Via’s Chinese Joint Venture Aims For Competitive Home-Grown X86 SOCs By 2019

Via’s joint venture in China is apparently hoping to have a wholly Chinese-developed and manufactured X86 SOC that is competitive with AMD’s current offerings by 2019.

The older of us may remember the days of owning a motherboard with a Via chipset. Along with Intel and AMD, the Taiwanese company is one of three that have a license to produce the X86 architecture. It’s not surprising then that powers in the Chinese government approached them to help develop the Chinese domestic semiconductor industry.

In 2013, Via entered a joint venture with the municipal government of Shanghai to found Zhaoxin, a fabless semiconductor company. Since then, it has been continuously developing its own X86 SOCs. Now in its fifth generation, Zhaoxin’s latest KX series of SOCs combine its home-grown X86 CPU with DDR4, PCI-E 3.0, USB 3.1, and SATA3 controllers. The chips are fabricated on a 28nm process and can operate in the 2GHz range. Zhaoxin’s current adopters include Lenovo, but its chips don’t make it out of the country because they’re largely used in products built for the Chinese government.

In a press conference reported on by eefocus, a Chinese website, Zhaoxin discussed its future product roadmap. We’re relying on Google Translate, but eefocus mentions that Zhaoxin also follows a “tick-tock” development cycle. Progressing from this year’s KX-5000 series, which is a “tock” cycle, Zhaoxin’s 2018 KX-6000 series will be the “tick” cycle. That chip will move to a 16nm process and is hoping to hit frequencies in the 3GHz range. The 2019 KX-7000 series will be an another “tock” cycle, which means an architecture change.

What’s special about the KX-7000 series is that Zhaoxin expects it to be competitive to AMD. We don’t know from the translation whether the text is referring to AMD’s current processors or AMD’s 2019 processors. It’s not explicitly stated, but we assume that the 7000 series will still be fabricated on the same 16nm process, so it’s unlikely to be competitive with AMD’s 2019 Zen 2 processors, which will be built on a 12nm process.

Another interesting note is that, in a picture from German website, the 7000 series is shown to have a DDR5 memory controller. We don’t know what expected performance gain there is from this or if any such a gain has been accounted for in the statement on being competitive with AMD. DDR5 isn’t out yet, but history has shown that faster memory doesn’t usually afford much performance gain  in workloads that aren't memory bound, so even reaching performance parity with Zen, which runs DDR4, will be quite a feat for Zhaoxin.

Other remarks by the company show that it is currently still focusing on being competitive by being cheaper. Its target market, for now, remains desktop and laptop computers destined for procurement by the Chinese government. China has always sought to have home-grown industry, both for economic development and national security. Especially with the involvement of the Chinese government, we won’t be surprised to see Zhaoxin taking a place beside China’s other fast-growing, home-grown chip developers.