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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  • Hector2 - Friday, November 8, 2013 - link

    ARM moving to 20nm in '14 and 14nm in '16 ? Yeah, right. It's a lot easier to do it on paper than to actually make high yielding wafers. Intel built their first 14nm silicon in the lab a couple of years ago
  • Homeles - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    The idea is honestly ludicrous. Intel will be building their modems on their process in the "near" future -- why would they give up that advantage?
  • Jaybus - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    Intel will almost certainly be building an ASIC modem chip, not FPGA. There are some advantages to the FPGA in terms of re-use, but FPGAs invariably draw more power than a dedicated ASIC. So this FPGA chip will be nice in that it can be used for many different designs, but Intel's will be an ASIC dedicated to one thing, like LTE, and so lower power.
  • Wade_Jensen - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    I know it'll never happen, guys, just having some fun.
  • tviceman - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    It's extremely wishful thinking to mention Nvidia or AMD getting a piece of Intel's fab action. All three companies are in a love-triangle competition and unless Intel wants to bring about even bigger obstacles getting into HPC and mobile markets, it will never happen unless the revenue from hosting competitors offsets potential losses (which I doubt it would).
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Unlikely, sure -- I've updated the text while you were posting your comment. Anyway, the most likely route this would take is that Intel would charge a pretty healthy premium over TSMC and GlobalFoundries for their latest tech, so they would simply pass the risk over to the fabless companies. But if they can get enough money, why not?
  • Kevin G - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    It boil down to long term cost benefit. If nVidia, Apple, Qualcomm etc. were to start using Intel's fabs, then it would be a PR nightmare for Intel's x86 designs. Effectively Intel would appear to throwing in the towel and their process lead advantage as a sign of defeat to ARM in the mobile space. This would happen regardless even if it was a good business move due to the premiums Intel could charge those customers. There is also danger in letting competitors get a foot hold with mobile designs as ARM server chips are on the horizon. Those would really eat into Intel's margins with the low end Xeon sales at risk. Antitrust regulators would also be watching to see if opening up to 3rd parties for mobile also translates to opening their fabs to ARM based server chips. Right now it is best to avoid these entanglements until it becomes absolutely clear that the market is going ot ARM.
  • tviceman - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    That would be the only scenario in which it would happen - if Intel can make more money off running their fabs for competitors (AMD and Nvidia) than they forecast making in the next few years in mobile and HPC.
  • beginner99 - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    It's much more likely that NV or AMD GPUs would be made at Intel than say any ARM SOC. Why? Well because the ARM SOC would be directly in competition with Intels own Atom-based SOC. This will only happen on a lagging node if at all. However Intel does not care much about discrete GPUs so that seems more reasonable but also, lagging node eg. 22 nm and never ever 14 nm. Since intel 22nm is probably better than TSMC 20 nm in terms of leakage and performance and TSMC 20 nm will be bought up by Qualcomm and Apple it does seem possible but still, pretty unlikely.
  • hodakaracer96 - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    but their GPU's are in direct compitetion with iris graphics. Mostly on the mobile side, but still, if intel gives discrete GPU's another bump they are just putting there integrated graphics that much further behind.

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