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Intel’s $1 billion investment in IFS focuses on RISC-V and open chiplets

Feb 7, 2022 — by Eric Brown 431 views

Intel announced a $1 billion fund to boost RISC-V, x86, and Arm IP development at Intel Foundry Services and revealed IFS collaborations with Andes, Esperanto, SiFive, and Ventana Micro using RISC-V and “open chiplet” technology. The chipmaker also joined RISC-V International.

Last March, Intel launched its Intel Foundry Services (IFS) to help fabricate chips for startups based on x86, Arm, and RISC-V architectures, including designs based on SiFive’s RISC-V IP. The company has now followed up by announcing a $1 billion fund associated with IFS to help third party chipmakers produce novel processor designs.

In addition to funding third-party chip development, Intel’s IFS will produce its own “RISC-V cores licensed as differentiated IP.” The chipmaker will make available to IFS partners “chiplet building blocks based on RISC-V, leveraging advanced packaging and high-speed chip-to-chip interfaces.” The company also plans to establish and open chiplet specification. (See farther below for more on open chiplet.)



Intel Chiplet detail view
(click image to enlarge)

The new IFS fund, which is managed by Intel Capital, will “prioritize investments in capabilities that accelerate foundry customers’ time to market — spanning intellectual property (IP), software tools, innovative chip architectures and advanced packaging technologies,” says Intel. The fund will include “equity investments in disruptive startups, as wells as strategic investments to accelerate partner scale-up.” There will also be “ecosystem investments to develop disruptive capabilities supporting IFS customers.”

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Intel has extended its IFS-linked partnership with SiFive and announced new partnerships with three more IP providers that focus on RISC-V: Andes Technology, Esperanto Technologies, and Ventana Micro Systems. The partnerships 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.

To emphasize the RISC-V focus of the new fund, Intel announced it has joined RISC-V International at the highest Premier membership level. Other Premier members include Huawei, ZTE, Western Digital, Andes, SiFive, Ventana Micro, Google, Alibaba Cloud, and StarFive, among others.

IFS will sponsor an “open-source software development platform that allows for freedom in experimentation, including partners across the ecosystem, universities and consortia,” says Intel. The RISC-V emphasis, as well as a testimonial quote from Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin, suggests the platform will be based largely on Linux.



SiFive Performance P600 series block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

SiFive, which last summer failed to come to terms with Intel in the latter’s attempt to acquire it or buy a big share of the RISC-V IP leader, announced that it will offer the recently announced, Cortex-A77 like P650 CPU IP to IFS customers. In conjunction with the Mar. 2021 announcement, SiFive revealed a collaboration with Intel using the SiFive Performance P550 processor to build a 7nm RISC-V development platform codenamed “Horse Creek.” The platform, which will be fully revealed in Q2 2022, is said to combine SiFive’s RISC-V CPU IP with Intel’s interface IP for technologies such as a PCIe and DDR.

The testimonial quotes from the three other new partners suggest they will be using Intel’s open chiplet technology. Andes Technology offers a variety of MCU-like and Linux-ready CPU IP based on RISC-V. The latter include Linux-ready 32-bit A45MP and 64-bit AX45MP designs that support up to 4x cores at up to 2.4GHz. Andes’ AndeStar V5 RISC-V CPU IP line, including the 25-series, 27-series, and 45-series, are now available for IFS customers with hardware evaluation kits and software solutions.

Esperanto Technologies has developed massively parallel, RISC-V based AI acceleration solutions that will eventually extend beyond the cloud to edge AI devices. “Esperanto plans to use Intel Foundry Services leading edge silicon and advanced packaging technologies with our next generation massively-parallel RISC-V based AI accelerators,” stated David Ditzel, founder and executive chairman at Esperanto. According to Intel, “Esperanto will be able to assemble many different configurations of chiplets, each with over a thousand RISC-V cores, using IFS’ portfolio of IP, packaging and end-to-end silicon manufacturing and supply chain leadership.”

Ventana Micro Systems is even more focused on the datacenter. The company claims to be the “RISC-V performance leader” with its chiplets based datacenter cores.

 
Open Chiplet Platform

Intel vowed to further open its modular Intel Chiplet technology for use in RISC-V and Arm designs, in addition to x86. The company used the chiplets heterogeneous SoC design approach along with a 3D stacking technique called Foveros for its now discontinued Lakefield SoC. Intel plans to use chiplets in its upcoming Meteor Lake CPUs.

Intel plans to partner with other industry leaders “to develop an open standard for a die-to-die interconnect that allows chiplets to communicate with each other at high speeds” based on technologies such as USB, PCI Express, and CXL. This open chiplet ecosystem “will enable interoperable chiplets from different foundries and process nodes to be packaged using a wide variety of technologies,” says Intel.

 
Intel aims to gain foothold in foundry business

Taken together, the Intel announcements represent a major boost to RISC-V while also expanding IFS to potentially compete with heavyweight foundries like TSMC, Samsung, and Global Foundries. Intel and other potential foundry startups have a golden opportunity due to the chip shortage and high demand. As noted by a Forbes story on the IFS announcements, advanced node capacity for 3nm and 5nm CPUs, is “essentially sold out” at TSMC and Samsung, which are tied up with orders from Apple, Nvidia, and Qualcomm. Intel notes that “IFS is the only foundry to offer IP optimized for all three of the industry’s leading ISAs: x86, Arm and RISC-V.”

The foundry business could also boost Intel’s competition with longtime rival AMD, which appears to have smooth sailing for its intended acquisition of FPGA chipmakers Xilinx. Intel, which has an FPGA business via its acquisition of Altera, has used RV32IA RISC-V IP on its NIOS V/m FPGA.

The acquisition of Arm by Nvidia, meanwhile, appears to have been shelved, which reduces the urgency among Arm licensees to shift to RISC-V. One way or the other, however, Arm and RISC-V continue to make headway against Intel, further motivating it to diversify and go cross platform. The company experimented with an Arm-based XScale PXA line of networking processors, but sold it to Marvell in 2006.


Intel CEO
Pat Gelsinger

“Foundry customers are rapidly embracing a modular design approach to differentiate their products and accelerate time to market,” stated Pat Gelsinger, Intel CEO. “Intel Foundry Services is well-positioned to lead this major industry inflection. With our new investment fund and open chiplet platform, we can help drive the ecosystem to develop disruptive technologies across the full spectrum of chip architectures.”

“I’m delighted that Intel, the company that pioneered the microprocessor 50 years ago, is now a member of RISC-V International,” stated David Patterson, emeritus professor at University of California, Berkeley, distinguished engineer at Google, and vice chair of the board for RISC-V International.

 
Further information
More information on Intel’s IFS expansion and related news may be found in this $1 billion fund announcement and RISC-V Ecosystem fact sheet (PDF). RISC-V International has its own press release on the Intel membership and the impact of the $1 billion fund on RISC-V.
 

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