Intel to Make 64-Bit ARM Chips for Altera

Intel's foundry business will build Altera chips that will include ARM technology and will be aimed at networking and communications systems.

Intel and ARM compete in an increasingly growing number of areas including smartphones, tablets and microservers, as well as embedded devices and the Internet of Things.

Now, in a twist of sorts, Intel will begin manufacturing quad-core ARM processors for Altera starting next year, as part of the chip maker's efforts to use its fabrication facilities as foundry operations for other vendors.

At ARM's TechCon 2013 show, Altera officials announced that Intel will manufacture their Stratix 10 systems-on-a-chip (SoCs), which will include a quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 processor and Altera's system-level design tools, including OpenCL. Intel will manufacture the chips on its state-of-the-art 14-nanometer process—Intel's newest chips, including its Core and Atom chips, are built on the 22-nm process—and will include Intel's Tri-Gate 3D transistor architecture for greater performance and power efficiency.

Altera, which earlier this year signed up as a customer of Intel's foundry program, will use the ARM chip as part of a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chip that can be programmed by the customer after it is built. Altera officials said the FPGA chip will be designed for adaptability, performance and power efficiency. It will be aimed at networking, communications and data center acceleration systems, according to the company.

By leveraging Intel's 14-nm Tri-Gate process and ARM's architecture, Altera officials said the Stratix 10 SoCs will hit performance levels of 1GHz, more than twice the performance of current 28-nm FPGAs. The company also is standardizing its SoC portfolio on ARM's architecture. Altera will be able to offer software compatibility and a common ecosystem around ARM tools and operating support, and the company's SoC Embedded Design Suite for developers will feature the ARM Development Studio 5 Altera Edition toolkit.

“With Stratix 10 SoCs, designers will have a versatile and powerful heterogeneous compute platform enabling them to innovate and get to market faster,” Danny Biran, senior vice president of corporate strategy and marketing at Altera, said in a statement. “This will be very exciting for customers as converged silicon continues to be the best solution for complex, high-performance applications.”

Intel is aggressively growing its foundry business as another way of expanding its reach into new growth areas and leveraging its massive manufacturing capabilities at a time when demand for its own PC chips is being hurt by the global slowdown in PC sales. Since embracing the foundry model, Intel officials have said they are open to manufacturing chips based on competing architectures.

And ARM is a competing architecture. Intel for several years has been driving down the power consumption in its x86 chips in an effort to gain inroads into the booming mobile device space, where most of the smartphones and tablets run on ARM-designed chips made by the likes of Samsung, Qualcomm and Nvidia. Intel officials are confident the latest 22-nm Core "Haswell" and Atom chips are competitive with ARM's low-power designs, but now the challenge is to convince OEMs to build devices using those chips.

At the same time, the number of areas were the two are competing continues to grow. ARM officials see an opportunity in the low-power microserver space to move their architecture into the data center, along the domain of Intel. At the TechCon show, long-time Intel partners Dell and Hewlett-Packard said they will launch low-power servers next year running on ARM chips from the likes of Calxeda, Applied Micro and Texas Instruments. Intel is countering that with its Atom C2000 "Avoton" SoCs, which offer such data center-level features as 64-bit computing and already are running in HP's Project Moonshot systems.

Such burgeoning markets as embedded devices, wearable computers and the Internet of Things also should prove to be highly contested areas, given the demand in all of them for high performance and low power consumption.