RISC-V Gains Ground in China Ahead of Potential Sanctions

By Ken Briodagh

Senior Technology Editor

Embedded Computing Design

March 12, 2024


RISC-V Gains Ground in China Ahead of Potential Sanctions

Recently, the People Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences in China published a patent for a new RISC-V chip, designed for high-performance applications.

As reported by Reuters, this move could be part of a move from the Chinese government to outmaneuver US sanctions affecting Chinese companies on the global chip market.

In a report published by the Science and Technology Commission in Shanghai in April of 2023, the government agency laid out its reasoning. "The biggest advantage of the RISC-V architecture is that it is geopolitically neutral," a spokesperson said in the report.

It’s clear that China is going big into RISC-V as a strategic technological choice, and it’s easy to see why. The open source nature of the architecture and its broad applicability to many embedded solutions give it the technological advantage over x86 or ARM, and the US sanctions make it much easier to use and build on.

“The flexibility, in the end, is why people use RISC-V,” Mark Himelstein, CTO of RISC-V International, the organization that administers the RISC-V standards, told us. “You can do whatever you want.”

That exact flexibility is likely what’s giving RISC-V the rapid global adoption it’s been seeing over the past few years. Although it’s not yet reached numbers that approach ARM’s more than 90 percent market share in mobile, the predictions I’ve seen make the growth curve look like the escape velocity of an unladen swallow. (That’s steep for the initiated.)

We saw at the recent RISC-V Summit and at CES that RISC-V is making big strides in both technological advancements and growth. Automotive and Data Center in particular seem to be very interested in incorporating RISC-V into their systems.

With both Qualcomm and Nvidia having shipped more than 1 billion RISC-V chips each, and no sign of slowing, it is likely that we’re going to see other industries attracted in a big way to the flexibility and open source qualities in the architecture. It doesn’t hurt that RISC-V can come without the licensing fees that are required to use ARM and x86 (although there are certainly RISC-V offerings that come in a proprietary, licensed package).

But for Chinese companies and any others that are subject to US semiconductor or microchip sanctions, the non-RISC-V options might simply be unavailable soon, so this development might mean that China is enroute to challenging the dominance of the North American market for RISC-V implementations, if only out of necessity.

"It's astonishing what that can do for innovation," Himelstein said.

Last August, in an article in the state-run China Daily, Ni Guangnan, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said at the RISC-V Summit China in Beijing that, "The future of RISC-V lies in China, and the semiconductor chip industry in China also needs RISC-V." The article goes on to say that, of the 10 billion RISC-V chips shipped in 2022, half were made in China.

As stated in the aforementioned Reuters article, ARM is still the dominant architecture in China, but if these new sanctions take effect and limit or prohibit licensing to Chinese companies, you can be sure that RISC-V is ready to swoop in.

Ken Briodagh is a writer and editor with two decades of experience under his belt. He is in love with technology and if he had his druthers, he would beta test everything from shoe phones to flying cars. In previous lives, he’s been a short order cook, telemarketer, medical supply technician, mover of the bodies at a funeral home, pirate, poet, partial alliterist, parent, partner and pretender to various thrones. Most of his exploits are either exaggerated or blatantly false.

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