ARM Partners with Intel for 10nm Production

Subject: Editorial
Manufacturer: ARM

A Watershed Moment in Mobile

This previous May I was invited to Austin to be briefed on the latest core innovations from ARM and their partners.  We were introduced to new CPU and GPU cores, as well as the surrounding technologies that provide the basis of a modern SOC in the ARM family.  We also were treated to more information about the process technologies that ARM would embrace with their Artisan and POP programs.  ARM is certainly far more aggressive now in their designs and partnerships than they have been in the past, or at least they are more willing to openly talk about them to the press.

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The big process news that ARM was able to share at this time was the design of 10nm parts using an upcoming TSMC process node.  This was fairly big news as TSMC was still introducing parts on their latest 16nm FF+ line.  NVIDIA had not even released their first 16FF+ parts to the world in early May.  Apple had dual sourced their 14/16 nm parts from Samsung and TSMC respectively, but these were based on LPE and FF lines (early nodes not yet optimized to LPP/FF+).  So the news that TSMC would have a working 10nm process in 2017 was important to many people.  2016 might be a year with some good performance and efficiency jumps, but it seems that 2017 would provide another big leap forward after years of seeming stagnation of pure play foundry technology at 28nm.

Yesterday we received a new announcement from ARM that shows an amazing shift in thought and industry inertia.  ARM is partnering with Intel to introduce select products on Intel’s upcoming 10nm foundry process.  This news is both surprising and expected.  It is surprising in that it happened as quickly as it did.  It is expected as Intel is facing a very different world than it had planned for 10 years ago.  We could argue that it is much different than they planned for 5 years ago.

Intel is the undisputed leader in process technologies and foundry practices.  They are the gold standard of developing new, cutting edge process nodes and implementing them on a vast scale.  This has served them well through the years as they could provide product to their customers seemingly on demand.  It also allowed them a leg up in technology when their designs may not have fit what the industry wanted or needed (Pentium 4, etc.).  It also allowed them to potentially compete in the mobile market with designs that were not entirely suited for ultra-low power.  x86 is a modern processor technology with decades of development behind it, but that development focused mainly on performance at higher TDP ranges.

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This past year Intel signaled their intent to move out of the sub 5 watt market and cede it to ARM and their partners.  Intel’s ultra mobile offerings just did not make an impact in an area that they were expected to.  For all of Intel’s advances in process technology, the base ARM architecture is just better suited to these power envelopes.  Instead of throwing good money after bad (in the form of development time, wafer starts, rebates) Intel has stepped away from this market.

This leaves Intel with a problem.  What to do with extra production capacity?  Running a fab is a very expensive endeavor.  If these megafabs are not producing chips 24/7, then the company is losing money.  This past year Intel has seen their fair share of layoffs and slowing down production/conversion of fabs.  The money spent on developing new, cutting edge process technologies cannot stop for the company if they want to keep their dominant position in the CPU industry.  Some years back they opened up their process products to select 3rd party companies to help fill in the gaps of production.  Right now Intel has far more production line space than they need for the current market demands.  Yes, there were delays in their latest Skylake based processors, but those were solved and Intel is full steam ahead.  Unfortunately, they do not seem to be keeping their fabs utilized at the level needed or desired.  The only real option seems to be opening up some fab space to more potential customers in a market that they are no longer competing directly in.

The Intel Custom Foundry Group is working with ARM to provide access to their 10nm HPM process node.  Initial production of these latest generation designs will commence in Q1 2017 with full scale production in Q4 2017.  We do not have exact information as to what cores will be used, but we can imagine that they will be Cortex-A73 and A53 parts in big.LITTLE designs.  Mali graphics will probably be the first to be offered on this advanced node as well due to the Artisan/POP program.  Initial customers have not been disclosed and we likely will not hear about them until early 2017.

This is a big step for Intel.  It is also a logical progression for them when we look over the changing market conditions of the past few years.  They were unable to adequately compete in the handheld/mobile market with their x86 designs, but they still wanted to profit off of this ever expanding area.  The logical way to monetize this market is to make the chips for those that are successfully competing here.  This will cut into Intel’s margins, but it should increase their overall revenue base if they are successful here.  There is no reason to believe that they won’t be.

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The last question we have is if the 10nm HPM node will be identical to what Intel will use for their next generation “Cannonlake” products.  My best guess is that the foundry process will be slightly different and will not provide some of the “secret sauce” that Intel will keep for themselves.  It will probably be a mobile focused process node that stresses efficiency rather than transistor switching speed.  I could be very wrong here, but I don’t believe that Intel will open up their process to everyone that comes to them hat in hand (AMD).

The partnership between ARM and Intel is a very interesting one that will benefit customers around the globe if it is handled correctly from both sides.  Intel has a “not invented here” culture that has both benefited it and caused it much grief.  Perhaps some flexibility on the foundry side will reap benefits of its own when dealing with very different designs than Intel is used to.  This is a titanic move from where Intel probably thought it would be when it first started to pursue the ultra-mobile market, but it is a move that shows the giant can still positively react to industry trends.

August 17, 2016 | 12:11 PM - Posted by Chaitanya Shukla

Complete role reversal for Intel opening fab for clients.

August 17, 2016 | 12:16 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Seeing how the price of operating a fab is logarithmically increasing year to year, it isn't terribly surprising.  Gotta keep those lines filled with product.

August 17, 2016 | 03:00 PM - Posted by John H (not verified)

And better to get a small portion of the ARM $ pie than none at all..

August 17, 2016 | 04:47 PM - Posted by Jann5s

sorry for the nitpicking, but "logarithmically increasing" is a really strange expression. I believe you were looking for "exponentially increasing"

To me the former means that the cost increase is getting smaller over time.

August 17, 2016 | 08:57 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Yes, I was confused.  I keep remembering Data on ST:TNG asking to display something on a logarithmic scale... sad, I know.

August 17, 2016 | 08:33 PM - Posted by fkr

A function whose value increases more slowly to infinity than any nonconstant polynomial is said to be a logarithmically increasing function

August 17, 2016 | 02:30 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Those Intel fabs bleed red ink if they are not kept operating at as close to 100% capacity as possible. ever guess why IBM got out of that cash pit of owning your own fab business. It's much better to amortize that fab process R&D across the entire industry like GF/Samsung/Other fab businesses do for their clients, so all the fab clients share in the R&D, and physical plant costs of the entire fab industry, and even the small players get get access to the latest chip fabrication technologies.

Intel will go broke fast if it does not keep its uber expensive fabs going at full capacity, chips fabs are multi-billion dollar money pits if they are not earning their Keep, even for Intel’s fat wallet!

August 17, 2016 | 02:42 PM - Posted by Mobile_Dom

As wel said the other day on Twitter, Intel is barely utilising what it has, and even I had not thought of this.

It's great to see, and I cant wait to see what the fruits of this partnership are.

August 17, 2016 | 06:49 PM - Posted by William Henrickson (not verified)

It seems to me, that Windows Continuum was a match made in heaven for low power x86 chips being put into a large phone with a decent sized battery, and it was only a generation or two away. I seriously hope they still sell these chips, and someone will implement that into a device.

Imagine an x86 Atom in a 5-6 inch phone with comparable power usage to an ARM, but able to use any Windows software and able to connect to a WiDi or USB type C screen! <333

August 17, 2016 | 08:43 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

No Intel is out of the smart phone SOC business, x86 gets 86ed by most phone OEMs. Phone makers do not want that Intel ring through the nose treatment from Intel the SOC maker. Atom Bombed as a smart phone chip, and Intel's in house graphics is some really rotten dog food on those Atoms!

Better for Intel to get into the third party Chip Fab Business, because that's the only piece of the smart phone action Intel will be able to get! So an Intel fab business can keep those multi-billion dollar foundries from bleeding red ink!

Zen is coming to consumers and the HPC/server/workstation markets and Intel will have to lower its prices, and AMD has its custom K12 ARMv8A ISA running custom design for the low power using devices market, and even the ARM server market for K12.

I’m looking froward to some Intel/Nvidia/Windows 10 free, Zen/Polaris Linux OS based laptops from the Linux OS OEMs so I can get all the Monopoly out of my new laptop purchase. Give me Zen/Polaris/Linux/Vulkan, and NO windows 10 snoopware/blabware OS ever, for my Tux OS based Zen/Polaris laptop computing/gaming needs.

August 17, 2016 | 07:30 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

To late for Intel. Samsung rules RAM and Flash market and will rule CPU market in no time.

August 18, 2016 | 02:15 AM - Posted by BlackDove (not verified)

Lol what?

August 20, 2016 | 09:03 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

??Uh... not sure you understand what you are talking about.

August 17, 2016 | 11:56 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Really Intel does not have that much extra fab capacity to rival Samsung's, GF's, and TSMC's/Others' total wafer capascity! So AMD will never have to go Hat in Hand to Intel to get at any of Intel's 14nm and smaller process nodes. Intel needs to find just enough third party fab busines to keep Intel's fabs from eating too much of Intel's cash pile. Intel's 14nm process is just not that much better for that kind of business to be taken away from the other Fabs, and Intel's fab services will probably be a little higher than most of the other fabs.

Those Refrence ARM holdings A73/others SKUs are not going to beat any of the third party ARM holdings licensees' custom ARM designs for the server market, the ARM Holdings A73/Others refrence design cores will be used on low power phones and paired with ARM Holdings new Mali/Bifrost(Hopefully) GPU IP.

August 18, 2016 | 12:10 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Certainly they don't have the spare capacity to match TSMC and GF, but they do have extra capacity.  Many will likely apply, but Intel has the luxury of picking and choosing who they will partner with to take up that extra capacity.

August 19, 2016 | 01:01 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, and other fabs are going to get plenty of business with their own 14nm, 10nm, and 7nm chip processes, but the idea for Intel is to not have any idle fab capacity that causes Intel to loose more billions to keep its chip fabs open to produce for Intel also.

I’ll be looking for an AMD’s Zen based APUs sans the Intel dog food graphics and some Linux OEM laptop options without Intel/Nvidia or M$ products inside. So for Intel what goes around comes around, ditto for M$ and Nvidia. I do not care as much about the Zen cores outperforming Intel’s latest CPU cores and that AMD graphics will make all the difference in the world for my graphics needs.

It’s all about price/performance and enough shader cores to work with large high polygon 3d mesh models in edit mode and still have the interface responsive enough so I can use the 3d editor. Intel’s dog food graphics may be good enough for some level of games play, but Intel’s graphics have always bogged down when using Blender’s 3d editing mode on large polygon count mesh models. Intel’s dog food graphics shoved onto the laptop market over the years by Intel’s nefarious practices are enough for me to avoid any further purchases of any Intel based laptop SOCs.

I’ll go with AMD and Zen/Polaris or Zen and discrete mobile Polaris GPU and enough APU, or discrete mobile Polaris GPU, graphics shader core counts to do fine with some high polygon count very detailed mesh modeling, ditto for my not using Nvidia with its focus on gaming only graphics at the cost of more compute for Ray Tracing acceleration on the GPU for some good all around GPU functionality and not only gaming graphics at the cost of all else on Nvidia’s consumer GPU SKUs. Avoiding M$, well windows 10/10’s EULA is enough to keep me away from that pile of crap OS/Adware/Spyware ecosystem and move on to Linux for the only option for a truly open OS ecosystem that allows the end user full control over their own PC/Laptop hardware.

It looks like Intel is going to have even more excess fab capacity for Intel to farm out for third party fab work, as the latest Zen news appears promising for some Zen cores that have at least Haswell/Boadwell levels of IPCs and when the Zen/Polaris APUs for the laptop market are available from the Linux OS based laptop OEMs then I’ll have my new laptop, Windows 10 is a big No Sale. I have got a rather large wad of cash saved up from having to avoid my yearly laptop purchases going on 3 years dew to windows 8/8.1 and windows 10 making me keep that wallet closed and piggy is full of $20s waiting for the Zen/Polaris APUs to get some design wins among the Linux OS based laptop OEM’s! I’m so sick of seeing only Intel/Nvidia and the overpricing in the Linux OS OEM laptop market.

August 18, 2016 | 10:51 AM - Posted by Roshan Kalyan (not verified)

Hmmmm I wonder if this only happened because of Softbank?

August 18, 2016 | 12:11 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Good question.  But I doubt it?  Does Intel have a positive relationship with Softbank and in what capacity?

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