China chip an Intel rival?

It won't be an x86, but the Godson-3 might be close enough--and cheap to boot. A key goal for Beijing is to develop microprocessor independence.

China's Godson-3 chip is ambitious if anything. It proposes to be everything a world-class processor should be--and then some.

Developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, it also has a larger goal: microprocessor independence for China. "Their motivation is pretty clear. They don't want to be totally dependent on the outside world for something as important as microprocessors," said Tom Halfhill, an analyst at In-Stat.

The current Godson chip: The Loongson-2E High-Performance General-Purpose CPU
The current Godson chip: the Loongson-2E High-Performance General-Purpose CPU The Institute of Computing Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

But its singular head-turning feature is the proposed Intel "x86" compatibility mode.

"The most interesting part of the chip is that they're adding about 200 new instructions to assist with x86 compatibility," Halfhill said.

At its core, it is a MIPS RISC processor--but one that proposes to run Intel-compatible software efficiently enough that most Chinese may not notice the difference. "It won't be an x86 processor. But the 200 instructions will optimize the (Intel) performance," Halfhill said.

Halfhill says it's not an outright Intel competitor. "I don't think they're doing this to compete with (Intel) x86 per se (but) If somebody has to run some software that's only available to x86 you can do it," Halfhill said.

The upshot is that it will compete on some level. "Every processor that China sells is one less processor that somebody else sells," he said.

Oh, and that sticky licensing question. "They don't have an Intel license. It remains to be seen if these 200 instructions they're adding violates any Intel patents or not. They have not disclosed those new instructions," according to Halfhill. (Intel would not comment on the processor.)

But the support from the Chinese government may help it avoid the fate of other x86-compatible processors that had similar aspirations, such as the Cyrix and Transmeta Crusoe processors. To be sure, most Intel-compatible processors have died a slow, painful death.

If the processor succeeds, it will be compelling because of the overall low cost of the platform. The Chinese government can put together a hardware-software package "that's a lot less expensive than if they went with buying chips from Intel and licensing from Microsoft," Halfhill said.

"They want to get a lot of computers out into their schools and companies and they want to make them in China," he said. "With a MIPS-compatible processor, they can stick Linux on it, they can stick Open Office on it, and adapt open-source Web browsers."

The silicon is no slouch. The Godson-3, due in 2009, will have four cores, and an eight-core version is also planned. "The four-core chip is the most sophisticated chip we've seen come out of China," according to Halfhill.

The later eight-core version is a "heterogeneous" processor, he said. That is, different types of processors will be put on one piece of silicon. Typically, in a quad-core Intel processor, for example, all four cores are identical.

This would put the eight-core version in the same elite camp as IBM's cell processor or Intel's future Havendale and Auburndale processors. Those Intel chips due next year put a graphics core and a Nehalem processor on the same piece of silicon--a first for Intel.

And Godson may go far beyond desktops. By 2010, China plans to build a petaflop high-performance computer based on the Godson-3. (A petaflop translates to a quadrillion floating-point operations per second.) IBM currently offers one of the fastest supercomputers in the world that achieved 1 petaflop in June.

The original Godson-1 was launched in 2002. In 2005, the Godson-2 debuted, with new versions appearing successively with increased performance.

Godson processors, also known as Loongson, are manufactured by STMicroelectronics.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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