One of everlasting legacies from former President of The United States (POTUS) Mr. Barrack Obama will be the creation of Chinese semiconductor industry. Following the ban on completion of Tianhe-2 supercomputer in 2014, Chinese government did not double down, but decided to put semiconductor industry as one of top 3 national priorities, and started to infuse over a quarter of trillion U.S. dollars, i.e. 2 trillion RMB (Yuan) into the domestic semiconductor industry, creating not a train, but a “Hyperloop Express” that is changing the semiconductor industry landscape.
First, we’re starting to see the power of homegrown computers with ShenWei 260-core CPU processors powering the world’s number 1 supercomputer, TaihuLight. According to the publicly available whitepaper (PDF Download), ShenWei CPU architecture is inspired by a long-time killed Alpha architecture, and the sheer performance is astounding. 3 TFLOPS DP, 6 TFLOPS SP matches or beats latest GPUs, such as Radeon RX 480 or 580, or GeForce GTX 1060. Remember, this is a CPU, not a GPU. 6 TFLOPS beats Intel’s Core i7 6950X (247.50 GFLOPS) by a factor of 24x (!), i.e. more than one order of magnitude. This processor is two years old, and since the sequence was 16-core in 2011, and 260-core in 2015, we wonder if the 2017 or 2018 will see 390-core, 520-core, or 650-core design… we might even see a thousand-core plus design in a few years time. However, that CPU is a special purpose silicon, targeting the same applications as Fujitsu or Oracle SPARC, Itanium or Xeon Phi from Intel, POWER9 from IBM. Read – not a consumer design (a shame, really).
Then, we have Phytium shipping 64-core ARM processors (Qualcomm only managed a 48-core design, and even then a good percentage of that silicon is designed in mainland China), and planning for more (128? 256? 512?), and we have THATIC with its AMD x86 CPU and Radeon GPU IP license. Apparently, that’s not all folks. Zhaoxin Semiconductor is a joint-venture between Shanghai Municipal Government and VIA Technologies. Yes, a city government is doing a joint venture with Taiwanese CPU vendor from the ever-influential Wang family (read: Formosa Plastics, HTC…), to launch a low-power x86 processor for the domestic Chinese market.
VIA Technologies infused $37.31 million into the venture, paired with an unknown amount of funding coming from Shanghai – we’d expect at least 2:1 ratio here, but that’s pure speculation. Be that as it may, VIA link helped Zhaoxin to sign a deal with TSMC, who will manufacture their ZX-D and ZX-E series processor using 16nm FinFET lithography. The same one which is being used for Microsoft Xbox “Project Scorpio” APU from AMD.
The first customer for the CPUs has already been found, and orders have come in from the world’s number one PC manufacturer, Lenovo – and several other smaller players. There’s no word about the actual targeted market for the Zhaoxin processors, but with the computing power shifting from CPU to GPU, we’re not surprised to see more “fillers”, silicon capable of running Microsoft Windows 10 in order to feed the GPU. 2018 will see Qualcomm’s line-up powering Radeon and GeForce GPUs on Microsoft Windows, NVIDIA’s own Xavier (Tegra) design powering GeForce, Quadro and Tesla – and many more.
2018 will see the battle royale between the incumbents in the Windows OS market – Intel, AMD will have a battle on their hands against NVIDIA, Phytium, Qualcomm and Zhaoxin. Add in Apple’s domestic CPUs and GPUs. 2020 will see THATIC entering the frame with multidozen core CPUs and GPUs. Can x86 stay relevant in the CPU battlefield into 2020 and onward? Stay tuned.