China Loses Zen: AMD Halts Technology Transfers of x86 IP

Credit: Tom's HardwareCredit: Tom's Hardware

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 Milan 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 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.

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 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.

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 halt of 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 Processors
Cores / Threads
Boost Freq. (GHz)
Dhyana 3138
4 / 8
3.6
Dhyana 3185
8 / 16
3.0
Dhyana 3188
8 / 16
3.4

Sugon, a Chinese government-backed server vendor, 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 halt to 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.

11 comments
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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • PaulAlcorn
    Quote:
    "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.