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Computing

A Chinese Challenge to Intel

Researchers have revealed details of China’s latest homegrown microprocessor.

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).

Enter the dragon: This single-core central processing unit, known as Loongson, or “dragon chip,” was designed and manufactured in China. Chinese engineers have the goal of deploying quad-core chips by 2009.

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.”

The latest Godson chips will also have a number of advanced features. Godson-3, a chip with four cores–processing units that work in parallel–will appear in 2009, according to Xu, and an eight-core version is also under development. Both versions will be built using 65-nanometer lithography processes, which are a generation older than Intel’s current 45-nanometer processes. Importantly, Godson-3 is scalable, meaning that more cores can be added to future generations without significant redesign. Additionally, the architecture allows engineers to precisely control the amount of power that it uses. For instance, parts of the chip can be shut down when they aren’t in use, and cores can operate at various frequencies, depending on the tasks that they need to perform. The four-core Godson-3 will consume 10 watts of power, and the eight-core chip will consume 20 watts, says Xu.

This latest chip will also be fundamentally different from those made before. Neither Godson-1 nor -2 is compatible with Intel’s so-called x86 architecture, meaning that most commercial software will not run on them. But engineers have added 200 additional instructions to Godson-3 to simulate an x86 chip, which allows Godson-3 to run more software, including the Windows operating system. And because the chip architecture is only simulated, there is no need to obtain a license from Intel.

Erik Metzger, a patent attorney at Intel, says that the chip will only perform at about 80 percent of the speed of an actual x86 chip. “That implies that [the Chinese government] is going after a low-end market,” he says. This is the same market that Intel is targeting with its classmate PC and low-power atom microprocessor. Metzger adds that the inner workings of the chip, known as its instruction set, have not yet been disclosed, making it difficult to know if or how any x86 patents may have been breeched.

The Chinese team hopes to further boost its chip program through collaboration with other companies and researchers. “We still lag behind the international partners a lot,” says Xu. “But we are doing our best to join the international community.”

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