Huawei today announced an important AI announcement with its Ascend 910 data center and cloud-based chipsets and a new open-source framework called MindSpore. Nobody should be surprised about this announcement. Huawei has positioned itself as an AI powerhouse for 2-3 years. The previous products – such as the Ascend Nano and Tiny chips and the Kirin chips embedded in AI – were mainly targeted at devices such as smartphones and gadgets. The Chinese government's ambition to become the global leader in AI is to achieve a more competitive position in the data center and cloud-based computing market.
How does this announcement position Huawei?
The Ascend 91
Huawei not only wants to offer a powerful new processor, it also wants to change the market for frameworks by competing directly with popular development environments such as Google's TensorFlow. Even if I say it would actually support TensorFlow. This is a big risk for Huawei, as it can be difficult to persuade developers to change. The market is still evolving, and newer developers may not be able to resist much if MindSpore offers improved functionality (Intel follows a similar strategy with its OpenVINO platform).
No longer just a component supplier
Huawei was seen primarily as a component supplier and not as a full service provider. The release of Ascend 910 and MindSpore takes Huawei's direction. The 910 is not offered to other companies as a commodity chip. Instead, Huawei will strengthen its own data center services. Add MindSpore – a framework optimized for Huawei's own chips – and it's clear that the company sees its future not as a component supplier, but as a systems house developing complete systems for autonomous vehicles, smart cities, healthcare, and more and provides end-to-end services to make solutions available to the market (eg collaboration with Audi on autonomous cars).
Huawei will urge its customers to adopt the entire suite of Huawei technology – chips and frameworks – to create a more compelling solution. The goal is a global market (if allowed in the US) and not just a substantial but limited Chinese market. Huawei would like to ask who has the best processors for this task (Huawei, Intel, Nvidia and custom designs from Google's TPU, Facebook, Microsoft) who can provide a complete ecosystem of services. And it has the weight to be able to build a substantial ecosystem of partners to do this (no AI company, no matter how big in this market, can do it alone).
It's about more than technology
Today's announcement must also be seen in the light of the current geopolitical situation. The US embargo has forced Huawei, and indeed many other Chinese companies, to fully self-assure themselves of US technology suppliers. These include features and components that are required for smartphones, 5G network devices, and to support enterprise and data center requirements. Sanctions could restrict access to required chipsets from Intel and others restricting the ARM licensing required to build proprietary chipsets (there is an ARM core in Ascend), restricting general AI frameworks (although many are currently open-source). Source frameworks are) and restrict the access of the supply of tools that it needs to design and manufacture its own chips. In the past, Huawei and other Chinese companies would have gone the path of least resistance, having acquired existing technology alongside their own work. They now see their strategic path to speeding up their own technology management (eg, Huawei's backup plan to use their own Harmony smartphone operating system when Android is not available). And the Chinese government's call for a leading AI country only reinforces this path.
Huawei's new AI offerings are the precursor to many of the other technologies we can expect from the company – as well as other Chinese giants like Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, which are now big enough and have sufficient resources to significantly influence the new technology markets. They have intensified their efforts to become more independent due to the current political climate. And I expect an acceleration of announcements from China, especially in AI, where the market is just forming and many are fighting for their position. It remains to be seen if Huawei and / or others will be able to build the entire ecosystem, which must be a major player, but it is clear that they are pursuing this area with determination.
Jack Gold is the Founder and Principal Analyst of J.Gold Associates, LLC., A Northborough, Massachusetts-based IT analyst firm dedicated to the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging Technologies deals. Follow him on Twitter @jckgld or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jckgld.