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Alibaba showcases most advanced Chinese chip yet: a 5nm Arm-based server CPU

China’s Alibaba -- the $109 billion by annual revenue multinational – has revealed a new 5nm Arm-based server chip for use in its data centers in a major step towards more silicon self sufficiency. (While the company has designed the Yitian 710 CPU itself, it does not have 5nm fabbing capabilities. It did not specify who would do the manufacturing: South Korea's Samsung Electronics and Taiwan's TSMC are the only two companies capable.)

The chip is Alibaba's third and comes a year after Alibaba also showcased its Xuantie 910 chip for the IoT based on the open source Risc-V architecture, as it continues to diversify away from heavy reliance on western IP.

Alibaba in 2018 founded a semiconductor design subsidiary known as “T-Head” and in September 2019 also revealed its 12nm Hanguang 800 chip for AI inference – the company saying at the time that it had cut the one hour it previously took to prepare the billion+ product images uploaded to its e-commerce platform each day by merchants for search and personalised recommendations down to just five minutes using the new chip.

Alibaba Arm chip

Arm, which is currently awaiting regulatory approval for a takeover by the US’s NVIDIA, licenses its IP for third-party customisation and fabrication. The Alibaba Arm server chip was unveiled at the Apsara Conference running from October 19 – 22, 2021. Its release comes a week after Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma reappeared publicly (in Hong Kong) for the first time since criticising Chinese regulations in late 2020.

Alibaba, which runs extensive cloud infrastructure in China and beyond, is not the only large cloud provider eyeing the energy efficiency gains and degree of autonomy afforded by having its own server chip designs.

AWS’s Graviton2 processors released in 2019, now power 18 different types of of Amazon EC2 instancs for example, with AWS claiming “significant cost savings over other general-purpose instances for scale-out applications such as web servers, containerized microservices, data/log processing, and other workloads that can run on smaller cores and fit within the available memory footprint.”

See also: AI outperforms humans in chip design breakthrough

Apple in November 2020 meanwhile revealed its own Arm-based chip, the M1 and is reportedly set to showcase an upgrade to that architecturethis week as it showcases the new Macbook Pro.

Various semiconductor industry stakeholders are concerned that a buyout by NVIDIA of Arm may stymie the innovation currently taking place around its IP by companies like Alibaba and Apple.

NVIDIA insistes it would maintain an open ecosystem. In its latest earnings call the company said it was " working through the regulatory process, although some Arm licensees have expressed concerns and objected to the transaction and discussions with regulators are taking longer than initially thought. We are confident in the deal and that regulators should recognize the benefits of the acquisition to Arm, its licensees and the industry."

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