The Chinese search giant Baidu has announced its intention to split off its chip unit into a separate entity.
Baidu first announced its ambition to develop in-house chips in 2018, and in 2019 it declared that the chip had entered risk production, with volume production scheduled in 2020.
The first generation of Kunlun, as the processor was named, was intended as an AI accelerator in cloud and edge computing, and adopted Samsung’s 14nm process as well as its 2.5D Interposer-Cube package solution which connects a logic chip and high bandwidth memory (HBM) with an interposer. Baidu claimed that Kunlun 1 offered 512 GBps memory bandwidth and supplied 260 TOPS at 150 watts.
In March this year, Baidu revealed that its chip unit had completed a new round of fundraising, with the company’s valuation estimated at around US$2 billion. Simultaneously, the company also claimed that 20,000 of Kunlun processors were already produced.
In addition, the volume production of Kunlun 2 would be expected in the first half of 2021. Much remains unknown toward the second generation of Kunlun processors, only that it will adopt the 7nm manufacturing node. So far, only Samsung and TSMC have mastered this particular process node, with SMIC’s 7nm process only entering risk production this year.
The schedule was later delayed to the second half of this year. Meanwhile, industry insiders raised doubts about the number, suggesting that Kunlun 1 didn’t see widespread adoption within Baidu. Instead, Baidu might have booked 20,000 Kunlun 2 chips. Without publicly available data from Baidu, however, these are merely surmises.
The Kunlun processors can be traced back to Baidu’s earliest effort to design chips in 2017. Back then, Baidu cooperated with Xilinx and unveiled its FPGA-based, 256-core XPU.
Ready to build an ecosystem?
Apart from the highly capital-intensive nature of chip business, which might have driven Baidu to split off its semiconductor unit, the move might also indicate the Chinese search giant’s ambition to broaden its consumer base. Some analysts believe that Baidu intends to take on the role of a system integrator and build an EV ecosystem, and eventually a cloud/edge computing ecosystem, based on Baidu’s semiconductor unit.
Indeed, Baidu, like its American counterpart Google, has been extending its reach into other industries.
Earlier this year Baidu just proclaimed its EV ambition by entering a joint venture, Jidu Auto, with the Chinese automaker Geely, investing US$7.7 billion in the coming five years to develop smart EVs. According to Yiping Xia, Jidu’s CEO, the first EV model would be released within 3 years. Jidu, unsurprisingly, will adopt Baidu-designed chips. Baidu also launched its autonomous driving unit, Apollo, in 2017.