider who is at roughly analogous to Amazon and its Amazon Web Services division, will launch its own Arm server processor.

The announcement, according to various reports, will take place this week at Alibaba’s annual Aspara conference, which runs October 19-22. And it will represent a further step in China’s desire for semiconductor independence, which we discussed a month ago in detail.

A report in the South China Morning Post, who cited a report by media aggregation site Caixin that was subsequently deleted, says Alibaba registered the name of this server chip in early summer and may “release it soon.”

This report also indicated that this supposed server chip is based on a 5 nanometer manufacturing process, which strongly suggests that this processor will be etched by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC). It remains to be seen how long this will last for the reasons we will discuss in a moment. Suffice it to say that Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), the largest indigenous foundry in China, has peaked so far with a 14 nanometer FinFET processor and cannot, and United Microelectronics Corp ( UMC), which is also based in Taiwan and is actually an older foundry than TSMC, as it peaked at 14 nanometer processes. (SMIC and UMC both offer chip etching in larger geometries up to 90 nanometers. Korean budding server chip and memory maker Samsung has 7 nanometer processes in the field and manufactures the processor. ” IBM’s Cirrus “Power10, launched a month ago in the Power E1080 server, but does not yet have a 5 nanometer production process in production. Intel Foundry Services, the chip manufacturing operation that Intel has set up earlier this year to open up the chipmaker’s foundries to designs from other chipmakers, would no doubt like to do business with Alibaba, but unfortunately Intel can barely get out of 10 nanometer processes and has delayed their processes by 7 nanometers.

So if this Alibaba server chip is etched in 5 nanometer processes and it happens soon, it must pretty much be from TSMC.

Ironically but also obviously, Alibaba is a strong partner with Intel when it comes to buying chips, of course, like all major clouds, and is in fact a sponsor of the Aspara conference this week, but Alibaba has instances as well. cloud based on the 80-core Altra from Ampere Computing and is presumably in line to get the 128-core Altra Max processors to ship overnight.

It may seem odd that Alibaba is developing its own Arm server chips when it has a partnership with Ampere Computing, but as we discussed this summer with Renee James, CEO of Ampere Computing, there is every reason to believe that many of the big clouds have a dual-source approach to Arm server chips, building their own and leveraging Ampere Computing, hedging their bets against the risk of internal or external failure to deliver a chip on time. When new chips are not introduced to data centers on time, it affects cloud product launches, price / performance and competitive position, as well as large clouds’ profits. Additionally, if an organization in China does anything with the Altra and Altra Max chips that makes the U.S. government tricky, Ampere Computing could be on the entity list of the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security. US, which blocks chip sales and puts pressure on TSMC and other suppliers not to do business with China.

In fact, this just happened to Phytium Technology, the Chinese server chip designer Arm which unveiled itself six years ago with the game-based “Mars” FT-2000/64 server chip. of Arm instructions and who provided some details on this chip a year later. The original FT-2000/64 Mars chip was etched in 28 nanometer processes, but there was an FT-2000/64 + kicker chip based on TSMC’s 16 nanometer processes. These are not advanced processes at all, so the chips are big and hot compared to those using 7 or 5 nanometer processes.

Here’s why we’re bringing up Phytium, which had an aggressive track record of adopting 7-nanometer and 5-nanometer processes at TSMC to drive its track record, increasing the number of cores to 128 and beyond. Apparently, Phytium chips were used in the supercomputers that performed the simulations of the DF-17 medium-range hypersonic missiles revealed by China during its National Day parade two years ago this month. After finding out, the US Department of Commerce put Phytium on the entity list in early April of this year, and two weeks later TSMC stopped supplying chips to Phytium. And last week, Alibaba and Baidu took stakes in Phytium. Another betting coverage by two of China’s four hyperscalers and cloud builders, it seems.

Alibaba has been working on creating its own chips since AWS’s success with its “Nitro” DPUs, which came from its 2015 acquisition of Annapurna Labs and which was extended to general-purpose Graviton and Graviton2 processors, the Trainium machine learning training and Inferentia machine learning inference accelerators. And, most likely, local AWS switches and routers. If AWS can and has vertically integrated its stack, then Alibaba needs to do that too, especially if there is a cold war between the US and China where technology is being used as a weapon.

Alibaba had been doing chip research through its Alibaba Damo Academy research and development arm for some time. This chip development arm is known as T-Head and Pingtouge Semiconductor. Then Alibaba got serious and acquired a startup called C-Sky Microsystems in April 2018 and announced plans to make its own AI chip for video surveillance in September 2018, hoping to release its chip. Hanguang 800 AI inference from factories in late 2019 and in production through 2020. This chip contains 17 billion transistors and was manufactured using TSMC’s 12-nanometer process, the same one used by Nvidia to manufacture its “Volta” V100 accelerators. In July 2019, Alibaba said it was working on the Xuantie 910 RISC-V chip, which it unveiled to Hot Chips in the summer of 2020 with a 16-core variant.

Alibaba, like other Chinese hyperscalers, has to walk a fine line, especially since it runs a cloud and doesn’t just run its own apps (of which Baidu and Tencent do a lot more.) With most of the code. application of the world running on Windows Server or Linux running on X86 processors, and no local supplier of X86 processors (except Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co partnership that AMD has with Tianjin government, which is also the backer of Phytium, by the way), Alibaba must be careful not to annoy the US government so that it can get processors from Intel, AMD, and Nvidia. But it must also work towards the Chinese government’s goal of having chip design and manufacturing independence.

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