An important factor for the Godson 2 series has been the porting of Google’s Android operating system (used in smart phones, and in some tablets and netbooks) to the MIPS instruction set, says Swift, who adds that ICT engineers were very active in that effort. “The uptake of Android in China was phenomenal; they were way ahead of everyone else, and the whole rest of the field has followed,” Swift says.
Hu has emphasized in the past that a primary goal of ICT’s “national processor” effort is the creation of an affordable chip that can help bring China out of the industrial age and into the information age.
“I think what they’re really after is a national processor that is broadly used and displaces the Intel monopoly,” says Swift.
Displacing the Intel monopoly does not necessarily mean displacing the Windows monopoly, however. Despite ICT’s emphasis on Android and open-source software, the Loongson family includes many instructions designed to speed up emulation of the x86 instruction set, and the Microsoft architecture team attended Hu’s presentation at Hot Chips, according to Swift. “I wouldn’t rule out this being a great Windows processor at some point,” he says.
The Loongson family of processors may, however, face a fundamental challenge to its ability to compete with other architectures in terms of performance.
The Godson processor appears to have been designed primarily with automated circuit design tools, which is common throughout the microprocessor industry, but the processor has not been manually tweaked by engineers, which is not. This could mean unnecessary bottlenecks in the flow of data through the processor. “That’s always been a puzzle to me,” says Halfhill. “It’s not like there is a shortage of circuit designers in China.”
One of the most unexpected surprises of the Hot Chips presentation was the acknowledgement that if ICT’s current fabrication partner, STMicro, is unable to produce the Godson 3C in a 28-nanometer process by 2011, production could be moved to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. Historically, China and Taiwan have had chilly political relations even as their economic interdependence has increased.
Government support for ICT’s national processor project was reaffirmed Monday when it was announced that the chip will be part of the country’s 12th Five-Year Plan. If the Godson 3B shows up in a supercomputer by 2011, it will be an important milestone in China’s billion-dollar effort to cultivate a homegrown CPU.