Alibaba launches own chip for its servers, cloud computing platform in ‘new breakthrough' for e-commerce giant

Asia's Tech News Daily

Alibaba Group Holding, cloud computing operation, semiconductors, roll-out of digital infrastructure, Arm, Alibaba DAMO Academy, artificial intelligence, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Samsung Electronics, China’s Communist Party, Weibo, Huawei Technologies Co, Tencent Holdings, Apple

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding has unveiled its own general-purpose central processing unit (CPU), the Yitian 710, for its Panjiu servers that will drive the company’s vast cloud computing operation, a development that intensifies the country’s self-reliance efforts in semiconductors and roll-out of digital infrastructure nationwide.

The new CPU was internally designed by Alibaba’s T-Head semiconductor unit, based on architecture from British chip design company Arm, according to a statement released during Tuesday’s kick-off of Alibaba’s annual Apsara developer conference, which concludes online on Friday.

“Customising our own server chips is consistent with our ongoing efforts toward boosting our computing capabilities,” said Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence and head of Alibaba DAMO Academy.

He said the Yitian 710 chip will not be sold commercially. Alibaba owns the

South China Morning Post

.

Alibaba Group Holding, cloud computing operation, semiconductors, roll-out of digital infrastructure, Arm, Alibaba DAMO Academy, artificial intelligence, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Samsung Electronics, China’s Communist Party, Weibo, Huawei Technologies Co, Tencent Holdings, Apple

Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence and head of Alibaba DAMO Academy, expects the Yitian 710 chip to boost the e-commerce giant’s cloud computing capabilities. Photo: Handout

Using 5-nanometre process technology, which the semiconductor industry refers to as a new and improved generation of chip fabrication after the 7-nm process, the Yitian 710 is the first server chip to be based on the Armv9 architecture, according to Stewart Randall, head of electronics and embedded software at consultancy Intralink.

“I think that makes [the Yitian 710] the world’s most powerful Arm server chip,” Randall said.

That chip architecture was introduced by Arm in March, its first new one in a decade, in response to global demand for specialised processing with increased security and artificial intelligence capabilities, according to the British firm.

Alibaba did not reveal which major semiconductor foundry was contracted to manufacture the Yitian 710.

At present, the likes of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, the world’s biggest contract chip maker, and Samsung Electronics can produce commercial volumes of 5-nm chips for their high-end customers.

Alibaba Group Holding, cloud computing operation, semiconductors, roll-out of digital infrastructure, Arm, Alibaba DAMO Academy, artificial intelligence, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Samsung Electronics, China’s Communist Party, Weibo, Huawei Technologies Co, Tencent Holdings, Apple

Servers are seen inside an Alibaba Cloud data centre. The company, China's largest cloud infrastructure services provider, serves as the digital technology and intelligence backbone unit of parent Alibaba Group Holding. Photo: Handout

Alibaba’s new chip received a positive notice from the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, in a commentary about the Yitian 710.

“More Chinese enterprises have stepped forward to invest in science and technology” to address the “choke points of technology”, the newspaper said in a post on Chinese microblogging site Weibo. “In the Long March towards technology self sufficiency, we hope more Chinese businesses and social organisations can join the great course of innovation.”

As a server chip for Alibaba’s own use, the advanced Yitian 710 CPU will bolster the company’s fast-growing cloud computing operations.

The company’s Alibaba Cloud unit continued to lead China’s cloud infrastructure market in the second quarter, when industry revenue totalled US$6.6 billion, up 54 per cent from a year earlier, according to data from tech research firm Canalys. It said Alibaba Cloud had a 33.8 per cent market share that quarter, followed by Huawei Technologies Co’s cloud platform with a 19.3 per cent share and Tencent Holdings’ own cloud unit with an 18.8 per cent share.

Cloud computing services enable companies to buy, sell, lease or distribute a range of software and other digital resources as an on-demand service over the internet, just like electricity from a power grid. These resources are managed inside data centres.

By designing its own chip, Alibaba gets to directly improve the compute performance and power consumption of its data centres, according to Akshara Bassi, a Counterpoint research analyst who covers the high-performance computing, cloud and server markets.

“Its proprietary servers can then be coded for specific workloads to lower the total cost of ownership for customers, while delivering exceptional performance,” she said.

“This, I believe, is the way Chinese tech companies answer Beijing’s call for tech self-reliance,” Bassi said. “I believe this trend will keep on growing, as it gives [Alibaba] hold over its hardware and ability to create closed systems, like what Apple has pioneered, which are difficult to replicate and provide a competitive advantage.”

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