In perhaps its most wide-ranging and technically dazzling display in years, Intel offered us a look into its direction as an integrated device manufacturing company steered in part by the architectural leadership of luminaries Raja Koduri and Jim Keller. The company brought a small group to the former estate of Intel founder Robert Noyce to set the stage for a detailed look at how it plans to yoke its vast range of technology into a coherent whole for its future.
Before we go any further, I have to note that Intel opened a firehose of information for us, and the embargo window for that information was quite abbreviated. Worse, my early flight home coincides with the embargo lift, more or less. I'll be adding to this article throughout the day as I'm able, but we weren't able to cover the entirety of what Intel showed in one go. Thanks for your patience as we digest this banquet of information.
Although the ostensible order of discussion for the day was both system-level architectures and microarchitectures, the question of process execution came up over and over in the course of our talks. The company was refreshingly frank about the fact that by binding process and architecture together in its cadence of advancement, it had exposed both itself and its customers to risk in the case that its manufacturing group were to stumble in the delivery of that process—and stumble it did, in the case of the 10-nm node. Both Koduri and Keller forcefully stated that the company wouldn't allow that kind of catastrophic misstep to happen again, as it had harmed not just the company's own roadmap but also those of the customers that depended on Intel's reliable delivery of new products to expand the capabilities, performance, and longevity of systems with Intel inside.
Rather than offer up another pithy mnemonic discussing its development cadence, the company acknowledged that future architectures would be developed independent of process and built with the fabrication technique that made the most sense in the timeframe it needed to deliver those products to customers, whether that might be a leading-edge node for density and power reasons or an older node where performance was paramount and power and density were less important.
Furthermore, Keller noted that in the case that a problem did arise, the company would still be able to deliver a product that fulfilled promised improvements in performance and capability to customers by falling back on alternate manufacturing techniques in its arsenal, a position he described as being inspired by his days at Apple. The iPhone maker is well-known for delivering products on a predictable schedule every year, and Keller said that Apple always had contingency plans so that its latest and greatest stuff wouldn't be held up by unforeseen roadblocks in production.
That approach was affirmed to me in a conversation with Intel fellow Ronak Singhal, who heads the Intel Architecture Cores Group at the company. Singal noted that Intel is now approaching its core processor design more cautiously by logically describing a core earlier on in the life cycle of architectural development with fewer baked-in assumptions about the process it might be built on. The logical description of the chip can later be married to a physical process closer to the time when the company needs to produce it.
While that strategy may seem obvious on its face, my understanding is that past Intel cores were much more closely married to the physical processes that would be used to build them, and there was little room for error in the previously unthinkable event that a core needed to be migrated to a different manufacturing process. With its new development approach, the company is apparently better positioned to produce its newer tech on older nodes if need be so that it can still give customers what they need to build around new processors with new capabilities in a predictable time frame, even in the event that the manufacturing group isn't ready with the latest and greatest process.
That view is consistent with the industry-wide idea that leading-edge process nodes are now long-term investments and that companies plan to extract value from them for as long as possible by whatever means necessary. While Intel still plans to do the hard work and investment required to develop leading-edge processes, the company ultimately wants its future to be defined more by the products it can deliver rather than process leadership first and product second. The cynic might point out that we've already seen the result of this strategy in three years and counting of Skylake-derived CPUs with ever-increasing clock speeds and core counts, but Koduri and Keller both seemed adamant that the long rule of Skylake was an aberration rather than the future of the firm—assuming all goes well from this point forward.