Will a Chinese-made chip one day threaten Intel's dominance of the global microprocessor market?
That was one of the questions raised by recent media coverage of an In-Stat report that detailed the features of China's Godson-2 processor and highlighted similarities with MIPS Technologies's MIPS instruction set and the architecture of an earlier chip, MIPS Technologies' R10000.
The Godson-2 is a 64-bit microprocessor developed by a team of researchers at the Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Sometimes called the Dragon processor because of the Chinese version of its name, the Godson-2 and its predecessor are among several Chinese efforts to design and market a homegrown microprocessor.
While ICT handles the design of the Godson chips, the responsibility for sales and marketing belongs to an ICT spin-off company, BLX IC Design Co., which is headed by Eddie Zeng, a former Intel executive.
The first member of the Godson family, the 32-bit Godson-1 processor, was introduced in 2002. It ran at a clock speed of 266MHz and was produced by contract chip manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC).
The latest addition to the family, the Godson-2, is produced by another contract chip maker, Shanghai's Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), and is available in versions that run at 400MHz or 500MHz. Both chips are manufactured using a 180-nanometer process and are based on what ICT and BLX have described as a "MIPS-like" instruction set.
Although the Godson-2 entered commercial production earlier this year, the chip itself isn't new. General information about it has been available since early last year, but the release of the In-Stat report pushed the processor into the Western trade media spotlight.
The report, written by Tom Halfhill, a senior analyst for In-Stat's Microprocessor Report, was announced on July 25 in a press release that claimed, "The Godson architecture is an unauthorized variation of the popular MIPS architecture from MIPS Technologies, a U.S. company."
In-Stat went on to say in the release that similarities between the Godson-2 and both the MIPS architecture and the R10000 "could raise some controversial intellectual-property issues, because MIPS Technologies has no connection with Godson and hasn't licensed any technology to the Godson designers."
These claims touched on a sensitive issue: Intellectual property matters have long been a source of political friction between the U.S. and China. But Halfhill's 10-page report -- a copy of which was seen by IDG News Service -- does not claim that the Godson-2 infringed on MIPS Technologies' intellectual property.
"I'm not sure that they're actually stepping on any MIPS intellectual property," Halfhill said in a telephone interview.
Weiwu Hu, the lead designer of the Godson-2 and a professor at ICT, said the chip is not based on MIPS Technologies' intellectual property and is not a copy of the R10000 processor. The Godson-2 uses a modified version of the MIPS instruction set that substitutes different instructions in lieu of those patented by MIPS, he said.
Details of the Godson-2's microarchitecture were also described in a March article titled "Microarchitecture of the Godson-2 processor," published by the Journal of Computer Science & Technology, an English-language academic journal overseen by ICT and the China Computer Federation. That paper, which Hu co-authored, referred to the Godson-2's instruction set as "MIPS-like," but also outlined sophisticated features unique to the chip.
"From the microarchitecture point of view, the Godson-2 is totally different from the MIPS R10000," Hu said, adding that MIPS Technologies has not raised any intellectual-property concerns over the Godson-2 with ICT.
MIPS Technologies executives were not available to comment. The company said in a statement that the Godson-2 hadn't been tested to verify ICT's claims that the chip was compatible with the MIPS instruction set.
"Although a subset of the MIPS instruction set may be executed, there is much more to a MIPS processor than the instruction set and our intellectual-property protection (patent and trade secrets) covers things in the architecture beyond the instruction set," the statement said.
In addition, compatibility between Godson-2 and the MIPS architecture, which is widely taught at universities worldwide, doesn't necessarily mean the Chinese chip is based on patented technology. "The MIPS architecture is very well documented, it's out there in the open," Halfhill said.
While the Godson-2 may be a very sophisticated processor design, technology alone isn't enough to stand toe-to-toe against Intel in the PC microprocessor market. Over the years, some of the biggest names in the semiconductor industry, including Texas Instruments Inc. and IBM Corp., have tried -- and failed -- to break into the market.
One company that continues to compete against Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. in the PC processor market is Taiwan's Via Technologies Inc. The company hasn't had an easy time. Despite offering a cheap, low-power chip that can run at speeds up to 2GHz, Via has struggled to establish itself as a major supplier of PC processors.
For its part, BLX has no plans to push the Godson-2 as a competitor to PC processors from Intel and AMD. "The reality is the PC market is already saturated. It's been taken by AMD and Intel, so we're not really targeting that area," said Zeng, BLX's chief executive officer.
The company has little choice in this regard. PC processors made by Intel and AMD are based on the x86 instruction set, which is not compatible with the Godson-2's MIPS-like instruction set.
That difference alone prevents the Godson-2 from being used as a replacement for Intel and AMD chips in most PCs, but leaves open the possibility of other applications, such as set-top boxes or other devices. In addition, the lack of x86 compatibility does not rule out the PC market entirely.
"You only need x86 if you're going to run Windows," Halfhill said, noting that MIPS-based processors can run versions of the Linux operating system. The Godson-2 can run Linux thanks to a utility that allows some software written for MIPS-based processors to run on the chip, he said.
But to be successful, the Godson-2 must overcome a shortage of compatible software and relatively low performance.
Its most significant performance bottleneck is the front-side bus, which connects the processor with the main memory in a computer, Hu said. The bus used with the Godson-2 currently runs at 100MHz, compared with Intel processors that use a front-side bus with speeds up to 1066MHz.
Despite its limitations, the Godson-2 represents an important advance for China's semiconductor industry and shows promise for the future. If the chip was produced using a more advanced manufacturing process, it would be very competitive, Halfhill said.
"There's nothing wrong with the design other than it's not using as much custom circuit design as a high-end U.S. processor would do," he said.
Future Godson processors will likely have better performance, and Hu wants to see the chips made fully compatible with the MIPS instruction set; something that would require a license from MIPS Technologies.
MIPS and ICT executives have been discussing a licensing deal for nearly three years and both sides want to reach an agreement, according to Hu. "After we buy the MIPS architecture license, we can implement the MIPS instructions in the Godson," he said. "That will make the chip compatible with the software and make the porting of applications much easier."
A license would also give ICT access to technical support from MIPS Technologies and enable ICT to describe the Godson-2 as a MIPS-compatible processor, which will help market the chip to potential customers, Hu said.
For now, one sticking point between the two sides appears to be ICT's claim of compatibility with the MIPS architecture. "The use of 'MIPS-like,' which is an improper derivation of our trademark applied to [an] unauthorized product, is misleading and can cause confusion in the marketplace," the MIPS Technologies statement said.
In response, Hu announced last week that ICT will no longer claim that the Godson-2 uses a MIPS-like architecture. Instead, ICT will clearly state that the Godson architecture is based on a subset of the MIPS instruction set that is not patented by MIPS Technologies as well as instructions -- such as the chip's multimedia instructions -- that were developed by ICT, he said.
While it remains to be seen whether the two sides can hammer out a licensing deal, the Godson designers are now readying a second version of the Godson-2. That chip will be produced next year using a 130-nanometer process and run at a clock speed of up to 1GHz, Hu said. It will also include a faster front-side bus, more cache, and support for DDR (Double Data Rate) memory.
After work on that chip is completed, Hu hopes to acquire funding for the development of a multi-core successor to the Godson-2. To be called Godson-3, this chip will have at least four processor cores, he said.