Although Intel is, and has long been, a world-leading microprocessor company, I’ve often said that I view Intel as a systems company. This is not a new idea, but it is central to Intel’s history over the past four decades. For example, Intel’s microprocessors were key to every step of evolution of the PC, but it’s much more than the x86 processors themselves that drove that incredibly significant system architecture known as the PC. Intel made sure that the supporting chips— including core logic “chip sets”, memories and I/O interface chips were available so that system designers could build their computers. Several times over the years, Intel would get into the business of selling those supporting chips, but then exit the market once it was thriving without them. USB chips are a perfect example. Although Intel drove the creation of the USB specification, the company ultimately knew that USB’s success was about enhancing PCs (and other systems), which in turn boosted the market for Intel’s processors.
This trend grew beyond PCs as platforms such as servers, mobile devices and embedded systems proliferated. Meanwhile, for embedded systems, Intel was perhaps less about directly enabling applications and more about making life easier for embedded applications— providing roadmaps of processor life cycles, for example. All along the way, I have been particularly impressed on how proactive Intel tends to be when it comes to enabling the platforms that run on its processors. Intel hasn’t changed in that regard, except that its influence has spread across wide areas of technology, embracing everything from data centers to AI to 5G.
Now it appears that Intel is moving beyond just a technology-enabling strategy toward helping to enable the semiconductor industry itself. Along those lines, in late March Intel announced its IDM 2.0, a new evolution of the company’s integrated device manufacturing (IDM) model. A key piece of IDM 2.0 is what Intel calls Intel Foundry Services (IFS). With IFS, Intel says it plans to become a major provider of U.S.– and Europe based foundry capacity to serve the global demand for semiconductor manufacturing.
Intel is establishing a new standalone business unit, IFS, led by semiconductor industry veteran Dr. Randhir Thakur, who will report directly to Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger. The company says IFS will be differentiated from other foundry offerings with a combination of leading-edge process technology and packaging, committed capacity in the U.S. and Europe, and a world-class IP portfolio for customers, including x86 cores as well as Arm and RISC-V ecosystem IPs. Gelsinger noted that Intel’s foundry plans have already received strong enthusiasm and statements of support from across the industry.
Meanwhile, also part of its IDM 2.0 initiative, Intel said that it plans to continue manufacturing the majority of its products internally. The company’s 7nm development is progressing well, driven by increased use of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) in a rearchitected, simplified process flow. Intel expects to tape in the compute “tile“ for its first 7nm client CPU (code-named “Meteor Lake”) in the second quarter of this year. Thinking in terms of tiles is an important differentiator, according to Intel. The idea is to enable the combination of multiple IPs or “tiles” to deliver uniquely tailored products that meet diverse customer requirements in a world of pervasive computing.
Another piece of IDM 2.0 is Intel’s plans to expand use of third-party foundry capacity. Intel expects to build on its existing relationships with third-party foundries, which today manufacture a range of Intel technology, including communications, connectivity, graphics and chipsets. 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. He says this will provide the increased flexibility and scale needed to optimize Intel’s roadmaps for cost, performance, schedule and supply. All these investments signal that Intel is moving beyond the role of “systems enabler“ to becoming an “industry enabler.“
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• MAY 2021 #370 – Get a PDF of the issue