BEIJING After more than three years of work, a Chinese startup is close to launching the country's first commercial 32-bit microprocessor, a 266-MHz standard cell implementation of a proprietary architecture based on the MIPS instruction set and with the flexibility to eventually dynamically translate X86 instruction sets. Looking toward the future, the company has also begun the long march toward a 64-bit version that supports 32-bit and 64-bit addressing.
Designers of the Godson-1 processor have set their sights on embedding the chip in broadband and thin-client PC applications, two areas where China is poised for explosive growth. "There is a huge opportunity in the digital consumer area in China," said David Shen, chief executive officer of BLX IC Design Corp. Ltd., a spin-off of the Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), a government research group that first designed the Godson architecture before licensing it to BLX.
When Chinese researchers were first designing the chip, they had servers in mind and sought to cooperate with Boris Babaian, the renown Russian computer scientist who led development of the E2K architecture. The E2K is reported to have three to five times the performance of Intel Corp.'s Merced, while using less power and requiring a cheaper manufacturing process.
But after talks with the Russians broke down over licensing fees, the Chinese group scaled down its plans and settled on the embedded market, which wasn't as flashy but had much higher volumes. There are more than 200,000 intermediary schools in China that the government would like to equip with a low-cost PC infrastructure. As for broadband, the growth rate for digital subscriber line (DSL) services in China is still measured in triple-digit surges.
Strategy Analytics, a London-based market research firm, said earlier this week that 2.9 million Chinese households will subscribe to broadband Internet services by the end of 2002, up from 500,000 in 2001. In 2003, the research firm predicts that 8.4 million Chinese households will surf the Web using broadband connections, mushrooming to 36.7 million households by 2008.
This is fertile ground for Godson-1 and its marketers, which will have the advantage of leveraging close contacts with government agencies that dole out massive infrastructure contracts. "We are already talking with several very big telecommunications networking companies in China. They are very interested and they could consume 200,000 chips a year," Shen said.
Beijing-based BLX was formed in August, shortly after getting its hands on first silicon for Godson-1. To make it easier for potential customers to assess, BLX has developed four reference designs for the chip: a thin-client PC platform; a firewall adapter card; a SoHo network router platform; and a storage platform. Other designs are in development. Shen said Godson-1 should move into volume shipments in the second half of next year, with smaller volumes coming during the first quarter.
Although small, BLX has benefited from the extensive system-level design experience of about 20 ICT engineers who were spun off with the company. Last year, ICT worked with Intel to develop an IA-64 open-source compiler suite for the Itanium processor. "This is why we were so quick to build a CPU and have first-round success," Shen said. "Because we have very good system-level technology experience compilers, OS, system design. What we lack is experience in back-end design. When we build a system we usually use commercial chips."
That helps explain why BLX is out of the gate with a 266-MHz design while Intel is launching 2-GHz and faster designs. But Shen is content for now, confident the clock rates will get better. "We have found some ways to get the clock speed up, but that it perhaps not the top priority. Die size, the power consumption and the system functions are the primary concerns for our end users," he said. "When they ask us questions, they are not asking about clock speed. They are asking about functions, and, most importantly, the price. In the areas we are talking about, they don't need 2 GHz. Several hundred megahertz is enough."
Shen said that two former colleagues, Tang Zhiming and Hu Weiwu, are pushing forward the Godson-2 project, a 64-bit processor that is binary backward compatible with the 32-bit Godson-1. "Based on experiences we got from Godson-1, Godson-2 will be much improved in many aspects, such as dynamic scheduling, multiple issues, prediction, SIMD, etc.," Shen said.
Godson-2 is currently in the RTL design phase and should see first silicon during the first quarter of 2004. Like Godson-1, it will be made on a 0.18-micron process at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. It's too early to tell what sort of clock speeds the chip may hit, Shen said, because there are still many adjustments that must be made to achieve timing closure. "But Godson-2 performance will be much better than Godson-1, and could push us into the mid-end CPU market," he said.