Alibaba unveils custom Arm-based server chip

The Chinese company will use new technology to power servers in its data centres

Alibaba has unveiled a new in-house processor that will be used to power servers in its data centres, as China aims to increase its domestic chip production in the face of a global chip shortage and US sanctions targeting the country.

The server chips, named Yitian 710, are custom-built by the company’s chip development business, named T-Head. It’s powered by 128 Arm cores with a 3.2GHz top clock speed and is the first server processor compatible with the latest Armv9 architecture. It includes 8 DDR5 channels and 96-lane PCIe 5.0, providing high memory and I/O bandwidth.

Alibaba has also developed proprietary servers, called Panjiu, for the next-generation of cloud-native infrastructure. The company said that by separating computing from storage, the servers are optimised for both general-purpose and specialised AI computing, as well as high-performance storage.

The servers have been developed for large-scale data centre deployment through their modular design, and the company expects them to serve a variety of cloud-native workloads such as containerised applications and computed optimised workloads.

"Customizing our own server chips is consistent with our ongoing efforts toward boosting our computing capabilities with better performance and improved energy efficiency," said Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence and head of Alibaba DAMO Academy. "We plan to use the chips to support current and future businesses across the Alibaba Group ecosystem. We will also offer our clients next-generation computing services powered by the new chip-powered servers in the near future."

Zhang added that, together with Intel, Nvidia, AMD, and Arm, Alibaba will continue to innovate its compute infrastructure and other diverse computing services for global customers.

Alibaba also announced it would open the source code of the XuanTie IP core series, the company’s custom-built processors based on RISC-V instruction-set architecture. Developers will not be able to access the cores’ source code on GitHub and Open Chip Community to build prototype chips of their own.

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This coincides with the Chinese government’s “Made in China 2025” initiative of lifting the country’s chip production from less than 10% at the time to 40% in 2020 and 70% in 2025, as reported by NIkkei Asia. The government has invested in the semiconductor industry to try and meet these goals although this appears to be a long way off considering data from IC Insights shows that the country only sourced 16% of its semiconductors domestically.

Being self-reliant on chips is a key issue for the country, especially as it has been hit by a number of US sanctions targeting the tech sector in recent years. In April this year, the US government added seven Chinese supercomputing entities to its Entity List, restricting US exports to them. The US government adds entities to this list as it feels they are working against US national security or foreign policy interests.

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