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Linley Newsletter

China Unveils MIPS-like CPU

December 30, 2002

Issue #157

Author: Tom R. Halfhill - Senior Editor

A research group sponsored by the Chinese government has developed a MIPS-like microprocessor and has licensed the design to a Chinese startup company. The Beijing-based startup, BLX IC Design Corp., is currently sampling the chip and plans to begin production in 1Q03. It will be China’s first commercial 32-bit microprocessor.
Initially, the Godson-1 processor will run at 266MHz and is intended for embedded systems and thin clients. It was designed by the Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), a government research organization. According to David Shen, CEO of BLX, the chip is based on a new architecture with decoupled instruction decoders and is readily adaptable to different instruction sets.

Although the first press reports about the Godson-1 said it was x86-compatible, Shen told MPR the processor imitates the MIPS I, MIPS II, and MIPS III architectures, except for a few instructions patented by MIPS Technologies. He said a future version of the processor will be x86 compatible.

The patented instructions omitted from the Godson-1’s instruction set are the same ones named in a 1999 lawsuit MIPS brought against Lexra, which at the time was licensing MIPS-like synthesizable processor cores. (See MPR 12/06/99-03, “MIPS vs. Lexra: Definitely Not Aligned.”) MIPS and Lexra settled their dispute in late 2001. As a result, Lexra withdrew its soft cores from the market, became a MIPS licensee, and changed its business model to become a fabless semiconductor company.

The Godson-1 is sophisticated for a first attempt at a MIPS-like processor. It supports two-way superscalar execution, out-of-order execution, and register renaming. Five function units include two ALUs, two 64-bit FPUs, and an address-generation unit. The pipeline is seven stages long.
BLX is showing four reference designs based on the Godson-1: a thin-client desktop computer, a firewall adapter card, a small network router, and a storage-device controller. The thin-client design was inspired by the Chinese government’s desire to deploy large numbers of low-cost computers in schools.

Work is already under way on the Godson-2, which will support 64-bit memory addressing and is scheduled to reach first silicon in 1Q04. BLX has contracted with TSMC to manufacture both processors in a 0.18-micron CMOS process.

It’s not easy to design a microprocessor patterned after an existing architecture without attracting the unwelcome attention of patent attorneys. In addition to Lexra’s battle with MIPS, picoTurbo was successfully sued by ARM after reverse-engineering the ARM architecture (see MPR 11/13/00-04, “PicoTurbo Takes a Bite Out of ARM”), and Intel has sued almost every company that has cloned the x86.

As a mainland Chinese company that so far is doing no business in the U.S., BLX can probably avoid legal entanglements for a while. But if BLX begins exporting products or cloning other CPU architectures—especially the x86—the Godson processors may become an issue in future trade negotiations and international legal proceedings.

To find out more about Microprocessor Report, please visit: www.mdronline.com.

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