In California last week, Chinese researchers unveiled details of a microprocessor that they hope will bring personal computing to most ordinary people in China by 2010. The chip, code-named Godson-3, was developed with government funding by more than 200 researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology (ICT).
China is making a late entry into chip making, admits Zhiwei Xu, deputy director of ICT. “Twenty years ago in China, we didn’t support R&D for microprocessors,” he said during a presentation last week at the Hot Chips conference, in Palo Alto. “The decision makers and [Chinese] IT community have come to realize that CPUs [central processing units] are important.”
Tom Halfhill, an analyst at research firm In-Stat, says that the objective for China is to take control of the design and manufacture of vital technology. “Like America wants to be energy independent, China wants to be technology independent,” Halfhill says. “They don’t want to be dependent on outside countries for critical technologies like microprocessors, which are, nowadays, a fundamental commodity.” Federal laws also prohibit the export of state-of-the-art microprocessors from the United States to China, meaning that microchips shipped to China are usually a few generations behind the newest ones in the West.
Despite its late start, China is making rapid progress. The ICT group began designing a single-core CPU in 2001, and by the following year had developed Godson-1, China’s first general-purpose CPU. In 2003, 2004, and 2006, the team introduced ever faster versions of a second chip–Godson-2–based on the original design. According to Xu, each new chip tripled the performance of the previous one.
Godson chips are manufactured in China by a French-Italian company called ST Microelectronics and are available commercially under the brand name Loongson, meaning “dragon chip.” Loongson chips already power some personal computers and servers on the Chinese market, which come with the Linux operating system and other open-source software. “They use a lot of open-source software because it’s free,” says Halfhill. “The Chinese government wants to get as many PCs into schools and as many workplaces as they can.”