I’ve spoken before in this column about how I see Intel as, at heart, a systems company. Over the decades, the ways that the company has enabled the systems that run on its microprocessors are perhaps more significant than the microprocessors themselves. When Intel launched its Intel Foundry Services (IFS) business unit in March 2021, Intel went a step further positioning itself as a not just a systems enabler, but an industry enabler.
When IFS was rolled out, the company described it as being different than offer foundry services. IFS was conceived to provide 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, said Intel.
Fast forward to today, and it’s clear that Intel is putting its money towards those efforts in a strong way. In early February, Intel announced what it calls “a new $1 billion fund to support early-stage startups and established companies building disruptive technologies for the foundry ecosystem.” The move is a collaboration between Intel Capital and IFS and the fund is intended for prioritizing investments in capabilities that accelerate foundry customers’ time to market. By that they mean, intellectual property (IP), software tools, chip architecture innovation and advanced packaging technologies.
Semiconductor technology advancements are making it easier to partition complex semiconductors into modular blocks called “chiplets.” With that in mind, alongside its investment news, Intel also announced partnerships with several companies aligned with this fund and focused enabling modular products with an open chiplet platform and supporting design approaches that leverage multiple instruction set architectures (ISAs), spanning x86, Arm and RISC-V.
Intel emphasizes that a key part of the IFS strategy is to offer a broad range of leadership IP optimized for Intel process technologies. It touts IFS as the only foundry to offer IP optimized for all three of the industry’s leading ISAs: x86, Arm and RISC-V.
While there’s a lot of ground to cover with this effort, it’s the RISC-V aspect that is most interesting. (Indeed, the Arm part of the story would take pages to discuss.) As the leading open-source ISA, RISC-V offers a level of scalability and customization that is new in the industry. That’s driven high demand from foundry customers to support more RISC-V IP offerings. Intel says it’s planning investments and offerings that will strengthen the ecosystem and help drive further adoption of RISC-V. The fund will help “disruptive” RISC-V companies innovate faster through IFS by collaborating on technology co-optimization, prioritizing wafer shuttles, supporting customer designs, building development boards and software infrastructure and more.
Along those lines, Intel has extended its IFS partnership with SiFive. Meanwhile, Intel has inked new partnerships with three more IP providers that focus on RISC-V: Andes Technology, Esperanto Technologies and Ventana Micro Systems. These deals will “demonstrate best-in-class performance, power and area (PPA) on IFS’ portfolio” and “make CPU cores, chiplets and fully packaged products available to customers in a range of key market segments,” says Intel.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Intel also just announced that it’s joining RISC-V International, a global nonprofit organization supporting the free and open RISC-V instruction set architecture and extensions. Moreover, Intel is joining at the highest Premier membership level—other Premier members include Huawei, ZTE, Western Digital, Andes, SiFive, Ventana Micro, Google, Alibaba Cloud, StarFive along with others.
Intel’s strong, multi-prong push toward supporting RISC-V is smart, but I wouldn’t call it a risky move. Many currents are blowing RISC-V’s way. Semico Research has estimated that demand will continue to grow at a rapid pace, with the market consuming more than 60 billion RISC-V CPU cores by 2025. At Circuit Cellar, we’ll be watching RISC-V, and in particular its impact on embedded systems. But one thing is for sure: If Intel is laying all these bets down on RISC-V, it’s clearly playing for the win.
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• MARCH #380 – Get a PDF of the issue