China advances home-grown chips

Chinese researchers, keen to benefit from their own country's booming chip market, are readying a 64-bit server processor and a mobile phone chip

Chinese scientists say they have developed the country's first mobile phone chip, and are readying a 64-bit processor for servers, major steps forward in China's ambition to control its own microprocessor intellectual property.

The "China chip" programme, as the government calls it, made its first significant breakthrough last September with the announcement of the so-called Dragon Chip: the 32-bit Godson-1A, a MIPS-compatible 266MHz processor aimed at embedded systems.

The country has now added a digital signal processor (DSP) to its general-purpose CPU, with the announcement of the eDSP21600 last week. The 16-bit, 200MHz chip was designed by Shanghai Jiaotong University, according to the Chinese government. The chips will be manufactured by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Co. (SMIC) in Shanghai, the government said.

DSPs convert signals from analogue to digital, and are common in mobile phones and other embedded devices. China is the largest consumer of DSPs, with about 10bn yuan, or £750m, of the chips sold there last year, but the technology is owned by non-Chinese companies.

The Godson-1A, also translated into English as the Longxin I, was developed by the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), and was licensed to a start-up called BLX IC Design, which was specifically created to commercialise the chip. BLX is now putting the finishing touches on the Godson-2, a 500MHz, 64-bit chip that will be marketed to Chinese server vendors, according to a report this week in industry journal EE Times.

The chip has been prototyped, and is expected to enter mass production in the first half of next year with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) or SMIC. A future design could add multiprocessor support and an on-chip secondary memory cache, according to the report. Software written to work with the Godson-1A will run on the 64-bit version.

China has ambitious plans for Godson, with CAS forming a group of backers around it last December. The "Dragon Chip Industrialisation Alliance" includes the ICT, the Haier Group, an as-yet-unnamed major consumer PC manufacturer, Great Wall Software, China Soft Network Technology, Red Flag Software and BLX. The alliance plans to recruit 100 members and develop 100 specialised products based on the chip this year, and to sell one million Dragon Chip-based devices over the next year.

Haier is designing Dragon Chip-based network computers to be used in schools and government departments around Beijing, the government said.

China is expected to become the world's second-largest semiconductor market by 2010, and the government wants to ensure that the market is not dominated by foreign imports.

The country is also working on embedded chips. Last November, Shanghai Fudan Microelectronics announced a 32-bit embedded processor called Shenwei I, which is compatible with code written for the x86 instruction set common in desktop microprocessors. The chip is aimed at industrial automation, financial electronics products and aviation equipment.

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