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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  • errorr - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Acording to the press release it will be on 14nm. It will be a quad core A57 chip integrated with an FPGA.

    I see this as intel stealing the TSMC first adopters that drive new process node adoption. 14nm sample altera fpga chips are already being sampled. In the past TSMC relied on the fpga companies to subsidize the earliest runs of silicon until yeild was good enough for the gpu makers to step in.

    This is about protecting their lead in process by stealing the highest margin customers from other foundry companies. It will make it that much harder for TSMC to make new nodes profitable.
  • Khato - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Close. It's a quad core A53 chip -
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Text has been updated -- I found the EETimes link after the initial post. Long-term, there are still many possible routes this can take. I doubt NVIDIA/AMD/etc. will be fabbed at Intel any time soon, but the ARM competition could make for some interesting alliances.
  • Khato - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Agreed. Taking the FPGA customers is a great first step as it's both high margin and the 'simplest' type of design to bring up. Of course this is going a step beyond that with the inclusion of dedicated logic, which implies that the work Intel's foundry side has been doing over the last years has come to the point where it's capable of supporting complex outside designs... which opens up the doors to many more customers.

    It'll be quite interesting to see where it goes from here. My impression is that, oddly enough, we're approaching a point where it makes sense for Intel to leverage its manufacturing lead by opening it up to the competition. They might not make quite as much per wafer as they otherwise would, but every wafer they sell would be one that TSMC/Global Foundries/Samsung doesn't. And given that the foundry business is all about the economies of scale taking away market share can have a pretty dramatic impact upon the long-term viability of the competition. Which is to say that it would be far easier for Intel to obtain an effective monopoly on the foundry business than it would the SoC business, no?
  • Dentons - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Either you're right, and Intel is cherry picking the most profitable ARM customers in order to hurt the ARM fab ecosystem, or Intel has realized they cannot beat ARM in mobile, and face heavy losses if they don't jump into the ARM fab business.

    Your explanation seems most likely, but we cannot discount the possibility that Intel's is facing some truly dismal long-term forecasts.

    Consumer use of desktop and laptop computers is diminishing at an unprecedented rate. Tablets and phones are stealing a massive chunk of Intel's business. Upgrade cycles are being missed, many customers may never return.

    Intel has only in the past few months managed to produce SoCs able to match ARM's mobile products. Some would say Intel hit parity many years too late. Even if Intel were to have vastly superior mobile chips, they would still have a a terribly hard time competing with the ARM offerings.

    Mobile device manufacturers truly love the abundance of competition available in the ARM market. Even Samsung regularly buys externally developed SoC's for their top-line devices.

    What mobile device manufacturer desires a return to a world dominated by a single processor manufacturer? Especially when that single maker is a company with Intel's monopolistic history.

    Intel is facing a severe drop in market share. While this move may be initially focused on hurting TSMC, we cannot discount the possibility that Intel forecasts suggest X86 sales are set to plummet further, and that selling fab to ARM may be the only way to maintain revenues.
  • Krysto - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    The only reason Intel is even "beginning" to do this with non-competitors, is because they are starting to become desperate about future x86 chip decline. If they become desperate enough and are really cornered they MIGHT start to make competing chips, too, but I wouldn't expect it anytime soon - maybe in 2-3 years (IF it happens).
  • Homeles - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Selling off excess fab capacity is not an idea borne out of desperation -- it's common sense.
  • Dentons - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    If that's all they're doing, and if chips they're building would be built elsewhere anyway, and if they're not removing capacity constraints, no, they wouldn't be hurting themselves.

    That's a lot of ifs. Reality isn't always so black and white. If the traditional ARM fabs run into trouble, Intel could end up saving the bacon of some large ARM deployments. It could also free up capacity at the other fabs, allowing even more, cheaper ARM chips to reach the market, stealing even more business from X86.

    Plans don't always work as designed, the competition gets a vote. Even this limited move could steal business from Intel's far higher margin, X86 parts.
  • extide - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    If intel really though x86 was going to go away, and ARM was going to be 'in' then they would ditch Atom and come out with an ARM chip of their own.
  • Krysto - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    Let me put it this way - Nokia didn't think Symbian would go away for 4 years after the iPhone came out either. Otherwise they would've gone with Android earlier...

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