Intel has announced a billion-dollar development fund to support its nascent foundry ecosystem. IFS (Intel Foundry Services) wants to partner with a range of other firms to develop platform building blocks and software development tools. Its putting a particular emphasis on RISC-V and is already working with Andes Technology, Esperanto Technologies, SiFive and Ventana Micro Systems. All of these companies build or design RISC-V CPUs.
There’s been a lot of interest in RISC-V over the last few years, including a noted uptick when Nvidia announced its intent to purchase ARM. Unlike x86 and ARM, RISC-V is an open source ISA without licensing fees. The ISA is flexible and companies can tailor their cores to implement only the instructions they wish to support.
Today, RISC-V CPUs are currently focused in low-power and embedded markets. x86 competes less with these segments. The RISC-V ecosystem is also much younger than the ARM or x86 ecosystems. This means there’s more need for the tools IFS wants to prioritize.
The folks at Intel Foundry Services have the difficult task of establishing themselves as a customer-centric brand while carrying the name of a company more known for aggressive competition than for enabling its competitors. ARM and x86 are headed for direct competition, but RISC-V and x86 are not — at least, not in the next few years. Leading with RISC-V lets Intel spend more time talking about the promise and potential of the ecosystem and less time fielding questions about the awkwardness of manufacturing chips for a potential competitor. Investing in the RISC-V ecosystem also helps Intel subtly position itself as distinct from Nvidia/ARM/TSMC.
Finally, focusing on RISC-V moves the focus off of Intel’s x86 foundry ecosystem enablement. One of Intel’s goals with this initiative is to fund RISC-V software toolchain development in partnership with other companies. If this were an x86-centric project, customers would be asking why Intel wasn’t providing those tools already.
Open Chiplet Platform
Intel’s other announcement deals with chiplets. According to Intel, it is working with cloud service providers to create a common open chiplet platform “co-developed with CSPs (Cloud Service Providers) to accelerate the platform and package integration of customers’ accelerator IP.”
Intel states that it will leverage its own advanced packaging and lithography technologies but does not give details beyond that. The company wants to work with partners to develop a die-to-die interconnect standard for high-speed, cross-chiplet communication.
Investing in RISC-V development has a lot of potential upsides for IFS. Proactively supporting an up-and-coming ISA allows the business group to paint itself as responsive to customer interests and needs. Advertising its support for non-x86 architectures also helps IFS differentiate itself a little from “regular” Intel.
Intel seems to be more serious about launching a foundry business today than it was in the mid-2010s. It will take a few years before we can determine whether these initiatives will bear effective fruit and there may be problems along the way. GlobalFoundries was the last company to shift from dedicated manufacturer to pure-play foundry, and the company’s transition was rocky.