Internet & Tech

Silicon sword

Who is making Alibaba’s cutting edge new chip?


Alibaba’s powerful new server chip

Put two monsters from the movie world together and you get Godzilla vs Kong, a Hollywood blockbuster that hit cinema screen in March. But over in the tech world, is there a similar monster slugfest going on involving the ‘Chipzilla’ of the server sector?

That’s been a nickname for Intel for years. Although the American giant isn’t the most advanced chip manufacturer, it has enjoyed a stranglehold over the server chips used in data centres and cloud-computing – two fast-growing sectors. In more recent times that dominance has been under threat from domestic challengers, including AMD, which deploys the X86 architecture, plus a host of tech giants like Amazon, which use Arm Holding’s architecture to custom-design their own server chips. And now a Chinese company, Alibaba, has entered the fray.

The e-commerce giant has gone heavy on the symbolism in its branding of its first server chip design, the Yitian 710, which it launched this month. It has been named after one of the most famous weapons in Jin Yong’s martial arts classic The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. In the tale, whoever brandishes the sword wields tremendous power (for more on the influence of Jin Yong – also known as Louis Cha – see WiC431). Alibaba is trying to send a similar message in commercial terms, with the Yitian 710 representing another step in its journey to becoming a full-scale chip designer.

Since Alibaba purchased Zhongtian Micro in 2018, the group has used its annual developer conference each October to mark key milestones. In 2019, for example, it released the Hanguang 800, its first artificial intelligence chip.

Now it’s the Yitian 710’s turn, drawing on Arm-based architecture in its design. In fact Alibaba is the third cloud computing vendor to develop its own in-house server chips based on Arm technology, after Amazon and Huawei. However, its chip is going to surpass industry benchmarks by 20% in performance, the company claims.

Alibaba says that Yitian 710 is not for sale to third parties and will initially be deployed in its data centres to serve its cloud business. Inevitably, the local media welcomed the news as a breakthrough moment, although what was less discussed is that there are only two companies capable of making the Yitian 710 at its 5 nanometre (nm) design: Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics.

China’s lack of manufacturing expertise at advanced nodes like these is the Achilles heel of its efforts to reach semiconductor self-sufficiency. Such is the secrecy surrounding the Chinese tech struggle with the US that it’s no longer public knowledge at which process node level the domestic foundry SMIC and equipment maker SMEE can produce chips at. In July Wen Xiaojun from China’s Electronics and Information Industry Development Institute said that Chinese foundries would achieve mass production of the 28nm node this year and 14nm next year, relying on end-to-end Chinese tools. SMEE’s 28nm lithography machine is now being shipped to clients too, but tech experts believe the jump to 14nm will prove more difficult because it requires a shift to technology that still depends on US tools (sales of which are subject to American export approvals).

Washington is also trying to unpick the corporate secrets of “friendly” tech companies, after issuing a request for order book information from a group of suppliers including TSMC, Samsung Electronics, SK Hynix, Intel, Apple and Microsoft. Ostensibly the aim is to better understand semiconductor supply chain bottlenecks. But the South Koreans and Taiwanese worry that information may be passed on to Intel and contribute to its efforts to get back to the forefront of the manufacturing process.

Other sector insiders wonder whether Washington’s real aim with the order book review is to check compliance with its ongoing supply sanctions against Beijing or just to glean further information ahead of issuing new, more targeted measures to derail China’s tech ambitions.

The US Commerce Department has given companies until November 8 to submit the information or face the prospect of being forced to comply under the 1950 Defence Production Act.

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