In a story posted today on EETimes, Altera announced at the ARM Developers Conference that they have entered into a partnership with Intel to have their next generation 64-bit ARM chips produced at Intel’s fabs. According to the report, Altera will be using Intel's upcoming 14nm FinFET process technology to manufacture a Cortex-A53 quad-core SoC, which will be surrounded by FPGA logic.

The Intel/Altera partnership was first announced back in February 2013, and it's worth noting that FPGAs are not an area where Intel currently competes. Even though ARM logic will be on the new chips, this likely won't lead to direct competition with Intel's own chips. The bigger deal of course is that while Intel's 22nm process would give anyone willing to pay Intel’s price a leg up on the competition, 14nm is a full step ahead of the competition.

Intel has apparently inked deals with other companies as well. The Inquirer has this quote from an Intel spokesperson: “We have several design wins thus far and the announcement with Altera in February is an important step towards Intel's overall foundry strategy. Intel will continue to be selective on customers we will enable on our leading edge manufacturing process.”

The key there is the part about being “selective”, but I would guess it’s more a question of whether a company has the volume as well as the money to pay Intel, rather than whether or not Intel would be willing to work with them. There are many possibilities – NVIDIA GPUs on Intel silicon would surely be interesting, and given that AMD has gone fabless as well we could also see their future CPUs/GPUs fabbed by Intel. There are many other ARM companies as well (Qualcomm), not to mention Apple. But those are all more or less in direct competition with Intel's own processors, so unless we're talking about potential x86 or Quark licensees, it's tough to predict where this will lead.

If we take things back another step, the reality of the semiconductor business is that fabs are expensive to build and maintain. Then they need to be updated every couple of years to the latest technology, or at least new fabs need to be built to stay competitive. If you can’t run your fabs more or less at capacity, you start to fall behind on all fronts. If Intel can more than utilize all of their fabrication assets, it’s a different story, but that era appears to be coming to a close.

The reason for this is pretty simple. We’re seeing a major plateau in terms of the computing performance most people need on a regular basis these days. Give me an SSD and I am perfectly fine running most of my everyday tasks on an old Core 2 Duo or Core 2 Quad. The difference between Bloomfield, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, and Haswell processors is likewise shrinking each generation – my i7-965X that I’m typing this on continues to run very well, thank you very much! If people and businesses aren’t upgrading as frequently, then you need to find other ways to keep your fabs busy, and selling production to other companies is the low hanging fruit.

Regardless of the reasons behind the move, this potentially marks a new era in Intel fabrication history. It will be interesting to see what other chips end up being fabbed at Intel over the next year or two. Will we see real competitors and not just FPGA chips fabbed at Intel? Perhaps some day, but probably not in the short term.

Source: EE Times

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  • Wade_Jensen - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    The. Could. Be. Awesome. In. Mobile.

    Please give 22nm to Qualcomm, intel. Maybe swapsiees for some integrated modem tech?
  • errorr - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    That would be a huuuge stretch. These chips in no way compete with any intel offering. They are limited use fpga monsters that are limited use.

    From the press releases from Altera these chips will be THE FIRST 14nm chips released for sale. The margins are huge and intel can monetize even the lowest yeild wafers before a node is mature.

    This is all about TSMC losing their most crucial customers. The question I have is how willing is Apple to pay for a process advantage giving their willingness to pay extra for silicon.
  • Kevin G - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    There is plenty of demand for TSMC to make up with these relatively low volume chips. These do pose optimizatoin problems as FPGA's were often the first designs to be fabbed to help the process mature. Just another customer with more complex designs will have to lead TSMC's new process roll out.

    Actually this is more of a threat to IBM's foundry business than TSMC's. If Intel's US based fabs obtained Trusted Foundry status, the FPGA customers IBM serves will likely migrate to Intel based upon the process advantage. This is where the really lucrative customers are as they're required by the US Department of Defense to use a trusted foundry and maintain a chain of custody during the manufacturing process to ensure the integrity of the chips. Trusted Foundry status doesn't add anything technical to the chips, just this oversight verification which comes at a very, very nice premium.
  • michael2k - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Apple wouldn't even need to move to 14nm to see a process advantage. 22nm is sufficient given they are currently at 28nm.

    In other words, if the A8 in late 2014 is manufactured on Intel's 22nm LP fabs, they would still see tremendous advantage over their 2013 A7 that would make them more than competitive with anything Qualcomm could ship.
  • Kevin G - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    How big of advantage would that realistically be considering that TSMC will be shipping 20 nm devices by the end of 2014? Sure, Intel's process has been in production longer and thus very mature but it has to be smaller than say moving from 22 nm to 14 nm at Intel. Thus there is motivation to continually be on the state of the art node at Intel for that process advantage to really pay off.

    Moving from Samsung's 28 nm to Intel's 14 nm process would enable roughly 4 times the transistor density. That'd allow the SoC to move to quad core, more GPU resources and a wider memory bus while using a smaller die area and less power. The only downside for Apple in this scenario would be Intel's premium pricing.
  • michael2k - Friday, November 1, 2013 - link

    Apple at 28nm is competitive with Bay Trail at 22nm. Project a year forward and Apple at 22nm will be competitive with Intel at 14nm or Qualcomm at 20nm.
  • Krysto - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Meh. ARM chip makers are already moving to 20nm in 2014, and 14/16nm FinFET in 2015.

    Intel doesn't need to "give them" anything.
  • mikk - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    14nm/16nm from GF and TSMC is just a renaming, same process but with finfets.....Intels lead will be bigger than before
  • michael2k - Friday, November 1, 2013 - link

    What lead is that with Apple@28nm being competitive with Intel@22nm?
  • Krysto - Friday, November 8, 2013 - link

    How so? ARM didn't have FinFET so far, and soon they will, and they won't have to wait a whole cycle (2 years) to get it, after 20nm. That means the gap between Intel and others will be cut in half. So they'll be closer, not farther apart. Also, Intel is already seeing delays with 14nm Broadwell.

    The difference will be 1 year at most, and that's compared to Intel's most high-end chips. Atom still gets it a year later, so it's possible ARM chips will even be ahead in processing technology, compared to Atom. Also Atom is already barely competitive with last year's dual core A15 and Mali T604 GPU.

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