Huawei released a major AI announcement today with its Ascend 910 data center and cloud-targeted chipset, as well as a new framework that will soon be open, called MindSpore. No one should be surprised by this announcement. Huawei has positioned itself to be an AI power plant for the last 2-3 years. The previous products – such as Ascend Nano and Tiny chips and AI-embedded Kirin chips, have largely been targeted at devices such as smartphones and gadgets. But it has seen a more competitive position in the data center and cloud-based processing market, spurred by the Chinese government's goal of being a worldwide leader in AI.
How does this announcement position Huawei?
The Ascend 91
But beyond just offering a new powerful processor, Huawei is looking to change the market in terms of competing directly with popular development environments such as Google's TensorFlow, even though it said it would actually support TensorFlow. This is a big gamble for Huawei, since it can be difficult to convince developers to switch. Still, the market is only emerging and newer developers may not offer much resistance if MindSpore offers enhanced functionality (Intel has a somewhat similar strategy with its OpenVINO platform).
No more just a component supplier
Lately, Huawei has primarily been viewed as a component supplier rather than a full-scale service provider. The release of Ascend 910 and MindSpore signals another direction for Huawei. 910 will not be offered as a commodity to other companies; instead, Huawei will use it to strengthen its own data center services. Add MindSpore to the mix – a framework optimized for Huawei's own pieces – and it's clear the company doesn't see its future as a component supplier, but as a system house that designs complete systems for autonomous vehicles, smart cities, healthcare, and offers back – end services to make solutions available to the market (eg, the collaboration with Audi on autonomous cars).
Huawei will push its customers to use the complete package of Huawei tech chips and frameworks to create a more compelling lock-in. And it has its sights set on a worldwide (U.S. permitting) market rather than just the substantial but limited Chinese market. Huawei wants to move the question of who has the best processors for the task (Huawei, Intel, Nvidia and custom designs from Google's TPU, Facebook, Microsoft) to who can offer a complete ecosystem of services. And it has the weight of being able to build a significant ecosystem of partners to do it (no AI, no matter how large, can do it alone in this market).
It's about more than technology
Today's announcement must also be seen in light of the current geopolitical situation. The US embargo has forced Huawei, and indeed many other Chinese companies, to seek full confidence from US technology suppliers. This includes features and components it needs for smartphones, 5G network equipment, and to support the corporate and data center ambitions. Sanctions can cut access to necessary chip sets from Intel and others, restrict ARM licensing to build their own chip sets (it's an Ascend ARM core), restrict common AI frames (though many are now open), and cut off access on the tools it needs to design and produce its own pieces. Lately, Huawei and other Chinese companies have taken the path of least resistance and acquired existing technology in parallel with their own work. They now see their strategic path forward as accelerating their own technology to cope (for example, Huawei's backup plan to use their own Harmony OS for smartphones if Android is turned off for that). And the Chinese government's call for the country to lead in AI only reinforces that path.
Huawei's new AI offering is a precursor to many more technologies we can expect to see from the company – as well as from other Chinese Venemots like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, which are now big enough and have enough resources to significantly impact new technology markets. They have reinforced their traits to be more self-reliant as a result of the current political climate. And I expect to see an acceleration of announcements coming from China, especially in AI, where the market is just forming and many jockeys for the position. It remains to be seen whether Huawei and / or others can build the full ecosystem needed to be a major player, but it is clear that they are pursuing this space with determination.
Jack Gold is the Founder and Principal Analyst of J. Gold Associates, LLC., An information technology analytics firm based in Northborough, MA., Which covers the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Follow him on Twitter @jckgld or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jckgld.ebrit19659013]