Alibaba’s cloud computing unit makes its Apsara operating system compatible with processors based on Arm, x86 and RISC-V, among other things, the company announced at a conference on Friday.
According to market research company IDC, Alibaba Cloud is one of the fastest growing companies in the Chinese e-commerce giant and the fourth largest public cloud service in the world in the second half of 2020.
The global chip market was mainly dominated by Intel’s x86 in personal computing and arm for mobile devices. But RISC-V, an open source chip architecture competitive with Arm’s technologies, is gaining popularity around the world, especially with Chinese developers. RISC-V was founded by scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, and is open to all for use without license or patent fees and is generally not subject to US export controls.
The Trump administration’s bans on Huawei and its rival ZTE over national security concerns have effectively cut ties between the Chinese telecommunications titans and American tech companies, including major semiconductor suppliers.
Arm was forced to decide its relationship with Huawei, saying it could continue licensing to the Chinese company since it is from the UK. But Huawei is still struggling to find fabs that are both capable and capable of actually making the chips designed with the architecture.
The U.S. sanctions sparked an outbreak of RISC-V activity in China’s tech industry as developers prepare for future U.S. technology restrictions, with Alibaba at the forefront of the movement. Alibaba Cloud, Huawei and ZTE are among the 13 leading members of RISC-V International, which means they will get a seat on the board of directors and on the technical steering committee.
In 2019, the semiconductor division of the e-commerce company T-Head launched its first core processor Xuantie 910, which is based on RISC-V and is used for cloud edge and IoT applications. The fact that its operating system works with multiple chip systems instead of a mainstream architecture could well prepare Alibaba Cloud for a future of chip independence in China.
“The IT ecosystem has traditionally been defined by chips, but cloud computing has fundamentally changed that,” said Zhang Jianfeng, President of Alibaba Cloud’s Intelligence Group, at the event. “A cloud operating system can standardize the computing power of server chips, special chips and other hardware. Regardless of whether the chip is based on x86, Arm, RISC-V or a hardware accelerator, the cloud computing offerings for customers are standardized and of high quality. “
Meanwhile, some argue that Chinese companies’ switch to alternatives like RISC-V means greater polarization of technologies and standards, which is not ideal for global collaboration unless RISC-V becomes widespread in the rest of the world.