Intel Custom Foundry takes ARM license!


ARM confirmed by a blog post Intel Custom Foundry, manufacturing activity thirds Intel now holds a license ARM Artisan for 10nm!

We must remember that Intel is rather a special case in the world of semiconductors, being one of the few companies to have its own factories, used almost exclusively for the production of its own chips. Most other market players have migrated to the separation of the design of a side activity (known companies fabless , is the case in the world of GPUs with AMD and NVIDIA), and on the other the manufacturing in specialized third-party companies (known foundry , the most famous being that TSMC makes chips for multiple clients).

With the difficulty of the development of new manufacturing processes, which has worsened in recent years, it is becoming more complex for a company alone justify the investment required to continually evolve its plants. Moreover, reducing the size of transistors that plant capacity increasing year by year, and must have very large volumes of chips to produce, at the risk of its plants run dry.

A headache that will led many companies to separate their factories (for different reasons) first AMD in 2009 (creating GlobalFoundries) and more recently IBM (whose activity in manufacturing was acquired by GlobalFoundries also).

In recent years, in addition to manufacturing its own chips in its factories, Intel has decided to enter timidly, in 2010, the market for third party foundry by opening its process to small companies that were not in direct competition with its products (the first customer was Achronix FPGA designer in 22nm). Others have followed, mostly on the FPGA, the most famous customer of Intel have been Altera … even if ultimately Intel has decided to buy his client in mid-2015 !

For Intel, the need to open its factories is a puzzle. On the one hand, the company is trying to be present on all markets, declining x86 – technology “house” on which competition is limited – all the sauces and with a hint of recycling, whether with products specialized servers such as Xeon Phi based on Pentium for their first generation, or Quark dedicated to embedded and using architecture 486 dating a good twenty years!

If the desire of the company to be present on all markets is, in practical successes are not always with return, Intel having such massively missed the smartphone market. Cumulated to the continued decline in sales in the history of the PC market, opening factories to third party customers is emerging increasingly as a necessity for Intel, although admitting seems impossible to society, which therefore continued to send mixed signals to potential future clients of its manufacturing activity.

With today’s announcement, things are – can be – changing since the ARM license taken by Intel’s anything but trivial. This is not the first time that Intel will manufacture ARM SoC, he was seen with Altera that used an ARM core in a very specific use.

The license Artisan Physical IP indeed includes all the components needed to create all kinds of ARM chips. These are all basic blocks with high density libraries and high performance logic transistors, and also everything needed for the different types of memory. The license includes especially IP POP, which is to recall the idea that the success of ARM: allow the use of interchangeable and compatible blocks to create custom chips. Thus a customer can choose to use CPU cores designed by ARM (Cortex ranges) or create their own hearts (in the case of Apple and more recently Nvidia), to choose a GPU (either the Mali ARM, or Imagination Technologies PowerVR popular), and also to choose a supplier for interconnections.

Specifically, Intel is going to “carry” the ARM libraries to the peculiarities of its future 10 nm process, which will enable partners to bring ARM in turn – if they wish – their POP IP blocks. ARM and Intel will work together to port two blocks future CPU ARM Cortex-A (probably another 10nm successor to the A72, see the announcement of the 10nm A73 also ) the variation that is found in smartphones and tablets.

Should we see a turn for Intel? Manufacture ARM chips for smartphones, what they do for LG (new customer announced in stride) necessarily goes against internal ambitions Intel x86 to impose on mobile. Because if earlier in the year Intel had decided to cancel its next generation SoC for smartphones (Broxton and SoFIA), the manufacturer continued to work internally on subsequent generations while trying to develop in its interim modem activity (Intel would have possibly won the modem market the next iPhone). At a time when ARM increases its ambitions to attack the lucrative server market , it is questionable how far will really open Intel.

By making competing chips, Intel opens direct comparisons could be quite adverse to its x86, not very suitable for low consumption. The supposed advantage of the process from Intel, if it exists, can no longer play in the favor of its own solutions to compensate for any architectural deficit. The structure of Intel’s margins, again very different from the third foundry, lay there as fast problem.

Moreover, obtaining the license from ARM Artisan, Intel will have to share all the technical details, including the most secret of its process regarding the rules and the exact dimensions of the transistors, which will expose there also a direct comparison with other players installed in the middle (like TSMC and Samsung). It will take some time to measure the practical impact of this, because this agreement concerns only the 10nm, a process to return late and it is expected that Intel by the end of 2017 in Mobile version . The latest news of 10nm, which Intel does not communicate, did not particularly reassuring reminder with the possible arrival on its roadmap to 14nm chips … 2018 .

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