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Intel's SoC initiative slowly making progress

Posted: 13 Jul 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:SoC  ARM cores  PC processors  ASIC 

Intel has 14 SoCs now in development that will use its 32nm low power process (called P1269) now being tested. The 45nm SoC process (P1266.8) has a subset of its features, and it is being used for products in pilot production now, including integrated mobile and TV processors called Lincroft and Sodaville, respectively.

Singer said the 32nm SoCs will use a common framework. It includes the new process technology, a "fabric" of Intel-defined on-chip interconnects, a new EDA flow with an SoC test methodology and a shared library of silicon blocks.

Intel's Taiwan deal
Perhaps the least public and most intriguing part of Intel's SoC initiative involves the deal it announced with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. in March. The two companies said they are porting to a standard TSMC process Intel's low power Atom chip—the x86 core that will be at the heart of all its future SoCs.

The objective is to let companies design their own ASICs using the Atom core and TSMC's process technology, EDA tool flow and library of silicon blocks. But the rules of the road for such engagements, exactly what process they are targeting or the current status of the Atom port are all unclear.

Bohr said he believed the Atom port would be available in a TSMC 40-45nm process.

An Intel spokeswoman sketched out the business dynamics:

"The customer relationship belongs to Intel," she said. "If a customer decides on the Atom core they then will work with Intel to meet their requirements. If they want to use TSMC because of previous relationships or capabilities then Intel will work with the customer to make that happen. The financial terms are confidential."

TSMC declined to elaborate on the deal. "We are pretty much muzzled," a TSMC spokeswoman said.

Interestingly, neither Bohr nor Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner could respond to analyst Tom Halfhill, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report, when he asked whether the deal means Intel is licensing Atom.

"They didn't really know the answer. They were confused and I was confused," said Halfhill.

Despite the murky details, the objective seems clear, said Linley Gwennap, principal of market watcher The Linley Group. Intel wants to win away from IBM and others the lucrative and secretive business of making custom processors for next-generation videogame consoles and set-top boxes and other systems, he said.

Today, IBM makes ASICs for all three top consoles—the Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and Sony Playstation. Set-top box giants such as Cisco System's Scientific Atlanta group create proprietary processors using cores such as the Sun Microsystems Sparc along with SA's own silicon blocks.

"There are really only a few companies in the world that want to do this" kind of ASIC design, said Gwennap. "If Intel wants to get into next-generation Xbox, they have to have an offering like this," he added.

Indeed, one unconfirmed report has already emerged about Sony using for its next-gen Playstation a version of Intel's upcoming Larrabee graphics processor. The chip uses an array of x86 cores in a manner roughly similar to the multi-core IBM Cell, a proprietary variant of which is in today's Playstation.

The TSMC deal also marks Intel's first step towards building an ecosystem of partners around Atom-based SoCs. In this area, the PC giant is years behind archrival ARM which has a long list of well established licencees using its cores, especially for cell phone handsets, the big kahuna of new markets for Intel.

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