Arm is widely regarded as the most important semiconductor IP firm. Their IP ships in billions of new chips every year from phones, cars, microcontrollers, Amazon servers, and even Intel’s latest IPU. Originally it was a British owned and headquartered company, but SoftBank acquired the firm in 2016. They proceeded to plow money into Arm Holdings to develop deep pushes into the internet of things, automotive, and server. Part of their push was also to go hard into China and become the dominant CPU supplier in all segments of the market.
As part of the emphasis on the Chinese market, SoftBank succumbed to pressure and formed a joint venture. In the new joint venture, Arm Holdings, the SoftBank subsidiary sold a 51% stake of the company to a consortium of Chinese investors for paltry $775M. This venture has the exclusive right to license Arm’s IP within China. Within 2 years, the venture went rogue. Recently, they gave a presentation to the industry about rebranding, developing their own IP, and striking their own independently operated path.
This firm is called “安谋科技”, and is not part of Arm Holdings.
This is the tech heist of the century.
Before we get to the event they held and the significance of it, let’s do a recap. In 2020, Arm and a handful of the investors agreed to oust Allen Wu, the CEO of Arm China. He was ousted for using his position as the CEO of Arm to attract investments in his own firm, Alphatecture. Examples such as the following and more can be found here.
Mr Wu had offered discounts to Arm China customers in exchange for their investment in Alphatecture
Removing Allen Wu has proven to be very difficult. Despite a 7-1 vote by the Arm China board, the company seal was still held by Allen Wu. In China, the seal is a stamp which authorizes the person in possession to bind a company and its representatives with rights and obligations. Retrieving this seal and the business license would be a multiyear drawn-out legal process. Furthermore, it would mean at least some investors besides Arm must be along for the ride. The Chinese court system would need to agree with ousting an executive in favor of one that was hand selected by western influencers.
Despite formally being fired, Allen Wu has remained in power. He ousted executives that were loyal to Arm. He has even hired security paid for by Arm China that reports to him. This security has kept Arm out of the Arm China offices. Allen Wu has aggressively taken over the firm and is operating it how he sees fit. One interesting tidbit is that Allen Wu sued Arm China in order to declare his dismissal illegal. He essentially sued himself as he represented both sides in that specific court case.
Arm has retaliated by halting the transfer of any new IP. The latest CPU IP Arm China has is the Cortex A77. Major critical technologies such as the Neoverse server CPUs that make the backbone of Amazon Graviton and Ampere Computing have not been sent over the wall. In addition to these server CPU designs, many new developments in CPU, GPU, NPU, and fabrics have remained out of reach. The most important of these besides the server line itself, is the Armv9 instruction set. This is the new instruction set architecture that will power the next decade of high-performance Arm designs. Simultaneously, Arm has tried to appeal to the government stating that this is bad for the Chinese semiconductor industry.
This leads us to the present day, where Arm China held an event at which they formally declared their independence. They proclaimed that 安谋科技 is China’s largest CPU IP supplier. It was born from Arm, but is an independently operate, Chinese owned company.
The event comprised of cheering on 安谋科技 business. Some of the fanfare was emphasizing that 安谋科技 had a cumulative 20B shipments since formation. It has over 90 partners, 29 of which have achieved mass production of chips using the Arm IP. These shipments range from mobile, network infrastructure, 5G and IoT. They were developed by the company’s 400+ person R&D team that is based entirely in China.
Besides standing out and calling themselves an independent entity, they also announced new IP which was independently developed. It is called the XPU line. The IP blocks include NPUs, SPUs, ISPs, and VPUs, but they made it clear they will extend beyond this.
The NPU, neural processing unit, is especially interesting because Arm itself has also developed a range of AI geared IP. Some of that IP has not yet reached the doors of Arm China. 安谋科技 is forging ahead to have an inhouse source of IP and no longer rely on Arm. This is just the beginning, and who knows where 安谋科技 goes from here. Perhaps they even begin working on their own CPU core, GPU, and server designs.
Most of this IP is targeted at mobile or IoT type use cases. The SPU, security processing unit, is specifically geared to creating secure enclaves and being a management engine. The ISP, image signal processor, is meant to take inputs from cameras and process them into a digital form. It applies various techniques and operations to enhance the raw images. The ISP is geared to work with the NPU to analyze images and videos in order to identify people, objects, and events. These IP blocks are critical for emerging applications which will deploy billions of cameras in China over the next decade. Lastly, there is the video processing unit which is meant to encode and decode videos in common formats such as H264, VP9, and soon AV1.
Arm China, 安谋科技, is asserting their independence. It is the most publicized instance of a joint venture in China going rogue, but also the most dangerous one. Over the decades IP has been taken and replicated in China, but this may be the most brazen attempt yet.
Arm has been shaken to its core with the 2nd largest market snatched from underneath it. While they are the largest individual owner in this firm, they have no control or power over it. 安谋科技 has set out on its own path and begun to develop its own IP. The base of Arm’s old IP is not the end of their line. There are many questions swirling about what this means for a potential Nvidia takeover or IPO, but it is clear that SoftBank’s short sighted profit driven behavior has caused a massive conundrum.
This article was originally published on SemiAnalysis on August 27th 2021.
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