Intel to make a custom SiFive-based RISC-V CPU, will be fabricated on a 7 nm node in a first step towards competing directly with Arm-based chips
Things haven’t been going especially well for Intel in the past few years. It has had multiple setbacks with its fabrication processes that has considerably set back its chipset timeline. This has severely hampered its ability to deliver chips that can deliver a combination of power and efficiency that is especially important in laptops. Most notably, this has led to Apple abandoning Intel for its entire product portfolio as it shifts to its own custom Arm-based chip designs.
Ironically, Intel once owned XScale, which made Arm-based SoCs that once powered the Pocket PCs and PDAs of yesteryear. Unfortunately for Intel, it sold its XScale business in 2006, the year before Apple launched the iPhone and paved the way for Arm-based chips to dominate the mobile market. Intel’s own x86-based Atom competitors simply couldn’t match the more efficient RISC architecture underpinning Arm-based designs. Intel is now investigating a possible ‘Plan B’ in a new partnership between it and RISC-V fabless chip designer SiFive.
The partnership will see Intel license SiFive’s IP to create its own SiFive P550-based 64-bit SoC that it will fabricate on its new 7 nm node. It will form the basis of a new development platform Intel is calling Horse Creek, and will be made available to customers interested in exploring its potential in various applications involving embedded SoC tech. This could mean smartphones, but also cars, IoT products and the like. If Intel gets enough interest, it could take the relationship further. Intel hasn’t yet revealed the technical specifications of the SoC, so we don’t know whether it will be a single-core or multi-core platform, although the latter is likely. It's GPU tech is also unknown at this time, but Xe-based graphics are likely.
While the first Horse Creek SoCs will be ready next year, it isn't likely we will see any Intel RISC-V-based chips in commercially available products until 2023 at least. SiFive has received investment from Intel in the past, and it has been mooted as a potential acquisition target for Intel, so it is a case of ‘watch this space’ at this stage as far as this particular development goes. The announcement of the SiFive partnership also marks the commencement of the Intel Foundry Services business (IFS). This will see Intel beginning to fabricate chips as a contractor and has even mooted fabricating chips for Apple. It marks another avenue Intel is exploring as it hedges its bets against any declines in its own in-house chip design and manufacturing business.