SK Telecom designs own AI data centre chip for 5G applications

(Image credit: Shutterstock / carlos castilla)

South Korean mobile operator SK Telecom has detailed a new AI chip that will boost the performance of cloud-based mobile services and aid the country’s ambition of becoming a world leader in semiconductor technology.

The ‘Sapeon X220’ is designed to process AI tasks faster while using less power than a conventional GPU. SKT says the chip’s deep computational speed is 6.7 kilo frames per second – 1.5 times more rapid than GPUs currently used – while it also uses 20% less power and is half the price.

The development of an AI chip sees SKT extend its reach further down the supply chain and potentially step on the toes of the traditional market leader. Nvidia has enjoyed considerable success in recent years thanks to huge demand for GPU technology.

SKT AI chip

This demand expected to increase even further as 5G networks spread across the world and application and cloud developers identify new use cases. The gigabit speeds, enhanced capacity, and ultra-low latency of 5G promise to usher in in a new era of consumer and business mobile applications, facilitated by a complete architecture of mobile networks.

In the 5G era, networks will be decentralised, more software-based and use a vast array of spectrum and access points that allow for denser, more reliable coverage. All of this will ensure data-intensive, latency-sensitive applications can be powered by a cellular connection.

Edge computing is a critical component of this structure, with network functions and processing power deployed closer to the point of collection. This might be at a regional data centre or even in a phone mast.  

Real-time AI applications are an example of such a latency-sensitive service and the faster that data can be collected, analysed, and sent back, the better. Having faster AI capabilities in the data centre and at the network edge will dramatically improve performance.  

SKT will use its new chip to improve its own services while it will also be made available to affiliates and customers. The operator will also make the processer available as an ‘AI-as-a-Service’ product that combines hardware, software and algorithms so customers can create intelligent products.

The secondary ambition of the project is to strengthen the South Korean government’s technological ambitions and its belief that 5G and AI can be a major driver of the economy.

South Korea is the world’s most developed 5G nation thanks to strong operator support and the wider ecosystem, and earlier this year announced a ‘New Deal’ that named communications and intelligence as key strategic priorities following the Coronavirus pandemic.

Seoul has made funding available for AI development, robot testing and business assistance and SKT already leads a consortium of industry and academia that will design AI chips and interfaces for cloud data centres.

The development of an AI chip will help achieve these goals and will also allow for a greater share of the semiconductor market. Samsung is the world’s leading manufacturer of memory chips, but the market had crashed before the pandemic due to a slump in smartphone sales.

In a separate development, South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Institute (ETRI) has teamed up with Arm to design a CPU that’s tailored for supercomputing applications. Again, the country is stepping on another established vendor’s toes given Intel currently powers all of Korea’s High Performance computing (HPC).

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.