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Alibaba Open-Sources Its MCU to Boost AI Research

Alibaba’s chip subsidiary Pingtouge (平头哥) has become the first Chinese company to open-source its Microcontroller (MCU) design platform. Alibaba made the announcement at the Wuzhen Internet Conference on October 21.

An MCU (Micro Controller Unit, aka microcontroller) is a chip-scale computer that integrates a CPU, RAM, ROM, timer, counter, and various I/O interfaces into a single chip. As a core component of embedded devices, MCUs are widely used in communications, consumer electronics, automotive electronics, and industrial control, and are the most in-demand chip type on the market.

Most IoT (Internet of things) devices need to be equipped with next-generation MCU chips to perform complex tasks such as sensing, communication, information processing, calculation, and release of control commands. AI capabilities and cloud access capabilities are the most significant differences between next-generation MCU chips and traditional MCU chips.

The development and deployment of IoT technology is stimulating demand for next-generation MCU chips. Market research company IC Insights predicts that despite a slowdown this year attributed in part to the US-China trade dispute, global MCU chip shipments will rise to 26.9 billion units in 2019 and 38.2 billion by 2023, with total MCU chip sales expected to reach US$21.3 billion.

The Alibaba open-sourced MCU platform includes the RISC-V architecture-based Xuantie 902 processor, a base interface IP, operating system, software driver, and development tools. Alibaba says the open source MCU platform will be of particular interest to chip design companies, IP providers, universities and research institutes.

Alibaba introduced its first RISC-V (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processor this July. The Xuantie 910 is designed to be used as a core IP to produce high-end edge-based MCUs, CPUs, and systems-on-chips (SoC). Because the Xuantie 910 is tailored for 5G, AI, and IoT, the open-sourcing of its MCU design platform can be seen as part of Alibaba’s drive to become a leader in AI R&D.

Alibaba researcher and Pingtouge VP Jianwei Meng believes the open source MCU platform will make chip design more accessible by leveraging expertise and resources from across the AI and technology ecosystem, enabling the chip industry to better address current challenges in AIoT (artificial intelligence of things) applications.
The MCU platform open source code, basic hardware code and supporting software code are available on GitHub.

Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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