Today Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger has outlined two key changes to Intel policy: one derived from Intel’s plans to offer foundry services to external partners, and the other from Intel starting to outsource its core compute product families in order to get the best product at a given time. Not only is Intel set to offer x86 core IP to customers through its new Intel Foundry Services, but also Intel is looking to creating leadership compute products on external nodes. These are complete 180º turns from how Intel has previously operated.

For the last 20-25 years, Intel has been steadfast in keeping the crown jewels of its product design firmly inside its very protective walls. Over the years, Intel’s x86 designs have mostly led the market in leadership performance and power (except for Pentium 4 and Rocket Lake), and limiting use/production for Intel-only use has enabled the company to improve that design with laser focus, manufacturing not-withstanding. Keeping the cores for internal use only means that neither customers nor competitors were able to see the raw design specifications, and for a long time this has enabled Intel to keep key features, such as its branch predictors, away from all but the most prying eyes.

In a twist to the norm, Intel is now set to dissolve those walls keeping its x86 cores it itself.

First up is Intel’s Foundry Services, a second crack at offering external customers the ability to use Intel’s manufacturing facilities. Idle fabs are costly, and so with IFS, Intel wants to enable a revenue stream while at the time meeting global demand for semiconductors, especially as it pertains to local supply chain security and migrating the world’s semiconductor reliance away from Asia more into the USA and EU. IFS will stand as a separate business unit inside Intel.

As part of IFS, Intel will both offer raw manufacturing services, similar to a standard foundry like TSMC and Samsung, as well as its portfolio of IP to customers. This is a Big Deal™.  Intel will enable a fully vertical model with its IP portfolio, allowing customers to choose from x86 cores, graphics, media, display, AI, interconnect, fabric, packaging, and other critical foundational IP from other sources (such as Arm, RISC-V). The exact way in which customers will be able to license the IP will be announced in due course, but if Intel were to follow the Arm model, then Intel customers will get access to Intel’s 86 core designs.

Arm’s model is bidirectional: core IP and architecture IP. The first allows you to build an SoC with defined cores, while the latter allows you to build your own cores with the instruction set (like Apple does with Arm). When applied to Intel, with the core IP, a customer can build designs based on Intel’s x86 cores with their own or external interconnects, or in different configurations to Intel’s standard model that are more optimized for what that particular customer requires. At the minute Intel is set only to offer core IP licenses, not architecture IP licenses.

If we take this idea and extrapolate, we could very well see x86 cores combined with new memory controllers, active interposers with custom interconnects.

Intel has kind of done this before, although it was very much a walled garden. Intel offered foundry services almost 7 years ago, under then CEO Brian Krzanich, that allowed very select customers to build new SoC designs, with Intel's help, and only for very select pre-approved use cases. In that time, Intel's effort for a proper foundry business was, in Gelsinger's own words, 'weak'. The new model is set to be more open, as far as we're led to believe.

The only question becomes to what extent will Intel offer x86 cores. Will it be the latest cores designed internally, or would they be a couple of generations behind? Will those designs be offered on a variety of process nodes, or just on a singular process node? Would a customer be able to get a core IP license and build it at another fab? This is where the second part of the announcement comes in.

As part of today’s announcement, Intel has stated that it will be expanding its use of third-party foundry capacity. Pat Gelsinger highlighted that it would be leveraging its relationships with TSMC, GlobalFoundries, Samsung, and UMC, to enable the best manufacturing facilities for its leading edge product designs, from communications and connectivity to graphics and chiplets. This builds on the announcements made by former CEO Bob Swan last year in light of Intel's own troubles on its 7nm process. Today's announcements reaffirms Swan's messaging, given that at the time the word 'pragmatic' was used, so while this has probably been in the works in a while, it is good to get a clear confirmation. As part of this announcement, to quote:

‘Gelsinger said he expects Intel’s engagement with third-party foundries to grow and to include manufacturing for a range of modular tiles on advanced process technologies, including products at the core of Intel’s computing offerings for both client and data center segments beginning in 2023’

The key phrase here is ‘core of Intel’s compute offerings’. It could be interpreted in two ways: at the core of a CPU design is a CPU core, which would mean an x86 design unless Intel were to skew away from x86 (unlikely). The other alternative could be an IO chiplet, which is also a ‘core part’ of a compute offering. Paul Alcorn from Tom’s Hardware has confirmed from Intel that the key element here is ‘compute cores’, and although Intel hasn’t specifically said the ISA of those cores, we are set to believe that Intel does indeed mean x86.

This means that other foundries will have access to the floorplans of Intel’s x86 designs, which used to be a big no-no at Intel. Now in saying that, foundries often have strict NDA requirements that stop them sharing designs with customers, as you might expect, but it’s the fact that Intel is even letting another foundry build x86 cores that is the highlight of this announcement.

All-in-all, Pat Gelsinger is enabling a roadmap that allows Intel to pivot, and pivot hard. Steering the Intel behemoth is difficult at the best of times, however Pat’s arrival and enthusiasm has certainly made the company more comfortable in finding where its next generation of revenue is coming from.

 

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  • JoeDuarte - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    I've thought about scenarios where we might want to license Intel's 14nm node, presumably a multi-plus evolved, mature version of it like whatever they're using for Rocket/Comet/Coffee Lake.

    That would be interesting, kind of like GlobalFoundries licensing Samsung's 14nm node. Intel's should be the best 14nm node out there, probably better than the "12nm" branded nodes from TSMC and GF.

    What about their 10nm? Do you all think it will be a long node, something they could offer as a foundry node? Assume again a multi-plus iteration, the Enhanced SuperFin 10++++ or whatever that they'll use for Sapphire Rapids. What's their cost like compared to TSMC's 7nm? Do they disclose the cost in their corporate reporting as a public company? If TSMC 7nm is supposed to be more expensive than Samsung's 7nm, I wonder where Intel is. It seems like they struggled a lot with 10nm, which might translate into high costs, poor yields, etc.

    Do you think 14nm and 10nm will ever be cheap? Well, cheaper? Is there supposed to be a significant drop in the cost of entry at these nodes in the coming years? I wonder if like in 2025 14nm will be super cheap everywhere, at why-not prices that you just use for new SoCs and ASICs by default, instead of 40 or 28, or whether it will still be a major cost barrier.
    Reply
  • JayNor - Friday, March 26, 2021 - link

    Intel CEO stated they shipped about 30 million Tiger Lake 10sf chips. While they struggled in 2019 and 2020 with pre 10sf, their reports on TGL yield improvements have been pretty positive.

    https://twitter.com/intelnews/status/1374472976649...
    Reply
  • ballsystemlord - Thursday, March 25, 2021 - link

    Spelling and grammar errors:

    "In a twist to the norm, Intel is now set to dissolve those walls keeping its x86 cores it itself."
    "it itself." is incorrect English. IDK what you intended to say here.
    Reply
  • sandeep_r_89 - Saturday, March 27, 2021 - link

    "migrating the world’s semiconductor reliance away from Asia more into the USA and EU"

    What, you racist white people don't like the fact that Asians are making chips? Don't trust us I suppose?
    Reply
  • Oxford Guy - Saturday, March 27, 2021 - link

    pragmatic = No good options so here is some sugar coating for the least-worst one Reply
  • analogandy - Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - link

    It’s official.
    Intel is Now apples B**CH.
    No lube, no soap.
    Microsoft is watching the sordid affair from the cheap seats munching popcorn after being reemed by the Solarwinds and Exchange hacks.
    No wonder Billy “Boy” Gates bailed early to count his GMO vaccine money.

    It’s only been 4 months since M1 Macs, and Greaselinger is on his knees offering to be their foundry.
    Who was the Intel exec who turned down Steve Jobs for the iPhone chip contract?
    Surely he must be at the bottom of San Francisco Bay wearing concrete boots.

    Intel hasn’t move below the 14nm process, because the don’t have a market for it.
    Apple has made their own market. Teach that in Harverd biznes skool.
    Reply
  • Oxford Guy - Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - link

    I presume you're American, since Americans have such a penchant for attacking legitimate sexuality when they're trying to belittle something/someone. Not a good look. Reply
  • JHS28677 - Sunday, April 4, 2021 - link

    What in GOD's name does gay sex have to do with IT? These forums seriously need moderation. I guess you just cannot expect children to act like adults. Yes, I'm American. Go ahead and take your best shot; and, just so you know, your penchant for gay sex does not make it legitimate. Your denigrating presumptions about Americans is asinine. It does, however, serve to illustrate your low IQ. Have a nice day, mate. Reply
  • Oxford Guy - Tuesday, April 6, 2021 - link

    None of that rebuts the point I made but the flamboyance is noted. Reply
  • Haawser - Wednesday, April 7, 2021 - link

    The problem for Intel is the same as it was the last time they offered foundry services, ie- their mainstream processes are entirely focused on making very high clock speed CPUs. As such they are not ideal (from a cost/complexity standpoint) for pretty much anything else. They're too specialized, basically. Reply

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