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Alibaba is making its cloud OS compatible with multiple chip architectures

Alibaba’s cloud computing unit is making its Apsara operating system compatible with processors based on Arm, x86, RISC-V, among other architectures, the company announced at a conference on Friday.

Alibaba Cloud is one of the fastest-growing businesses for the Chinese e-commerce giant and the world’s fourth-largest public cloud service in the second half of 2020, according to market research firm IDC.

The global chip market has mostly been dominated by Intel’s x86 in personal computing and Arm for mobile devices. But RISC-V, an open-source chip architecture competitive with Arm’s technologies, is gaining popularity around the world, especially with Chinese developers. Started by academics at the University of California, Berkeley, RISC-V is open to all to use without licensing or patent fees and is generally not subject to America’s export controls.

The Trump Administration’s bans on Huawei and its rival ZTE over national security concerns have effectively severed ties between the Chinese telecom titans and American tech companies, including major semiconductor suppliers.

Arm was forced to decide its relationships with Huawei and said it could continue licensing to the Chinese firm as it’s of U.K. origin. But Huawei still struggles to find fabs that are both capable and allowed to actually manufacture the chips designed using the architecture.

The U.S. sanctions led to a burst in activity around RISC-V in China’s tech industry as developers prepare for future tech restrictions by the U.S., with Alibaba at the forefront of the movement. Alibaba Cloud, Huawei and ZTE are among the 13 premier members of RISC-V International, which means they get a seat on its Board of Directors and Technical Steering Community.

In 2019, the e-commerce company’s semiconductor division T-Head launched its first core processor Xuantie 910, which is based on RISC-V and used for cloud edge and IoT applications. Having its operating system work with multiple chip systems instead of one mainstream architecture could prepare Alibaba Cloud well for a future of chip independence in China.

“The IT ecosystem was traditionally defined by chips, but cloud computing fundamentally changed that,” Zhang Jianfeng, president of Alibaba Cloud’s Intelligence group, said at the event. “A cloud operating system can standardize the computing power of server chips, special-purpose chips and other hardware, so whether the chip is based on x86, Arm, RISC-V or a hardware accelerator, the cloud computing offerings for customers are standardized and of high-quality.”

Meanwhile, some argue that Chinese companies moving towards alternatives like RISC-V means more polarization of technology and standards, which is not ideal for global collaboration unless RISC-V becomes widely adopted in the rest of the world.

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