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China's chip gaining GHz quickly - report

Godson-2 now visible in Intel's rear view mirror

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Microprocessor Report has released the longest analysis yet of China's home grown microprocessor, Godson-2.

Published information on the project has been sparse, but is eagerly awaited. The economic powerhouse has long been dependent on expensive foreign microprocessors, which make up one of the few remaining areas the US' boasts an unarguable technology lead over Asian rivals.

The 6000-word analysis is only available to subscribers, but Tom Halfhill kindly shared some details with us today. And the most impressive thing since we last looked, a couple of years ago, is the rapid and increasing progress the government-backed project has made.

Godson-2 currently clocks in at around 400MHz to 500MHz on a 180nm process. Samples based on 130nm technology should appear this year. That's a generation or two behind Intel and AMD, but Halfhill says the progress China is making is remarkable.

The chip is targeted at thin clients, embedded controllers for industrial applications or cars. But the next generation, at 800MHz to 1GHz, is a plausible candidate for a modern budget desktop PC, and the Government plans to put it into cheap Linux computers for schools.

At this point a very low-priced PC becomes feasible, comfortably under $150.

Patents and patches

Godson-2 is a MIPS derivative, but according to what sources told Halfhill, skirts around the IP issues.

"MIPS has certain patented instructions, and the patents are in the US, Europe but not apparently in China. However, they told me they do not use the patented instructions."

The engineers have apparently also implemented their own SIMD instructions for floating point work.

Most impressively, Tom learned that the Chinese engineers have found a way of patching MIPS executables to run on the fly, quite an achievement. Reliability is still an issue, but three operating systems are up and running on Godson-2: Windows CE, Linux and VxWorks. These guys are smart.

Although improvements on the process technology are "rapid", and use state of the art wafers, the Chinese government also has the option of outsourcing manufacturing of the microprocessor, says Halfhill, to speed things along even more.

"There would be two ironies here," he notes. "One is the irony of China outsourcing manufacturing. The other irony is if it chooses TSMC as a fab, and outsources to Taiwan.

"But business is business."

Sources told Halfhill that there are no plans to export Godson-2, but for how long, we wondered.

"The design is virtually state of the art, so there are no reasons it can't compete everywhere in the world."

The Chinese People's Daily, which like the computer giant Lenovo is also state owned, hailed the first home-CPU powered server as significant event for the country. The chip had "strengthened greatly the national defence, national security and actual strength in many sectors of crucial importance", the paper wrote two years ago.

Not an understatement. ®

Related link

Microprocessor Report - China's Emerging Microprocessors [subscribers only]

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