How Intel will open up x86 to third parties

Posted on Thursday, Mar 25 2021 @ 11:06 CET by Thomas De Maesschalck
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Earlier this week, new Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger presented his vision on how he plans to return Intel to its former glory. Any notion of Intel abandoning its fabs was swept from the table, instead, the chip giant is doubling down on extra manufacturing capacity. Intel will use a more flexible manufacturing strategy than in the past. On one hand, the firm will use third-party foundries like TSMC and Samsung to manufacture entire chips or tiles for chips, in cases where it makes sense, and on the other hand, Intel will open up some of its manufacturing capacity to others.

In the past, Intel already had a foundry division but the company failed to attract enough clients. Various restrictions as well as the failed rollout of the 10nm node resulted in the end of the foundry unit -- but now Gelsinger is reviving the idea with the hopes of making Intel a leading semiconductor foundry.

How Intel will license x86

One of the interesting things is that Intel's x86 architecture will become less of a walled garden. AnandTech has decent coverage about this over here. Not only will Intel use external foundries like TSMC to manufacture x86 cores -- the chip giant will also make it possible for clients to use x86 core IP via the new Intel Foundry Services.

The exact details are still a bit muddy -- but Gelsinger promises Intel Foundry Services will be a lot more open than the "walled garden" foundry services that were offered almost seven years ago, under the leadership of then CEO Brian Krzanich. Gelsinger called the previous foundry effort "weak" -- but time will learn us whether this time will really be different. Things could get really exciting if Intel adopted an ARM-like model.
Intel will enable a fully vertical model with its IP portfolio, allowing customers to choose from x86 cores, graphics, media, display, AI, interconnect, fabric, packaging, and other critical foundational IP from other sources (such as Arm, RISC-V). The exact way in which customers will be able to license the IP will be announced in due course, but if Intel were to follow the Arm model, then Intel customers will get access to Intel’s 86 core designs.

Intel foundry push primarily bad news for Samsung

While TSMC took a hit on the stock market after Gelsinger's announcement, analysts believe there's more at stake for Samsung. Citing a paywalled article from DigiTimes, Seeking Alpha reports TSMC has already signed new supply deals with Intel. It's believed TSMC will remain the Intel's biggest foundry partner. TSMC is the dominant force in the bleeding-edge semiconductor foundry market, with Samsung taking a distant second place.

The report predicts there's more at stake for Samsung, as Samsung was already pushing its own capital expenditure in an effort to become more competitive with TSMC. Intel plans $19-20 billion in capex this year, while TSMC plans $25-28 billion in capex.

About the Author

Thomas De Maesschalck

Thomas has been messing with computer since early childhood and firmly believes the Internet is the best thing since sliced bread. Enjoys playing with new tech, is fascinated by science, and passionate about financial markets. When not behind a computer, he can be found with running shoes on or lifting heavy weights in the weight room.

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