Intel Launches Foundry Biz with $20B Fab Spend, Teams Up with IBM

By Tiffany Trader

March 24, 2021

Pat Gelsinger may have left Intel 11 years ago to secure his first CEO post elsewhere, but he returned in February to claim the company’s CEO spot — and he’s got a bold plan for the future. Gelsinger, who rejoined the company five weeks ago after eight years leading VMware, laid out his plan Tuesday in a webcast titled “Intel Unleashed – Engineering the Future.” The announcement had three thrusts: getting 7nm back on track with EUV technology, launching Intel Foundry Services with a $20 billion investment in two new fabs, and a new research collaboration with IBM. The company also announced it is reviving the spirit of the Intel Developer Forum event with the launch of Intel On, planned for October in San Francisco.

Out of the gate, Gelsinger said that the company’s 7nm process issue had been resolved, thanks in large part to Intel’s full embrace of EUV, where the company was previously on the “wrong side of the EUV maturity curve.” 

“We’ve rearchitected and simplified our 7nm process flow, increasing our use of EUV by more than 100 percent,” said Gelsinger. “We have a very strong partnership with ASML and our plans to now stay on the leading edge of EUV usage are well underway.”

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger holds up “Ponte Vecchio” GPU at March 23, 2021, virtual event.

While timeline details were thin for 7nm datacenter CPU and GPU parts, Gelsinger said “confidence in 7nm health and competitiveness is accelerating; leveraging our 7nm process, we are advancing the development of lean datacenter and client CPUs, starting with Meteor Lake, our high volume 2023 client product.” Intel said it expects to tape out the 7nm Meteor Lake in the second quarter of this year.

On the GPU side, Gelsinger showed off Intel’s exascale-focused Ponte Vecchio datacenter GPU, but did not say when it would be ready for primetime. Ponte Vecchio will presumably take advantage of Intel 7nm EUV technology, but Intel has still not publicly confirmed the process node of the GPU die (Xe-HPC) or who will be making it. Despite Intel’s having the chip “in-hand,” the status and timing of the Aurora supercomputer engine (and thus the Aurora supercomputer) is still uncertain. Previously slated to arrive at Argonne National Lab in 2021, Aurora’s ETA is now TBA. Fortunately, Argonne has received samples of the smaller Xe-HP GPU to help with exascale application development.

Holding up the recently minted Ponte Vecchio chip, Gelsinger reported that it uses more than 40 different tiles — 47 “XPU” tiles to be exact — integrated into a single package. “This package is a diverse combination of more than 100 billion transistors,” said Gelsinger, “manufactured in multiple process technologies and packaged using both Foveros and EMIB.”

(Intel released a brief video on Ponte Vecchio. Watch it here.)

In a Q&A session at the end of the “Intel Unleashed” event, Gelsinger acknowledged the company’s setbacks with process technology, but said that when it comes to 3D packaging technology, Intel has “perfect, unquestioned leadership.”

Intel plans to officially launch its 10nm third-generation Xeon Scalable “Ice Lake” chips in two weeks, and says customers are currently testing the next-gen 10nm “Sapphire Rapids” CPUs. Gelsinger indicated Sapphire Rapids will be in production by the end of the year, ramping in the first half of 2022. Intel’s first 7nm server CPU, codenamed “Grand Rapids,” is on the roadmap for 2023.

Intel’s vision for IDM 2.0

Gelsinger revealed the company’s IDM 2.0 strategy as an ambitious plan that will restore its leadership manufacturing performance. Described as a major evolution of the chip company’s integrated device manufacturing (IDM) model, IDM 2.0 represents the combination of three factors: 1) Intel’s internal factory network; 2) the expansion of Intel’s use of third-party foundry capacity across its portfolio and 3) the launch of Intel Foundry Services. 

Intel is betting that this tri-part strategy will deliver, in Gelsinger’s words, “leadership products, leadership costs and leadership supply.”

“That is the right strategy for Intel,” said the CEO, and one the company is making, it says, without as-yet-committed government support, although it hopes to see government investment from, e.g., the U.S. CHIPS Act, and said it is currently competing for a U.S. Department of Defense secure foundry contract.

With a vision to become a major provider of U.S.– and Europe-based foundry capacity, Intel has established a standalone foundry business (Intel Foundry Services) led by Dr. Randhir Thakur, who reports directly to Gelsinger.

“We will be differentiated from other foundry offerings with a combination of leading edge packaging and process technology, committed capacity in the U.S. and Europe — available for customers globally — and a world class IP portfolio that customers can choose from, including x86 cores, graphics, media, display, AI, interconnect, fabric and other critical foundational IP along with Arm and RISC-V ecosystem IPs,” said Gelsinger.

He added that the business unit will be completely dedicated to the success of its customers with full P&L responsibilities.

“We conservatively size the foundry opportunity as a $100 billion addressable market by 2025 with most of the growth coming from leading edge computing, which is our expertise. The majority of leading edge foundry capacity is concentrated in Asia, while the industry needs more geographically balanced manufacturing capacity,” said Gelsinger.

Intel said it will make the outlay expenditures necessary to be a world-class foundry with investments in industry-standard PDK models and simplified design rules. “We are building on our EDA partnerships with both Cadence and Synopsys to enable their design tools for our Intel foundry services,” said Gelsinger, adding the company will also make investments in its own competitive foundational IP offerings, leveraging standard interfaces as well as third party IP availability.

Intel is also expanding the relationships it has with TSMC, Samsung, UMC and Global Foundries and leveraging the foundry network, Gelsinger reported. “This will provide us with increased flexibility and scale we need to optimize our roadmaps for cost, performance, schedule and supply, giving us a unique competitive advantage,” the CEO said.

However, the CEO affirmed that Intel will continue to build the majority of its products in Intel fabs.

$20 billion for Two new Ocotillo fabs

To accelerate its IDM 2.0 strategy, Intel is spending $20 billion to build two new fabs at its Ocotillo campus in Chandler, Arizona. These fabs will support Intel’s needs, as well as provide committed capacity for foundry customers. 

Planning and construction will commence this year and the project is on-track to create more than 3,000 permanent high-tech, high-wage jobs, over 3,000 construction jobs and 15,000 long term jobs in Arizona, according to Intel.

Referencing very strong global demand for semiconductors, fueled by worldwide component shortages, Intel says it in a unique position to leverage this market opportunity. The company plans to announce additional factory locations in the U.S. and Europe within the next year.

Intel + IBM

In a move perhaps more surprising than Intel getting back into foundry business it had tried out and exited several years ago, Intel has announced a research partnership with long-time rival IBM, focused on creating next-generation logic and packaging technologies.

“For more than 50 years, the two companies have shared a deep commitment to scientific research, world-class engineering and a focus on bringing advanced semiconductor technologies to market,” Intel said in a statement. “These foundational technologies will help unleash the potential of data and advanced computation to create immense economic value focused on advanced silicon process and packaging technology.”

“By bringing together two of the best semiconductor research organizations in the world, we will greatly accelerate innovations in the semiconductor industry,” said IBM CEO Arvind Krisha, speaking at Intel Unleashed. “Let me also express our support for Intel’s decision to expand and bring a new foundry business that will bolster the United States competitiveness in semiconductors.”

Final takeaways

Gelsinger said on yesterday’s webcast that the theme of his young tenure as CEO of Intel is “execute, execute, execute.” The light irony of that statement aside, that is the core question. Can Intel execute? Can they build two fabs in two years? Can they streamline and modernize and not be distracted? Can they deliver promised and future parts?

The real milestone will be fab construction, realistic use of third party fabs and delivering parts on time. That’s a lot, but Intel has staged — and executed — comebacks before: when it switched focus from memory to microprocessors under the leadership of Andy Grove in the late 70s/early 80s, and when it took back the market share lost to AMD Opterons about a decade ago.

Gelsinger, a 30-year alum of Intel before leaving in 2009 to pursue a CEO path via EMC/VMware, was mentored under Grove.

“We’re bringing back the execution discipline of Intel,” Gelsinger said on yesterday’s webcast. “I call it the Grovian culture — that we do what we say we’re going to do, that we have that confidence in our execution, that our teams are fired up; we said we’re going to do X, we’re going to do 1.1X every time that we make a commitment.”

Jack Gold, principal analyst of J.Gold Associates, LLC., shared that Gelsinger is “known for being a ‘take action’ executive that doesn’t rest on past laurels.”

“Intel was for many years 2-3 years ahead of everyone else in the industry when it came to chip processing,” writes Gold in an analyst report he provided to HPCwire. “But about 3-4 years ago it began to stumble badly and now its biggest processing rivals, TSMC and Samsung, both of which supply chips to key “fabless” semiconductor companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia, and many others, are 2-3 years ahead of Intel. Gelsinger has stated publicly that Intel wants to regain the lead, but has not stated how soon that might happen. In our opinion, this could take 2-3 years at least to achieve, and of course the competition is not sitting still, so it will take a massive effort to accomplish. Intel does have enormous resources it can bring to bear on this task, so it’s certainly possible to achieve, but it won’t be easy.”

For the moment, despite Intel’s rocky track record of late with canceled and delayed products, the company is also facing a convergence of potentially favorable conditions: a new tech-focused CEO in Gelsinger, their not-to-be-underestimated IP (and in particular their packaging technology), the international rivalry that is catalyzing U.S. and EU investment, the partnerships the company is building and robust demand fueled by ongoing industry-wide component shortages. At the very least, Intel has done something big to shake up its image, appease investors and generate conversation.

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