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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  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, March 23, 2021 - link

    That would be foolish. I wouldn't put it past Intel to steal AMD's IP if given the chance.
  • ikjadoon - Tuesday, March 23, 2021 - link

    Or anyone’s IP. Steve Jobs literally brought up this exact Big Problem (tm) when Intel was begging to make the iPhone chips.


    >But Jobs implies in the biography that Intel wasn't keeping up with the times. He explains why Apple didn't select Intel chips for the iPhone.

    >"There were two reasons we didn't go with them. One was that they [the company] are just really slow. They're like a steamship, not very flexible. We're used to going pretty fast. Second is that we just didn't want to teach them everything, which they could go and sell to our competitors," Jobs is quoted as saying.

    >On one level that last statement is rather remarkable. Jobs, of course, was saying that Apple would have to teach the world's premier chipmaker how to design better chips.“

    >Reuters is reporting that Intel "wouldn't blink" if given the chance to make custom chips for Apple's devices, like the iPhone and iPad. At an investor event in London on Thursday, Chief Financial Officer Stacy Smith told journalists that "there are certain customers that would be interesting to us and certain customers that wouldn't." Apple, unsurprisingly, is one of the first type of customer.

    >Currently the A4 and A5 chips found in iPhones and iPads are manufactured by Samsung, but reports have hinted that Apple may be moving away from Samsung and jumping to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd (TSMC) on a foundry basis. Given that Apple's A5 chip makes up a large portion of the $7.8 billion components contract Apple has with Samsung, it's no wonder that Intel would want to be a foundry chip maker for the Cupertino company.

    >As Smith told reporters, "If Apple or Sony came to us and said 'I want to do a product that involves your IA (Intel architecture) core and put some of my IP around it', I wouldn't blink. That would be fantastic business for us."
  • arashi - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    Coming from Apple, that same company that sent top secret NDA Qualcomm documents to Intel?
  • Lord of the Bored - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    In fairness, Jobs claimed everyone was stealing Apple's technology, even when said technology was out years before Apple did it. He was convinced the Commodore PET was a ripoff of the Apple II because they were both 6502-based computers.
  • Oxford Guy - Saturday, March 27, 2021 - link

    Shugart sold Apple faulty floppy controllers because it didn't want Apple to succeed with its revolutionary plan to do floppy control in software, cutting the large expense of a physical controller from the drives. Apple was well-acquainted with unreliable partners early on.

    One journalist suggested that the only reason Apple survived as a company, and prospered, is because it was offering much cheaper floppy drives. Remember, at that time a lot of people tried to be satisfied with cassette tape (which is pure garbage) because floppy drives were so very expensive. Apparently, the process of developing a software controller for a floppy was extremely challenging, so the brilliance of Wozniak (at least according to an account I read) was the reason the world got a software-driven floppy drive at that time, rather than later.

    And, at that time, the market for computers was saturated with competing incompatible standards — making survival in the low-end business sector (especially once IBM entered the personal computer market) unlikely. The Apple II had some nice qualities but it wasn't so great, particularly for the cost of one. The cheapness of the floppy drive, though, brought a lot of interest Apple's way. All of the slots in the II also differentiated it from cheaper competitors like the C-64. Machines with lots of slots ('open platforms') weren't new but many in business tried to sell closed systems for better planned obsolescence. (That trend included Apple, with the II-to-III transition and with the Lisa-to-Mac one.)

    Despite the continued success of the II line, Apple then proceeded to botch things extremely badly by ignoring the Apple II's development in favor of the Apple III — a product that should have never have happened. It didn't take much intelligence to realize that a new incompatible 8-bit platform was not going to be enough by that time to establish a successful standard. (Shipping a machine that overheated, causing it to pop-out its RAM chips, and which had a broken clock also didn't help.)

    The Motorola 68000's design, after all, was finished in '79 I think. That's a 24/32-bit CPU. Apple then proceeded to botch the replacement of the III, by making the Lisa too slow to impress ordinary people (and giving it bad floppy drives). Ordinary people associated price tag mainly with perceived speed — not productivity and/or operational sophistication. Like the III and the II before it, it was also overpriced. Finally, it was created before the Japanese managed to price fix RAM by taking control of the market. That sent RAM prices sky high, making the Lisa's 1 MB standard untenable, as it cost Apple $2500 in part cost before the price fixing began.

    The 68000 could be purchased in 10 MHz form when it launched but Apple put 5 MHz chips into the Lisa and slowed the machine further by refusing to add a GPU (which could have helped a lot with its very sluggish scrolling), coding too much in Pascal, and adding a sluggish kludge to get protected memory, since Motorola hadn't managed to get that working properly. The 68000 contained bugs that prevented it from working with virtual memory as well.

    The Lisa was a tremendously good system in some ways but was fatally flawed in a few. It was too slow, too expensive, too incompatible with existing standards, and stupidly orphaned (in favor of the toy-quality 128K Mac) rather than improved upon.

    As for your claim about the PET, do you have a source?
  • heickelrrx - Tuesday, March 23, 2021 - link

    so you trust taiwanese company more that your own country company

  • haghands - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    Anyone who would trust Intel over TSMC is at absolute best a complete and total rube, any advanced technology company whose more concerned with petty nationalism than the quality of their products and partnerships is a hopelessly pathetic and anachronistic joke fully deserving of the inevitable grave its competitors will crush it into.
  • fallaha56 - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    have to agree

    meantime expect to see TSMC's interesting in supporting Intel wane fast
  • tomatotree - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    Agreed, I feel the same way about the US government.
  • FunBunny2 - Wednesday, March 24, 2021 - link

    "more concerned with petty nationalism"

    what would MAGA say?

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