China Is All In on a RISC-V Future

By Doug Eadline

January 8, 2024

The state of RISC-V in China was discussed in a recent report released by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The report, entitled “Examining China’s Grand Strategy For RISC-V”  is part of their China Brief segment and leans on the security concerns of RISC-V.

It is an open processor instruction set architecture (ISA) for those unfamiliar with RISC-V. Unlike ISAs from Intel or Arm, the RISC-V ISA is an open standard that allows underlying software to communicate in a consistent fashion with the processor that adheres to the ISA. Intel and ARM ISAs must be licensed for a fee from their respective owners (AMD has an x86 license from Intel). RISC-V was developed around 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, and was conceived as an alternative to the complexities and costs of proprietary ISAs.

To support open cooperation and growth the RISC-V Foundation was established in 2015 with the following founding members Andes, Antmicro, Bluespec, CEVA, Codasip, Cortus, Esperanto, Espressif, ETH Zurich, Google, IBM, ICT, IIT Madras, Lattice, lowRISC, Microchip, MIT (Csail), Qualcomm, Rambus, Rumble, SiFive, Syntacore and Technolution. Since its founding, many Chinese companies have joined the foundation, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), listed as a Development Partner.

RISC-V Open ISA Processor Prototype. (Photo By Derrick Coetzee: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25845306)

From China’s perspective, dependence on Western advanced computing technology can be a potential risk. As the report suggests, China would like to have more self-sufficiency when solving the country’s technological challenges. That is, not relying on licensed Western technology that can be easily embargoed. For example, the recent restrictions on GPUs to Chinese companies  has caused Nvidia to produce cutdown version so popular GPUs (i.e., the A800 and H800 models)

For this reason, it is assumed that projects like the Loongson processor  were developed in China. The Loongson is based on a license of the MIPS ISA  and can be wholly manufactured in China. While the MIPS license provides some level of autonomy, future license restrictions are still possible.

With RISC-V, no such restrictions or control is possible because it is an open specification and available world-wide. As a nod toward neutrality, the above-mentioned RISC-V Foundation is Incorporated in Switzerland. However, in a recent letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce from 17 congresspersons and one senator seem to think some kind of control is possible or needed.

“While the benefits of open-source collaboration on RISC-V promise to be significant for advancement and development of the U.S. semiconductor industry, it can only be realized when contributors are working with the sole aim of improving the technology, and not aiding the technological goals and geopolitical interests of the PRC. In response, the United States should build a robust ecosystem for open-source collaboration among the U.S. and our allies while ensuring the PRC is unable to benefit from that work. “

Open-source collaboration and restrictions are somewhat orthogonal concepts.

Indeed, as the report suggests, China has one of the world’s largest bases of tech graduates and seasoned R&D professionals. As of 2021, China had 7.55 million developers active on GitHub — the world’s largest open-source code repository.

There are two issues here. First, as far as open-source and RISC-V, that horse has already left the barn, or more properly, there never were any horses in the barn; the houses have always been in the pasture for everyone to share. In a recent SC23 interview, John Leidel of Tactical Computing Laboratories mentioned that RISC-V is working with almost all the open tooling used for Linux and HPC (including InfiniBand).

The second issue is people. As reported, China is set to have an overwhelming edge regarding skilled human resources. Somehow, preventing this workforce from open repositories like GitHub seems rather draconian, and it may splinter the software ecosystem. Were the restrictions to happen, it is assumed that overnight, projects will be legally cloned and continued on a homegrown China GitHub made available to that massive workforce. The bifurcation of the important tools may also generate different standards and confuse the ecosystem. In the meantime, short of cutting wires, there is no way to stop collaboration over the Internet. Any user or group worldwide can stand up a repository and share open-source code.

RISC-V development will continue around the globe. If some individuals and organizations in the U.S. or elsewhere want to create a walled garden of RISC-V processors and software, they may be disappointed when they hand out the ribbons. To be clear, “jointly owned” open-source software and hardware relies on sharing (“give a little, get a lot”). Open development communities can move very fast (partly because cooperation takes place without legal agreements) and can develop market mindshare very quickly. If you are concerned about what China is doing with RISC-V, you may want to keep an eye on the currently accessible software repositories.

Another important point about the “open thing.” There are many open, collaboratively developed software applications and many closed (even top secret) applications used in HPC. Users, organizations, and governments are free to build whatever they want on top of the “open plumbing” offered by RISC-V and the Linux ecosystem.

There are other areas where technology controls are important. In particular, process technology has become a strategic capability, not just between East and West, but between companies that make a living selling highly organized sand around the globe.

The Jamestown Foundation report presented the following findings. They conclude that “assessments of potential risks to national security are now overdue.” In reality, like those embarrassing pictures posted on the Internet, once they leave your phone, they are, for all practical purposes, no longer in your control.

  • China believes that it has advantages that allow it to develop a lead in the development and commercialization of RISC-V technology. This is due to its strong research and development sector, particularly clustered in districts of major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, and the country’s large talent pool of high-skilled workers.
  • China sees RISC-V as part of its wider ambition for technological autonomy and self-sufficiency. This is evidenced through the dominant role of PRC entities, including state-owned companies, in the upper tiers of the RISC-V Foundation, as well as through its numerous policy initiatives at the central and local levels to support China’s push into RISC-V.
  • China’s concerns about dependency on American technology, which causes vulnerable “chokepoints,” have also informed this push to dominate RISC-V. This has been a driver for RISC-V’s development into becoming a competitor to the chip architecture of both ARM and Intel.
  • The PRC’s focus on RISC-V has received little attention from Western governments until recently, but this article suggests that assessments of potential risks to national security are now overdue.

In the early days of cluster and Beowulf computing, there were calls for export controls due to national security concerns. The response was often something like “Restrictions on what exactly? I can legally ship any of the components anywhere in the world. Linux, MPI librarians, and the Beowulf How-To document are open-source and available on the world-wide web.” Beowulf clustering is a concept, not a thing.

Similarly, the RISC-V ISA is a concept and not a thing. The RISC-V Foundation does not sell processors or licenses. China’s interest in RISC-V suggests it is more about building a future that is not beholden to the whims of others. For this very reason, RISC-V will grow everywhere — including China.

 

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