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RISC-V gains new performance leader with Alibaba’s 16-core XT 910

Jul 31, 2019 — by Eric Brown 11,216 views

Alibaba announced a 16-core XuanTie 910 RISC-V CPU with a 7.1/MHz CoreMark score. RISC-V continues to expand quickly in China, accelerated by U.S. tariffs, but Arm is fighting back with “Arm Flexible Access” licensing.

Chinese Internet retail and tech giant Alibaba Group has announced its first processor and the most powerful design based on the open source RISC-V IP yet. First reported by Nikkei Asian Review, the XuanTie 910 (also called the XT 910 or T-Head), is a 16-core, 2.5GHz design.

Illustration for XuanTie 910 report in Nikkei Asian Review
Source: Nikkei Asian Review
(click image to enlarge)

According to this Techspot, Alibaba is claiming a CoreMark score of 7.1/MHz. The nearest RISC-V competitor, SiFive’s U74, benchmarks at 5.1/MHz.

Last year Alibaba acquired China-based C-Sky Microsystems, makers of the Linux-on-RISC-V GX6605S CK610M SoC and C-SKY Linux Development Board. Alibaba combined C-Sky with another chipmaker called Zhongtianwei Micro and other smaller chip firms into a new semiconductor subsidiary called Pingtouge (also called Ping-Tou-Ge or Brother Pingtou), which produced the XT 910.

Alibaba announcing Xuantie 910 at the recent Alibaba Cloud Summit (left) and C-Sky’s earlier C-SKY Linux Development Board
Source: Techspot (image on left)
(click images to enlarge)

The XuanTie 910 is designed to serve “heavy-duty IoT applications” including self-driving cars, 5G networking, AI, and server computing, said Alibaba. Few tech details were released, but it seems highly likely the chip will run Linux.


A SyncedReview post on Medium says the XT 810 is claimed to “improve performance over mainstream RISC-V instructions by 40 percent and betters standard instructions by 20 percent.” The story cites innovations including a 12-stage pipelined, out-of-order, triple issue processor with two memory accesses per cycle. The processor also adds “more than 50 instructions on top of RISC-V, which systematically enhances the processor’s computing, storage and multi-core capabilities.”

According to SyncedReview, Alibaba has created a chip platform for domain specific SoC, providing hardware and software resources including CPU IP, SoC platform, and algorithms. There are also various chip services for enterprises and developers for different AIoT scenarios.

SyncedReview also says the XT 910 IP design “will be fully open-sourced so global developers can freely download its FPGA code.” Reuters, however, says that Alibaba intends to monetize its processor IP by licensing it to chipmakers. Yet it notes that the company will also “release parts of related code on public repository GitHub to stimulate related development.”

According to Nikkei Asian Review, Alibaba and its Pingtouge subsidiary will not fabricate the XT 910 itself. “Chinese chipmakers like Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. could potentially print the chips to the device makers’ specifications under license,” says the publication.

Trade war accelerates Chinese RISC-V development

RISC-V projects are coming to life around the globe but are particularly prevalent in China. With U.S. tariffs and restrictions raising the price of chips from U.S.-based chipmakers such as Intel and Qualcomm, homegrown RISC-V chips are looking more attractive. Chinese RISC-V Foundation members include Alibaba, Huawei, Sanechips (ZTE), Bitmain, and Huami (Xiaomi).

Even before the recent trade war, the Chinese government has been encouraging the development of China-based semiconductors and processor IP. RISC-V start-ups in China include Kendryte (translated), which last year unveiled a dual-core Kendryte K210 RISC-V processor with a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) KPU hardware accelerator for AI. The company also released a Linux-friendly development board using the SoC called the KD233.

Kendryte KD233 (left) and an early Shakti dev board
Source: Image at left from Kendryte via
(click images to enlarge)

Shakti and EPI move forward

China isn’t the only government pushing a native RISC-V industry. The Indian government is helping to subsidize the Shakti project, based at IIT Madras, which has developed a 22nm FinFET fabricated, 400MHz Shakti RISC-V processor that can run Linux applications at 1.67 DMIPS/MHz. Earlier this month, Tom’s Hardware reported that the project has released a Shakti SDK.

EPI roadmap
(click image to enlarge)

Last month, the European Processor Initiative (EPI) submitted an architectural design to the European Commission for a low-power “Rhea” microprocessor, with future plans to develop higher-end HPC and automotive processors. The group, which brings together 26 partners from 10 European countries, plans to support both RISC-V and Arm instruction sets. The processor is due to ship in 2021.

Arm fights back with Arm Flexible Access

Arm has been spectacularly successful over the last decade, dominating the mobile and MCU markets while offering growing competition for Intel and AMD in embedded and lower-end servers. Yet, the rise of the open source RISC-V is a clear threat.

In an attempt to fend off the RISC-V onslaught, last month Arm announced an Arm Flexible Access “engagement model” that “enables SoC design teams to initiate projects before they license IP and pay only for what they use at production.” The new access scheme is designed primarily for chipmakers developing new Arm chips for IoT, machine learning, self-driving cars, and 5G. Early adopters include AlphaICs, Invecas, and Nordic Semiconductor.

With Arm Flexible Access, customers pay a “modest fee” for “immediate access to a broad portfolio of technology.” They pay a license fee only when they commit to manufacturing, followed by royalties for each unit shipped. This portfolio includes all essential IP and tools needed for an SoC design, “making it easier to evaluate or prototype with multiple IP blocks before committing to licenses,” says Arm.

Arm Flexible Access is a welcome first step in opening up processor IP, and it should be explored by other chipmakers like Intel and AMD. Yet, the way RISC-V is going, Arm in particular will need to increase flexibility and reduce costs even further.

Further information

No ship date was mentioned for the XuanTie 910. More information may eventually appear on the Alibaba Group website.


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