RISC-V Growth Spurs Alibaba’s New Open-Source Laptop

15-04-2024 | By Robin Mitchell

Alibaba's research arm promises server-class RISC-V processor due this year

Key Things to Know:

  • RISC-V's Growth: Since its introduction, RISC-V has rapidly become one of the three major processor architectures, highlighted by significant adoption in China and innovations like Alibaba's open-source laptop.
  • Early Challenges: Initially, RISC-V faced hurdles such as limited industry awareness, lack of a robust ecosystem, and competition from established architectures like Intel x86 and ARM.
  • Alibaba's Commitment: Alibaba's Damo Academy is leveraging RISC-V technology to create inclusive tech solutions that cater to diverse linguistic and cultural needs in Southeast Asia, exemplifying the flexibility and international appeal of RISC-V.
  • Technological Innovations: Recent advancements in RISC-V applications include the development of new language models and open-source projects that promise to reshape industries ranging from computing to AI and robotics.

RISC-V has come leaps and bounds since its introduction a decade ago, and while its initial take-off was slow, it has now rapidly expanded to become one of the three major processor architectures. Recognising the ability of RISC-V to provide freedom of design and collaboration, China has seen a massive amount of adoption for the technology, with Alibaba now developing an open-source laptop. What challenges did RISC-V face in the beginning, what exactly is Alibaba doing with RISC-V, and how is RISC-V changing the landscape of CPU design? 

What challenges did RISC-V face in the beginning?

When looking across the media landscape, the term RISC-V is becoming increasingly common, with most major companies working with the CPU architecture in some way, shape, or form. But while it has quickly risen to become one of the major processor options for engineers, it wasn’t always like this. 

During its early years, RISC-V, an open-source instruction set architecture, faced numerous challenges in its early days that hindered its adoption and growth. One of the primary challenges was the lack of awareness and understanding in the industry regarding RISC-V. Established processor architectures like Intel x86 and ARM dominated the market, making it difficult for a new entrant like RISC-V to gain traction.

The absence of a robust ecosystem around RISC-V also posed a significant challenge. Established architectures had well-developed ecosystems comprising software tools, compilers, operating systems, and support from a wide range of developers and companies. In contrast, RISC-V lacked a mature ecosystem, making it challenging for developers to transition to this new architecture seamlessly.

Another obstacle for RISC-V was the perception of risk associated with adopting a new and relatively untested ISA. Companies and developers were hesitant to invest time and resources in RISC-V due to concerns about compatibility, performance, and long-term support. Additionally, the lack of standardisation and industry-wide acceptance posed challenges for RISC-V to establish itself as a viable alternative to existing architectures.

Furthermore, RISC-V faced competition from well-established players who had a stronghold in the market. Companies were accustomed to working with specific architectures and were reluctant to switch to a new and unfamiliar ISA like RISC-V. Overcoming this inertia and convincing industry players to embrace RISC-V required significant effort and advocacy.

Despite these challenges, the inherent advantages of RISC-V, such as its open nature, flexibility, and potential for customization, gradually gained recognition in the industry. As more companies and developers started exploring RISC-V and realising its benefits, the momentum began to shift in favour of this emerging ISA. Over time, the challenges that RISC-V faced in its early days paved the way for its growth and acceptance as a viable alternative in the processor architecture landscape.

Alibaba announces new RISC-V laptop and open-source hardware

Recognising the advantages that RISC-V presents to the Chinese electronics ecosystem, Alibaba's Damo Academy, the research arm of the Alibaba Group, is making significant strides in the development and utilisation of RISC-V processors. The latest iteration of their XuanTie series, the C930, is set to be launched this year, showcasing the company's commitment to leveraging RISC-V technology to counteract the impact of stringent US trade restrictions on advanced chip exports to China.

Recognising the potential of RISC-V in diverse applications, Alibaba's DAMO Academy has also ventured into creating language models that reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. These efforts not only promote inclusivity but also showcase the flexibility of RISC-V architecture to adapt to varied technological needs. This is part of Alibaba's broader strategy to integrate RISC-V into their ecosystem, enhancing both the technological versatility and cultural relevance of their offerings. Read more about their innovative language models here.

At the recent XuanTie Partner Conference, Damo Academy unveiled the advancements in their XuanTie RISC-V processors, highlighting their applications in various sectors, such as 5G communications, robotics, and financial services. The XuanTie series, including the previously released C910 and C920 processors, has seen significant success, with over 4 billion units shipped since the launch of the C910.

In addition to their processor developments, Alibaba's Damo Academy introduced an open-source laptop named Ruyi Book, based on the RISC-V architecture. This laptop, developed by the software institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, further demonstrates Alibaba's commitment to promoting open-source technologies and expanding the RISC-V ecosystem.

Expanding Horizons: Alibaba's Ruyi Book and the Future of RISC-V Applications

Zhang Jianfeng, the president of Damo Academy, emphasised the upcoming surge in demand for computing power and applications supported by RISC-V. Zhang highlighted the importance of continued investments in RISC-V research and development, ecosystem building, and industry collaboration to meet the growing needs of various sectors in China, including electric vehicles, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence applications.

At the forefront of technological innovation, Alibaba's DAMO Academy's latest developments in RISC-V technology include the introduction of the SeaLLM and SeaLLM-chat models. These models are tailored for the complex linguistic landscape of Southeast Asia, aiming to break down language barriers and enhance communication across the region. Such advancements underscore Alibaba's commitment to developing technology that is accessible and relevant to a wide audience. Discover the full capabilities of these models.

The demand for high-end semiconductors in China is on the rise, driven by the need for advanced technologies in key sectors. With tighter US restrictions on technology exports, Chinese tech giants like Alibaba are investing in developing in-house chip solutions to reduce reliance on foreign technologies. RISC-V has emerged as a viable alternative to established architectures like Intel x86 and Arm, offering Chinese companies the opportunity to innovate and develop custom processors tailored to their specific requirements.

Alibaba's plans to build a robust RISC-V ecosystem in China, as evidenced by the establishment of the "Wujian Alliance" at the XuanTie Conference, aim to accelerate the commercialization of RISC-V innovations. By collaborating with companies like Nuclei Studio, Synopsys from America, and Imagination Technologies from the UK, Alibaba is fostering a collaborative environment for sharing intellectual property, chip designs, and software adaptations to drive the adoption of RISC-V technology in China.

The advancements made by Alibaba's Damo Academy in the RISC-V domain underscore the company's strategic vision to harness open-source technologies for innovation and growth in the semiconductor industry. By investing in RISC-V research, development, and ecosystem building, Alibaba is positioning itself at the forefront of the semiconductor landscape, paving the way for future advancements in processor design and technology development.

How is RISC-V changing the landscape of CPU design?

While it still has plenty more room to grow, RISC-V is well on its way to replacing ARM in many cases and possibly x86 in the long term. The primary reason for this is that RISC-V offers a flexible, customizable, and collaborative platform that challenges traditional processor architectures like Intel x86 and ARM. Furthermore, the adoption of RISC-V is reshaping the semiconductor industry and empowering companies to innovate and develop custom processors tailored to their specific needs. 

Additionally, RISC-V's cost-effective nature makes it an attractive option for businesses, especially start-ups and small enterprises, looking to develop custom processors and systems within budget constraints. The absence of licensing fees and the ability to leverage a collaborative ecosystem of developers and companies reduce the barriers to entry, making RISC-V a financially viable choice for innovation.

The high level of customization and flexibility offered by RISC-V makes it an ideal choice for emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. By providing a platform for tailored processor designs, RISC-V accelerates the development and deployment of cutting-edge technologies that drive digital transformation across industries.

RISC-V's international appeal and widespread adoption have also fostered a global community of developers, researchers, and companies working together to advance CPU design and technology. The formation of alliances, such as the "Wujian Alliance", unveiled by Alibaba's Damo Academy, demonstrates the collaborative spirit of the RISC-V ecosystem and its potential to drive innovation on a global scale.

Overall, RISC-V is reshaping the CPU design landscape by offering an open, collaborative, and customizable platform that empowers companies to innovate, develop cost-effective solutions, and accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies. As RISC-V continues to gain popularity and acceptance, its impact on the semiconductor industry and the technology sector at large is poised to be transformative, driving a new era of CPU design and innovation.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.