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Intel to fab chips for startups, including RISC-V designs

Mar 24, 2021 — by Eric Brown 1,971 views

Intel has launched “Intel Foundry Services” to fab chips for startups, including designs based on SiFive’s RISC-V IP. IFS is part of Intel’s “IDM 2.0” reboot, which includes a $20 billion investment in new foundries. Intel also launched 11th Gen Rocket Lake-S.

Intel has formally launched Intel Foundry Services (IFS) to offer fabrication services to US and European chip startups using x86, Arm, and RISC-V architectures. Leading RISC-V IP vendor SiFive followed up by announcing that IFS will help customers manufacture processors based on its RISC-V architecture SiFive Core IP. This is more good news for RISC-V along with MIPS turning to RISC-V and the European Processor Initiative booting Linux on its RISC-V design (see farther below).

IFS will be a standalone business unit led by industry veteran Randhir Thakur, who will report directly to Gelsinger. The foundry business will provide industry standard design tools (EDA tools) and workflows from Cadence and Synopsys. An AnandTech report says that previous efforts at farming out Intel’s foundry services have been hampered by Intel’s practice of limiting customer access to its complex, customized software tools for silicon design process.


Intel’s new CEO Pat Gelsinger announced the launch of IFS as part of an IDM (Integrated Device Manufacturing) 2.0 initiative. The IDM 2.0 push will include an estimated $20 billion investment in fabrication, including building two new chip factories in Arizona (see farther below).

Intel’s new Fab22 facility for 10nm manufacturing in Chandler, Ariz.
(click image to enlarge)

Gelsinger also announced that its new fabs will manufacture its first mainstream 7nm CPU platform, called Meteor Lake. (This will be preceded by a 7nm Ponte Vecchio accelerator chip for the Aurora supercomputer.)

The next-gen Meteor Lake will finish tape-in for design verification by the end of Q2 2021 and will ship in volume in 2023. The Meteor Lake compute tile/chiplet will use Intel’s Foveros technology.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger performing a 7nm magic trick (left) and 11th Gen Rocket Lake-S architecture
(click images to enlarge)

Last week, Intel launched its 11th Gen Rocket Lake platform of Core desktop processors. Although Rocket Lake is the last 14nm design before the 10nm 12th Gen Alder Lake hits later this year, its Cypress Cove core architecture borrows technology from the 10nm Sunny Cove core architecture used for 11th Gen Ice Lake and Tiger Lake CPUs. This includes Intel Xe graphics for up to 50 percent better graphics than Comet Lake, as well as DL (Deep Learning) Boost technology and up to 19 percent higher IPC (instructions per clock) than Comet Lake.

Intel 11th Gen Rocket Lake-S SKUs
(click images to enlarge)

On the downside, the current Rocket Lake-S models top out at eight cores, down from 10 cores on the 10th Gen Comet Lake based Core i9-10900K. Yet that gaming chip’s successor, the Core i9-11900K, will offer up to 4.7GHz/5.3GHz clock rates.

IDM 2.0: Intel takes on TSMC

Thanks to IDM 2.0, Intel will continue to manufacture most of its processors inhouse, says Intel’s Gelsinger. Yet, Intel will also expand its use of third-party foundries with manufacturers including TSMC, Samsung, GlobalFoundries, and UMC.

Nevertheless, the investments in fabs suggests that Intel plans to gradually wean itself from TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.), which it has increasingly relied on in recent years to make up for manufacturing shortfalls. The IDM 2.0 plan “aims to put the U.S. firm into direct competition with TSMC,” writes Kurt Shussler in Bloomberg, noting that TSMC and Samsung Electronics shares both dipped on the news.

The story quotes Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Charles Shum as saying that Intel is unlikely to become an immediate threat to TSMC, which counts AMD, Apple, and Qualcomm among its clients. Yahoo Finance, meanwhile, notes that TSMC will spend as much as $28 billion in 2021, which is twice what Intel spent on fabrication technology last year.

Yet, Intel’s IDM 2.0 push adds to TSMC’s current challenges, which include a water shortage in Taiwan that has worsened the global shortage of processors. Other contributors to the chip shortage, which is especially acute in automotive chips, include supply chain issues and surging demand caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Seeking Alpha survey of analysts after the IDM 2.0 announcement revealed a cautious response, with several noting that Intel has a steep path ahead. “As bold and impressive as the new Intel strategy may be, it’s still critical to remember that the company needs to execute on that vision and regain some of the prestige and trust that it’s lost over the last few years,” stated Seeking Alpha contributor Bob O’Donnell. “Catching up on process technology, in particular, is an extremely challenging task.”

The CEO switch from Bob Swan to Gelsinger came in February after Intel announced last year it had fallen behind with its 7nm fabrication technology after similar delays in 10nm processors. Intel revenue rose 8 percent to a record $77.9 billion in 2020, thanks in part to increases in computer purchases due to work-at-home trends caused by the pandemic. This year, however, Yahoo News says analysts predict Intel sales will fall 5 percent, the first decline since 2015.

Chip manufacturing trends
Source: Semiconductor Industry Association/Boston Consulting Group via Bloomberg
(click image to enlarge)

There may be a patriotic element to the Intel PR at a time when the US is seeing a declining share of the processor business compared to East Asia in general and China in particular. Intel projects that its $20 billion IDM 2.0 investment will create over 3,000 “permanent high-tech, high-wage jobs,” as well as over 3,000 construction jobs and approximately 15,000 local long-term jobs. Intel may be vying here for some government funding to bolster the flagging US chip business.

Yet, the tech ecosystem remains globally interconnected. Taiwan-based TSMC is also considering building a fab in Arizona, says Yahoo Finance. Intel, meanwhile, has factories in Israel, China, and Ireland, where it now plans to double the manufacturing space and add 1,600 high-tech jobs.

Moving to GAA FET and EUV

The Seeking Alpha story quotes a Susquehanna analyst as saying the IDM 2.0 news dovetails with Intel’s upcoming change in transistor structure from FinFET to GAA FET, which wraps transistors on four sides using nanowires or stacked nanosheets. Samsung is expected to switch to GAA (Gate-All-Around) technology in 2022, followed by Intel and TSMC in 2023-24.

AnandTech says that Intel’s new fabs will include cutting-edge Extreme Ultra Violet (EUV) lithography technology. Meanwhile, Intel and IBM have announced plans to extend their research collaboration on creating next–generation logic and packaging technologies.

SiFive IP to be used by Intel Foundry business

As noted by several Reddit commenters, the SiFive announcement about Intel Foundry Services (IFS) using SiFive’s RISC-V IP was notably vague. Neither SiFive or Intel has said Intel is planning to license RISC-V IP from SiFive, only that Intel would be working with startup chip vendors using SiFive designs. Other commenters pointed out that Intel is already an investor in SiFive via Intel Capital.

A Yahoo Finance story notes that although Intel will primarily be working to help startups with x86 based designs — which is itself newsworthy — IFS will also be working on Arm- and RISC-V designs.

If the SiFive announcement is rather light on substance, it could signal future partnerships between SiFive and Intel. RISC-V will initially challenge Arm more than Intel, so bolstering RISC-V development now could be a sound strategic move. RISC-V is particularly appealing to startups creating custom AI chips with relatively small runs.

HiFive Unmatched

RISC-V continues to gain momentum. Last fall, SiFive unveiled a RISC-V based, 64-bit FU740 SoC for PCs and a superscalar AI core. The company then launched a Linux-driven HiFive Unmatched development board based on the penta-core FU740. SiFive recently announced that Amazon’s AWS IoT Greengrass V2 will support the HiFive Unmatched.

Earlier this month, the 28-member, 10-country European Processor Initiative (EPI) announced it has successfully booted Linux on its EPAC 1.0 core subset implemented on FPGA. The EPI announced its plan to build a RISC-V design in 2019.

In a mostly symbolic victory for RISC-V, MIPS Technologies has switched to RISC-V. Since we last checked in on Wave Computing, which began offering open source licenses on some of the MIPS IP it acquired from Imagination Technologies, the company collapsed into bankruptcy and emerged under the new name of MIPS Technologies. The company is now working on an 8th Generation of MIPS technology that switches to RISC-V.

Finally, in other news from Intel’s announcement, the chipmaker said it will launch an Intel ON event series starting with an October San Francisco. The event will “bring back the spirit” of the Intel Developer Forum, which was discontinued in 2017.

Further information

More information on Intel’s IDM 2.0, IFS, Meteor Lake, and more may be found here. More on IFS may be found in this IFS fact sheet (PDF).

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One response to “Intel to fab chips for startups, including RISC-V designs”

  1. darlingbot says:

    To compete with market they need go out paradigm “Our FAB only for Intel” to “Our FAB for everyone”. And this is not so easy. Now they lost market initiative, they are outsiders.

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