Published in PC Hardware

Chinese designers throttle chips to escape US controls

by on08 November 2022

Chips do not have to be that advanced

Chinese chip makers have worked out that while chip specs have improved over the last ten years, they have not changed that much to make a difference to products.

The US has been sanctioning China in the hope that it can throttle its access to chip technology. However Alibaba and start-up Biren Technology are tweaking their most advanced chip designs to reduce processing speeds to avoid the sanctions. 

Alibaba, Biren, and other Chinese design houses created blueprints for advanced processors to power the country’s next generation of supercomputers, artificial intelligence algorithms and data centres. These are produced offshore by the world’s biggest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing.

US sanctions are designed to cap the processing power of any semiconductor shipped into China without a license. But the chipmakers are getting around that issue by changing their designs. Sure, they are slower, their launch is delayed and it is a pain, but the Chinese chips are still better than what can be offered domestically. 

Chinese engineers said figuring out what was compliant was complicated because of Washington’s unclear rules for calculating a key metric in the thresholds for chips, called the bidirectional transfer rate, or the speed with which they send data to each other. The export controls cap chips at below 600 gigabytes per second (GB/s).

Biren has tweaked its designs to reduce processor speeds in the hope of getting them manufactured by TSMC. Its first processor, the BR100, that would give it a transfer rate of 640 GB/s, exceeding the US limits. Now Biren’s site shows slower specs for the BR100 of 576 GB/s, according to calculations from research group Bernstein. By disabling part of the chip Biren has slowed it down slightly.

Alibaba’s T-Head semiconductor unit is working out how to modify its new 5-nanometer processor designed for AI work. Changes being contemplated could require another production test run at TSMC, which would mean a months-long delay and could cost $10 million or more.

But where the US might have gotten its sanctions wrong is that it has assumed that the Chinese can't do without the latest and greatest from AMD, Nvidia or Intel. However, while processing has improved over the last decade, solutions are pretty similar to what they were. While the US might freeze chip development, it would have to make sigificant improvements of its own before there was a huge gap between China and the US -- particularly in areas like AI or production work.

Before the sanctions, China was dependant on the US and would always remain about five to six years behind. It had very little need or will to create a significant chip industry. Now it has built a chip industry and churning out its own designs. Sure in the short term they will be behind the US, but that will not last and five years behind is not that a miserable place to be. It appears that the US has created competition where there was none.


Last modified on 08 November 2022
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