This article is part of the TechXchange—RISC-V: The Instruction-Set Alternative.
Intel is boosting efforts to become a top contract chip maker with a new wave of ecosystem investments. The Santa Clara, California-based company launched a $1 billion fund to invest in companies and startups building technologies to speed up the chip development cycle for its foundry customers. Intel said the fund will invest in areas such as software tools, equipment, materials, architectures, IP, and advanced packaging.
Intel is also partnering with electronic design automation (EDA) firms such as Ansys, Cadence, Siemens, and Synopsys, and IP vendors such as Arm and SiFive to fine-tune their software and IP for Intel's process technology.
“Innovation thrives in open and collaborative environments,” said Randhir Thakur, head of Intel Foundry Services (IFS), which is working with Intel Capital, the company's venture arm, to allocate the funding. He said the fund "will marshal the full resources of Intel to drive innovation in the foundry ecosystem.”
Intel is trying to recover from years of disarray after it fell behind rivals in designing the most advanced chips and building them, shaking its dominance for the first time in years. CEO Pat Gelsinger is trying to revive Intel's fortunes and transform it into an even more sprawling behemoth that builds chips for other firms—and even rivals—based on their blueprints and using its leading-edge process technologies.
As part of his IDM 2.0 strategy, Intel is investing tens of billions of dollars to boost its production capacity, including at the new $20 billion manufacturing site in Ohio that it announced last month.
Part of the strategy is to support a wide range of IP tuned for Intel's process technologies. Intel touted its ability to support IP based on the industry’s leading instruction set architectures (ISA). Intel is opening its treasure trove of x86 CPUs and other IP cores to its foundry customers, and it will also support competing instruction sets Arm and RISC-V, even in processors that contain IP blocks based on all three architectures.
Intel also announced plans to build an "open chiplet platform" and open die-to-die interconnect standard to help its customers in the shift from a system-on-chip (SoC) to a system-in-package (SiP) design approach.
In addition, Intel said it will use the $1 billion fund to invest in companies and offerings that will strengthen the ecosystem around the open-source RISC-V architecture and encourage more of the industry to adopt it.
Intel will use the fund to help companies in the RISC-V market innovate faster, working with them to adapt IP for its process technologies and put them on the priority line in its chip fabs for prototyping runs. The company will also support them with design resources and build development boards and software tools. An ISA is the fundamental code used by software to communicate with the hardware underlying a CPU.
Intel is partnering with several key players in the RISC-V ecosystem, such as Andes Technology, Esperanto Technology, SiFive, and server CPU startup Ventana Micro Systems. The company will work with them to optimize and enhance their RISC-V CPU cores and chiplets for its process and packaging technologies.
Intel said partnering up will allow its foundry business to build chips with a wider range of RISC-V cores inside, from embedded to high performance, for data centers, autos, networking, 5G, and other markets.
A range of startups, corporations, and even governments are placing a bet on RISC-V as an alternative to Arm and the x86 architecture used by Intel and AMD. One of its advantages is that it's open source, giving any company the ability to adapt the CPU cores to their specific needs without the costs or restrictions of other instruction sets. Furthermore, it doesn't depend on companies such as Intel or Arm to drive research and development.
Open instruction sets are relatively new to the semiconductor landscape. Nonetheless, they are gaining ground fast, particularly in China, and companies are trying to convince foundries to support more RISC-V IP offerings.
The RISC-V architecture is further behind rivals in terms of having a rich open-source software ecosystem, which is as important to its growth as hardware. To address that, Intel said it is funding an open software-development platform that will give engineers across the ecosystem more freedom to experiment with it.
"As the leading open-source ISA, RISC-V is a great fit for our open ecosystem vision, which is why we are making investments and building partnerships that will empower the ecosystem," Thakur said in a blog post.
Intel is also joining RISC-V International, which oversees the design of the instruction set alternative and extensions.
Read more articles in the TechXchange—RISC-V: The Instruction-Set Alternative.