Skip to main content

AMD Not Conducting Further Technology Transfers of x86 IP to China JV (Updated)

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Update, 6/4/2019 3:00pm PT: AMD reached out to clarify portions of the licensing agreement, which we've inserted in the relevant section of the text below.

Original Article, 6/4/2019, 7:00am PT:

AMD CEO Lisa Su confirmed to Tom's Hardware at Computex 2019 that the company isn't licensing further chip designs to its China-backed joint venture. That means that AMD's chip-producing joint venture in China will be confined to the Zen architecture that debuted in first-gen Ryzen and EPYC Naples processors, but will not move forward with designs based on AMD's new Zen 2 microarchitecture that powers the third-gen Ryzen and EPYC Rome processors.

AMD originally established the joint venture (JV) in China, called the Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co. Ltd. (THATIC) in 2016 and agreed to license its x86 and SoC IP for chip development in a deal worth $293 million (plus royalties). The joint venture consists of a web of both public and private Chinese companies, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences that is heavily influenced by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government is known to provide preferential treatment to indigenous companies, so the partnership provided AMD with a springboard into the booming Chinese market. The deal was also thought to give China access to critical x86 technology, long an ambition of the Chinese government to help close the country's massive technology gap with the U.S., but the finer details of the technology transfer are unknown. 

The agreement allowed Hygon, a Chinese server vendor, to design specialized processors based upon AMD's Zen microarchitecture, which is the underlying design of AMD's Ryzen and EPYC processors. Many of the architectural customizations consisted of specialized cryptographic elements that meet the requirements of the Chinese government, with the first products consisting of Hygon's 'Dhyana' x86 processors that appeared to be near-replicas of AMD's EPYC data center processors. We are told there are other optimizations to the architecture that are designed specifically for the Chinese market, but we haven't been given more details. Sugon, a Chinese government-backed server vendor, also had plans for a Zen 2-based exascale supercomputer, but the status of that project is now unknown.

Chip-producing partnerships with China-based companies aren't an entirely new phenomenon, but the level of access that AMD gave to its joint venture does stand out. Intel has a partnership with Tsinghua University, long known to be heavily influenced by the Chinese government, and Montage Technology Global Holdings, a Chinese server vendor, that allows the development of a co-processor that connects to Intel's Xeon cores to provide China-approved encryption/decryption technologies. These two solutions are combined in a single "Jintide" package, but Intel didn't grant the companies access to its core IP. AMD, in contrast, has given the THATIC joint venture access to the register transfer level (RTL) of Zen, which you can think of as the 'source code' of the microarchitecture. [EDIT 6/4/2019 3:00pm PT: AMD reached out and clarified that it did not transfer the RTL to the JV, but JV can modify some parts of the design to customize the chips for the China market. AMD isn't being more specific about the licensed technologies. Sources close to the matter tell us that while some portions of the core can be modified, other parts cannot.]

We asked Lisa Su if the company would continue working with the THATIC joint venture amid the U.S.-China trade war, and Su said that while the company is continuing the joint venture, "we are not discussing any additional technology transfers," and elaborated that most of the work took place on the JV's side, while there "is not a lot of work on the AMD side."

"THATIC was a single-generation technology license, and there are no additional technology licenses," Su explained, though she did not clarify if the decision not to extend the technology transfers was a direct result of the trade war. That means that the technology transfer, which provided THATIC with access to the first-gen Zen microarchitecture, will not be extended to allow the Chinese chipmaker access to AMD's Zen 2 microarchitecture.

In response to another question involving the impact of the trade war on AMD's business dealings with Huawei, Su did state that, as a U.S. company, AMD is compelled to abide by U.S. regulations.

Sugon Workstation ProcessorsCores / ThreadsBoost Freq. (GHz)
Dhyana 31384 / 83.6
Dhyana 31858 / 163.0
Dhyana 31888 / 163.4

Sugon also recently began selling new workstations bearing four- and eight-core processors that bear a striking resemblance to AMD's Ryzen desktop processors, perhaps signaling an expansion of the initiative into client products. We're also seeing more work on enabling the Hygon processors in the Linux Coreboot program. AMD representatives told us that systems based on the joint venture's designs will only include server and workstation products and that we shouldn't expect to see chips specifically designed for client systems (like the standard Ryzen desktop processors).

It's unclear how AMD's decision to not extend further technology transfers will impact China's chip development programs. China still has other initiatives, like its efforts with Zhaoxin Semiconductor, which is working to produce x86 chips through a partnership with chip producer VIA. The U.S.-China trade war has exposed China's weaknesses in indigenous processor manufacturing, so we can expect a redoubling of its efforts, regardless of AMD's involvement in technology transfers.

  • jeremyj_83
    "That means that AMD's chip-producing joint venture in China will be confined to the Zen architecture that debuted in first-gen Ryzen and EPYC Milan processors"
    I think that should be Naples not Milan since Milan comes out after Rome.
    Reply
  • justin.m.beauvais
    Well, I guess THATIC will just have to make do with Zen. I feel like this has less to do with trade war issues and more to do with the way the original agreement was penned. The last thing AMD probably wants is to have to deal with the kind of deal Intel made with them when Intel licensed x86 to AMD for early CPU production, then Intel tried to sue them for producing 486 processors under the x86 licence saying that they had only licensed x86 for the production of earlier model CPUs. So, AMD must have made it part of the deal that THATIC would only get Zen out of the deal, and not future iterations. Though, it doesn't feel like THAT is what the article is saying. This article makes it sound like AMD made some kind of deal in perpetuity... which is not a shrewd business deal at all and AMD would have been out of their gourd to do... and has halted the deal to comply with... nothing? The trade war is a trade, espionage, and technology theft issue, not an issue with properly purchased rights. I mean, other news outlets are acting like Huawei was banned because of their success and not their ties to the CCP or possible security issues.
    Reply
  • PaulAlcorn
    jeremyj_83 said:
    "That means that AMD's chip-producing joint venture in China will be confined to the Zen architecture that debuted in first-gen Ryzen and EPYC Milan processors"
    I think that should be Naples not Milan since Milan comes out after Rome.
    OOps...good catch. Fixed.
    Reply
  • thegriff
    justin.m.beauvais said:
    Well, I guess THATIC will just have to make do with Zen. I feel like this has less to do with trade war issues and more to do with the way the original agreement was penned. The last thing AMD probably wants is to have to deal with the kind of deal Intel made with them when Intel licensed x86 to AMD for early CPU production, then Intel tried to sue them for producing 486 processors under the x86 licence saying that they had only licensed x86 for the production of earlier model CPUs. So, AMD must have made it part of the deal that THATIC would only get Zen out of the deal, and not future iterations. Though, it doesn't feel like THAT is what the article is saying. This article makes it sound like AMD made some kind of deal in perpetuity... which is not a shrewd business deal at all and AMD would have been out of their gourd to do... and has halted the deal to comply with... nothing? The trade war is a trade, espionage, and technology theft issue, not an issue with properly purchased rights. I mean, other news outlets are acting like Huawei was banned because of their success and not their ties to the CCP or possible security issues.
    Do you really believe THATIC will limit it self to Zen, now that it has obtained some of the skills needed and valuable information/microcode/arch. they will build from there. It's the same as providing the keys to the house to the crooked neighbor.
    Reply
  • justin.m.beauvais
    thegriff said:
    Do you really believe THATIC will limit it self to Zen, now that it has obtained some of the skills needed and valuable information/microcode/arch. they will build from there. It's the same as providing the keys to the house to the crooked neighbor.
    Sure, there are some enhancements that can be made to Zen, but they won't be able to reach Zen 2 levels of performance without finding someone who can manufacture at 7nm. There are woefully few fabs that actually can. An established Chinese fab, even if they stole the fab process for 7nm, wouldn't easily be able to make it work. As Intel is finding out, there are a million wrong ways to fab something 10nm or smaller. If China really wants to catch up they are going to have to invade Taiwan and be very careful to not destroy the fabs.

    That said, the people on the planet who are literate in CPU architecture enough to improve a design, let alone build one from scratch, are incredibly few and far between. This is on par with giving someone who builds muskets the plans to a Springfield M1903 rifle and fearing they are going to start building M-16s. Sure, they can get there, but it is going to take some time. So... China is stuck with Zen, and if they are smart they will not try to irritate ARM, AMD, or Intel. There may be a time in the future where they need chip designers again.
    Reply
  • ElectrO_90
    thegriff said:
    Do you really believe THATIC will limit it self to Zen, now that it has obtained some of the skills needed and valuable information/microcode/arch. they will build from there. It's the same as providing the keys to the house to the crooked neighbor.
    Yes of course, because no one in the West at all would ever try and break into the code and control their computer would they...

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vault_7
    Reply
  • tennis2
    China doesn't give a rip about stealing IP (or breaking contracts), so until they can follow the rules of the rest of the world, they'll continue to get this treatment in every market. I'm surprised AMD gave them as much access as they did.
    Either:
    Money is the great motivator
    AMD was unaware of the mess they were getting themselves into
    Reply
  • thegriff
    justin.m.beauvais said:
    Sure, there are some enhancements that can be made to Zen, but they won't be able to reach Zen 2 levels of performance without finding someone who can manufacture at 7nm. There are woefully few fabs that actually can. An established Chinese fab, even if they stole the fab process for 7nm, wouldn't easily be able to make it work. As Intel is finding out, there are a million wrong ways to fab something 10nm or smaller. If China really wants to catch up they are going to have to invade Taiwan and be very careful to not destroy the fabs.

    That said, the people on the planet who are literate in CPU architecture enough to improve a design, let alone build one from scratch, are incredibly few and far between. This is on par with giving someone who builds muskets the plans to a Springfield M1903 rifle and fearing they are going to start building M-16s. Sure, they can get there, but it is going to take some time. So... China is stuck with Zen, and if they are smart they will not try to irritate ARM, AMD, or Intel. There may be a time in the future where they need chip designers again.
    Thanks, didn't take that into account.
    Reply
  • littleleo
    China probably copied enough for them to release their own Zen 2 version.
    Reply
  • ginthegit
    Why are all these posts assuming that all Chinese are thieves, and assuming that most of the people are incapable of the design of processors.
    Note that I am an Electronics Engineer and know complex digital design very well. All the processors are made up of simple digital architectures and only the optimizations and changes to the standard architecture are difficult.
    Programs like Proteus and such like are used to auto-place standard modules of the ASIC design packages, and these tend to be drag and drop interfaces that reroute connections automatically. So making steps from Zen+ to Zen2 are mainly increases in modules of Cache and registers size increase etc, and these afforded due to the use of shrunk transistor size. We know that the Interconnect has changed, so they look at the modlue and redesign the module on a lower level to reduce stages to increase IPS and throughput.
    The rest of the optimizations are simple, you just have to choose the right modules and place them in the right place. You guys love to over-complicate things when you don't understand them.
    Most of the time the engineers discuss what modules can be added and subtracted to increase speed and decrease size, and test and retest via Virtual testing a rough improvement on digression, increased speed or efficiency gains. Most of the hard work of the module design that you drag and drop in is already done and simple. It is those that create new modules from scratch that are really the genius. They work with massive karnaugh maps etc. The other geniuses are those boffins that keep figuring out new materials and orientations of materials to make smaller transistors and drop with Quantum noise that happens in each and every one of them.
    Back to China stealing tech... Bah! as if Intel and AMD have not been sued for intelectual property theft, then you could just blame the Chinese for the dinosaus and the Armenian genocide. China is no worse in that respect. The worst part of the problem is that we get so much manufactured in China rather than within our own borders, so We (like AMD) give them the tech and they make it for us... Then we accuse them of stealing..... The reality really is... we treat them like slaves (or buy products that have been made by slaves) and expect them to take it lying down.
    If China really was stealing like we suggest,, they would hire a chip designer for silly money and get him to start the deluge of trade secrets. If we isolate china... like Russia... we risk forcing them to use their population to replace first world tech research. Russia has their own chip now, and our western governments hate it. We cannot spy on them, because unlike Intel who build in NSA sponsored spy tech, they don't... yet strangly we accuse them of what our countries are doing out in the open (note that APPLE refused to build in backdoors).
    Reply