Intel licenses x86 processor cores for use in custom processors • The Register

To analyse Intel is making it easier for customers to build silicon where x86, Arm, and RISC-V cores will work together in a single processor.

For this, Intel licenses its most important asset, the x86 architecture, to those who wish to manufacture custom silicon. Depending on the application, customers will be able to mix x86, Arm, and RISC-V processor cores along with hardware acceleration units in a custom-designed chip made by Intel.

“We have what we call a multi-ISA strategy. This is the first time in Intel’s history that we’ve licensed x86 soft cores and x86 hard cores to customers who want to develop chips,” said said Bob Brennan, vice president of customer solutions engineering at Intel’s Foundry. Services, says The register.

A soft core being a processor core that can be implemented in programmable logic, such as an FPGA, or in a specific application chip that you design, while a hard core is a black box design placed in a chip personalized. Simply put, a soft core is useful for prototyping and special circumstances, and a hard core is more useful when you want to make a production-grade part.

This is the first time in Intel’s history that we will license x86 soft cores and hard cores to customers who want to develop chips.

The licensing of x86 cores is part of a larger strategy to help customers create computer chips so Intel can keep its assembly lines busy. Intel recently committed $20 billion to open factories near Columbus, Ohio by 2025, and is expanding fab capabilities in the United States and Ireland.

Details were not available on which Intel x86 cores would be licensed and how, and what level of customization would be available to customers. Arm licenses plans for processors, GPUs, and accelerator cores to chip designers, and also has architectural licenses with large customers, such as Apple, that allow them to design their own cores compatible with Arm. The latter is how Apple has designed its own M1 Arm compatible silicon for the latest generation Macs as well as systems-on-chips for its iPhones and iPads.

Intel is taking a Lego-like approach to chip manufacturing where customers will be able to create custom processors by mixing and matching Arm and RISC-V cores with licensed x86 cores as warranted by the application. Cores based on different architectures will be interconnected and work in tandem to run software and system programs. It looks like the cores will be grouped into chiplets: these are small electrically connected dies arranged in a processor case. The x86 cores could go to one chiplet, Arm to another, and RISC-V to another, for example.

In the chip chassis, we anticipate there will be demand for Arm and RISC-V, depending on the customer, and will support both

Brennan provided an example: Customers will be able to build a chip with licensed Xeon cores and pair them with an AI accelerator based on the RISC-V or Arm IP specification. Intel has also created what it calls a chip frame, in which arrays of x86, Arm, and RISC-V cores can be assembled and packaged to form a cohesive chip.

“In the chip chassis, we expect there will be demand for both Arm and RISC-V, depending on which customer it is, and will support both,” Brennan said, adding, ” We haven’t fully developed our strategy, but the concept is similar in that we want to activate the IP ecosystem around our products.”

In other words, Intel’s licensing for x86 may not be quite like the way Arm and others license their CPU core designs, in which Arm provides the blueprints to a customer, who organizes the designs according to his needs and then sends them to someone else to manufacture. Instead, it looks like Intel is allowing chip architects to pick and choose whatever cores they want, x86 or otherwise, so as to create their own highly customized x86 compatible components, using manufacturing facilities and knowledge. -make Intel.

This way, we might see the rise of Xeon-powered processors that have features not typically found in Intel’s official Xeon product families.

Intel hopes that x86 licensing and its coexistence with Arm and RISC-V will spur innovation in chip design and create a preference for its wafers and packaging technology, which will keep its factories busy.

“Broadly speaking, it’s about growing our wafer and packaging business as IFS [Intel Foundry Services] tries to be a great foundry for the world. And it shows how committed Intel is to growing its foundry business with all these different ISAs moving forward,” Brennan said.

Brennan didn’t say whether those chip frame designs would be transferable to factories owned by rivals like TSMC. Intel has packaging technology unique to its factories, including Foveros, which enables stacking of compute tiles and EMIB (Embedded Multi-die Interconnect Bridge), which enables high-speed communication between multiple dies in a single package .

The road ahead

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger is pursuing a manufacturing future, and x86 licensing could be a critical part of that transformation. Intel has generally limited its factories to its own x86 processors and has invested billions in opening new factories. Basically, Intel seems to want to give a real try to its foundry service, in which chip designers pay Intel to make components for them, much like TSMC and Samsung are paid to make parts for companies around the world. Qualcomm, which designs systems on a chip containing licensed designs from Arm, will use Intel’s factories.

These developments also come as Arm and RISC-V dent, to some extent, Intel’s decades-long x86 dominance of PCs and servers. Keeping x86 mostly secret hasn’t helped Intel: Apple is moving its personal computers to Arm. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also looking at Arm-based chips for home and server systems.

Last week, Intel established a $1 billion fund to advance chip design and development for advanced nodes and manufacturing technologies. One of the goals is to overcome the design challenges of chips where x86, Arm and RISC-V coexist.

Intel has also expanded its intellectual property alliance with Arm so that the latter’s chip designs are optimized for the former’s manufacturing techniques. Intel also became a premium member of RISC-V International, which manages the development and direction of the open-source, royalty-free instruction set architecture.

Multi-ISA chips are for production on Intel 16, which was previously called 22FFL, and is roughly equivalent to other 16nm foundry offerings. It also targets Intel 3 process node technology, which will start production next year, and Intel 18A processes, which are slated for 2025.

Intel 3 is an upgraded version of the current Intel 4, which produces 7nm chips and is the first to use EUV lithography. In 18A, Intel will use a new transistor technology called RibbonFET along with a new rear power supply scheme called PowerVia, which the company previously detailed.

The chip chassis follows the advanced open-standard microcontroller bus architecture, which will facilitate communication between the different cores of the chip. AMBA is popular in the Arm ecosystem.

“We’ve gotten the Arm or RISC-V cores to work and we’ve also made those connect seamlessly and cleanly to the Xeon through something called CXL. Those buses are an open standard,” said added Brennan. .

CXL stands for Compute Express Link Interconnect, which allows processors and interconnects to communicate.

Admittedly, x86 licensing is not entirely unprecedented. Intel has cross-licensed x86 with AMD, and the rival has developed custom chips for game consoles. In 2016, AMD also licensed its x86 technology to a joint venture between AMD and a consortium of state-owned and private Chinese companies. . In 2019, the US Department of Commerce banned technology exchange after placing AMD partners in China on an entity list.

RISC-V is also emerging as a viable chip architecture amid semiconductor shortages and trade wars. China and Europe are developing sovereign RISC-V chips in an effort to have cheaper alternatives to x86 and Arm. Nvidia recently backed out of buying Arm for $40 billion following strong opposition from competition regulators.

Intel will also help build an open-source software ecosystem for RISC-V, Brennan said.

“We don’t plan to get paid on our software for RISC-V. We’re just trying to make it better for the world, indirectly to make silicon. That’s why it might be easier for us to be an open player partner,” concluded Brennan. ®

Margie D. Carlisle