A little over two years ago, AMD announced that it had formed a new joint venture with THATIC (Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co., Ltd) to build custom SoCs for the Chinese server market. The deal was instrumental in keeping AMD cash-positive at the time. AMD had lost $660M in 2015 and $497M in 2016, and the cash and licensing revenue from the deal helped keep the lights on while the firm worked to finish Ryzen. Now, the fruits of that labor are finally hitting the market. The Chinese company Hygon has begun shipping new “Dhyana” x86 CPUs based on AMD IP.
This is a significant shift for the x86 ecosystem as a whole. There are three companies with a license to build a modern x86 CPU: AMD, Intel, and VIA Technologies. Of the three, only AMD and Intel have offered meaningful competition across the market (VIA’s last gasp at relevance was the VIA Nano of roughly a decade ago) and AMD, of course, has only returned to offering strong competition for Intel in the relatively recent past. What’s surprising about the Dhyana CPUs is that they don’t appear to be ‘based on’ an AMD design or derived from AMD’s x86 work. They’re apparently so close to Epyc, Tom’s Hardware reports that Linux patches developed for AMD work flawlessly on the new CPU. A recent LKML.org post reads:
The first generation Hygon’s processor(Dhyana) originates from AMD technology and shares most of the architecture with AMD’s family 17h, but with different CPU Vendor ID(“HygonGenuine”)/PCIE Device Vendor ID (0x1D94)/Family series number(Family 18h).
To enable the support of Linux kernel to Hygon’s CPU, we added a new vendor type (X86_VENDOR_HYGON, with value of 9) in arch/x86/include/asm/processor.h, and shared most of kernel support codes with AMD family 17h.
THG walks through the legal structure that allowed AMD to form a company like this to begin with. The terms of its agreement with Intel require that AMD pull off some fancy footwork to create a structure in which another company can legally build CPUs using AMD IP. It’s easier than it used to be — when AMD agreed to drop its antitrust lawsuit against Intel years ago, one of the carrots it got in return was a renegotiated x86 license that made spinning off GlobalFoundries possible and gave AMD some additional flexibility in its CPU production arrangements.
These new CPUs aren’t socketed chips — they’re embedded SoCs — but that doesn’t preclude them from doing serious work. AMD sells Epyc into low-power embedded form factors already, and Intel has its own lineup of embedded chips at a variety of TDPs. A deal like this would seem to avoid the chance Dhyana SoCs would be caught in the recent trade confrontations between the Trump Administration and China, though the US has been known to limit the sale or license of technology to China for national security reasons and the recent dust-up over ZTE is proof that while these actions are unusual, they can still happen (albeit for very different reasons). And, of course, any tariffs levied on semiconductor products imported into China could still hit AMD and Intel CPUs sold into the mainstream server market.
We don’t have any information yet on where these CPUs are being built, either. Hygon is not a foundry, it’s a design house. The simplest explanation would be that these chips are actually built by GlobalFoundries, but that may not be the case. China has made a major push to ramp up its own semiconductor manufacturing with the goal of producing 70% of its own semiconductor needs by 2025 as part of the Made in China 2025 program. TSMC is one possibility for a manufacturing partner and there are foundries like SMIC, which could offer an alternative — but SMIC’s leading-edge node is 28nm.
Without more details on the exact capabilities of the Dhyana family, we can’t speculate as to their capabilities or features, but the implication seems to be that these are still 14nm chips with the same capabilities and functions as standard Epyc chips — or at least, most of them. How much they’ll contribute to AMD’s bottom line over the next few years and the other details of their capabilities and manufacturing characteristics are still unknown.