AMD has licensed its Zen architecture design to Chinese company Hygon. China has been meticulously chasing domestic processor production as a part of its ‘Made in China’ initiative, and AMD has manage to pull some pretty spectacular moves to skirt the x86 license limitations and push Zen into the Chinese market.
AMD is locked into an agreement with Intel surrounding the licensing of the x86 architecture and instruction set, and this agreement has kept the two companies in control of the CPU market for quite a while. While this convoluted web of licenses seemed pretty legally airtight, through a series of back and forth business deals AMD may have managed to upset the long-standing status quo.
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Back in 2016, AMD agreed to set up a joint venture alongside Chinese partners. The result: Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co. Ltd. (THATIC) which subsequently created two further companies: HMC and Hygon. AMD owns a majority stake in the former, while THATIC owns a majority stake in the latter.
Now bear with me. As Tom’s Hardware reports, due to licensing agreements AMD are beholden to, AMD-owned HMC has to be the company to actually produce any x86 chips. But that’s not a done deal just yet.
HMC actually licenses the x86 chips to Hygon under its own name, which designs server chips specifically for the Chinese market. These designs are then sold back to HMC, who employs a foundry to actually create the chips, and once manufactured, ships these back again to Hygon. Hygon then sells the x86 chips under the name of Dhyana processors.
These chips are reportedly all-but-identical to AMD’s EPYC server CPUs. Linux kernel devs maintain that only minimal ID and naming convention changes are evident between between AMD and Hygon Dhyana chips. Supposedly, the similarities run so deep between the processors that patches intended for one work with the other after only minimal code tweaks.
This all means a Chinese company is technically designing and selling x86 server chips, all without AMD ever forsaking its own strict licensing agreements. Through this convoluted maneuvering, AMD supposedly gets away scot-free with lucrative royalty agreements from all the chips sold in the otherwise restricted Chinese server market.
AMD’s push into China’s server market comes at a pivotal time, with the US and China potentially on the way towards a cataclysmic trade war. China hopes to become a centre for advanced technology manufacturing by 2025, and in-house server chip manufacturing is one step towards achieving that goal and moving away from US chip manufacturing dominance. A recent technology ban targeting Micron may well be a part of the same strategy in a roundabout way
It’s not just AMD that is hoping to capitalise on Chinese tech investment, however. VIA, the only other company still licensed to utilise x86, recently announced it was also back in the processor game under the guise of chinese semiconductor company, Zhaoxin.