Internet & Tech

Process power

Chinese firms join the race for DPU dominance


Arm’s architecture powers DPU

There’s a new semiconductor acronym in town and the race is on to make a killing from it.

The new chip that promises to be every bit as big as its two predecessors is called a DPU (data processing unit), although Intel, one of the main contenders for the crown in making this new pillar of computing, calls it an IPU (infrastructure processing unit).

Thanks to Intel, computer processing speeds took a huge step forwards in 1971 with the launch of the world’s first CPU (central processing unit). That creation combined all of a computer’s logic functions on a single chip.

Nearly three decades later in 1999, another US company called Nvidia unveiled the GPU (or graphics processing unit), which vastly improved graphics rendering.

And now there are DPUs (which have developed out of pre-existing network interface cards). DPUs are similar to CPUs but focus mostly on supporting data processing power, taking key elements of the networking workload away from the CPU.

Their role is to ensure that the appropriate data is transferred in the correct format to the designated destination as quickly as possible, leaving CPUs to focus on application processing.

The first iterations of DPU design are already helping to facilitate the massive increases in processing bandwidth that data centres now need. Much of the focus so far has been on the US chip giants fighting to establish market share in the new chip type. Their Chinese peers are currently behind, but no less ambitious, however.

The US contenders in the chip type include Intel with its Mount Evans IPU range, Nvidia (the BlueField range) and Marvell Technologies (OCTEON), plus various start-ups such as Fungible and Pensando, which AMD acquired for $1.9 billion in April.

One characteristic that Intel, Nvidia and Marvell Technologies’ DPU chips all share is the instruction set architecture (ISA) they use. This is Arm’s Neoverse ISA, rather than Intel’s x86, which currently underpins nearly all of the world’s server processor chips.

As we reported in WiC565, Arm has licenced its ISA to multiple end users that want to challenge Intel and AMD’s almost total monopoly in the server CPU market by designing their own processors.

The challengers include Amazon’s Graviton server chip and Huawei’s Kunpeng.

As a result, Arm has seen its share of the server chip market double from 2.5% at the end of 2020 to 5% by September 2021. TrendForce thinks that this will grow to as much as 22% by 2025, driven by demand from cloud data centres, which require the kind of power efficiencies that Arm-based servers can support.

This growing share is one reason why policymakers in China have been taking a keen interest in what happens to Arm’s Chinese joint venture, the subject of a ferocious battle between its global owner Softbank and its local CEO, Allen Wu.

Until a few weeks ago, Wu had evaded efforts to fire him from the China unit, where he served as its legal representative.

As in most aspects of semiconductor design and production, China wants to build its own supply chain. There are domestic DPU start-ups attracting funding too. The most high profile is Shenzhen Jaguar Micro, with Tencent as its largest shareholder with a 24% stake. Founded by former Broadcom Greater China boss Sunny Siu in 2020, it has an impressive shareholder roster including NIO Capital and SMIC.

Then there’s Corigine, started in 2015 by former Marvell Technologies director Sheng Lu. It is known in China as Xinqiyuan Technology and it completed a funding round last November that featured the China Internet Investment Fund (‘the Big Fund’), China Resources and Shanghai Royal Sea Capital.

YUSUR Technology was founded three years later by Chinese Academy of Sciences computing professor Yan Guihai. In December it received financial backing from Kunlun Capital and Maison Capital.

Another contender is NebulaMatrix, founded by David Yu in 2021. Last summer it completed a Series A round with funding from Meituan, CDH, Walden International and Fosun RZ Ventures. In February it also received strategic financing from Baidu.

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