Chinese Company Developing 64-core RISC-V Chip with Tech from U.S.

By Agam Shah

November 13, 2023

Chinese chip maker SophGo is developing a RISC-V chip based on designs from the U.S. company SiFive, which highlights challenges the U.S. government may face in regulating open architecture.

Sophgo is developing the SG2380 high-performance chip based on designs in the RISC-V community. The company also announced a new SG2044 chip that it plans to release next year.

The SG2380 has a 16-core SiFive P670 design and is connected to SiFive’s X280 accelerator. SiFive, based in the U.S., makes chips based on the RISC-V design.

RISC-V is gaining clout as an open standard in chip architecture, much like Ethernet, USB, and HTTPS. It is a free alternative to proprietary architectures like x86 and ARM and has the backing of top companies like Apple, Google, Nvidia, and Microsoft.

Companies can take a RISC-V and develop their homegrown chip around it. It can be faster and at a lower cost compared to proprietary architecture. Meta and Qualcomm recently said they would design future chips on RISC-V.

RISC-V is like Linux because it is a borderless standard with worldwide contributors. Companies like SiFive voluntarily contribute open designs to the larger community, which anyone in designing chips can adopt. Regardless of location, the community jointly works to improve chip designs.

But the meteoric rise of RISC-V has come with problems. The U.S. government has flirted with restricting the cooperation of US-based RISC-V companies with Chinese companies.

However, RISC-V International, which is based in Switzerland and behind the development of the standard, has come out strongly against any governmental interference, saying it would limit innovation.

At the RISC-V Summit last month, attendees worldwide strongly opposed any type of regulation.

“Proprietary models are a larger trap for geopolitical concerns than open architectures. And I do not think that is truly realized in some of the rhetoric you’re hearing,” said Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, in an interview last month.

Government officials have a job to do, but there is a poor understanding of the technology among the hawks calling for regulation.

“Nobody ever in the right mind would say let’s stop sharing Ethernet,” said Mark Himelstein, chief technology officer at RISC-V, during a breakout session at the SC23 show in Denver.

SiFive has been struggling with staff layoffs, but regulating the company from sharing its tech could hurt the company and its contributions even further.

The SG2380 was touted as a high-performance desktop chip by Liuxi Yang, chief scientist at Sophgo Technologies, during a presentation at SC 2023.

It also has an Imagination AXT-16-512 graphics processor, which supports gaming and machine-learning applications. The chip is being designed using A.I. and will ship next year.

The Chinese company Sophgo started as Sophon in 2016, developing bitcoin mining hardware. Sophgo was established in 2020 and was focused on developing A.I. chips. Sophon and SophGo merged in 2021 and shipped its first CPU, SG2042, in 2022.

The 64-core Sophgo SG2042 has seen some success. Shandong University deployed a RISC-V server with 48 chips last month, and it is open to academia and commercial cloud customers. There are no commercial deployments of RISC-V servers among U.S. cloud providers yet.

48-node RISC-V Cluster

Sophgo is also developing a successor, the SG2044, which will ship in 2024. The upgraded chip has the final RISC-V vector extensions, which were recently ratified, while the SG2042 has the older version 0.7 vector extensions.

RISC-V extensions have compatibility issues, and the company had to develop a new chip to accommodate the final vector extensions, Liuxi told HPCwire.

Otherwise, the 64-core Sophgo 2044 is an incremental upgrade — it will support PCIe Gen5, Gigabit Ethernet, and LPDDR5x. It will draw up to 120 watts of power. Liuxi said the SG2380 and SG2044 chips will likely be manufactured using TSMC’s 12-nanometer process.

Sophgo came to SC23 hoping to drum up interest in its chips. However, RISC-V is still considered many years away before mass adoption in servers and supercomputers. The server market is dominated by x86 chips made by Intel and AMD and is challenged by ARM.

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