Intel’s Unleashes a Turnaround

on March 24, 2021

Yesterday, Intel announced a series of efforts that may one day be looked back at as foundational for their turnaround. Despite Intel being in a strong market position in many of the areas they compete in, the leadership zeal Intel once brought to the technology industry had been waning, and when it came to looking for points of innovation in computing, Intel is not the first company to come to mind.

In many ways, Intel is in a position very similar to Microsoft before Satya Nadella took over. Microsoft, like Intel, remained dominant in many markets. But the issue was a staleness surrounding the company that was leading to fading relevance as an industry and category leader and technology innovator. Nearly overnight, Satya Nadella brought renewed vigor to Microsoft, and Pat Gelsinger appears to be having the same impact on Intel. With the right leader, no company can ever be ruled out. Microsoft proved this, and Intel may very well prove this with Pat Gelsinger at the helm.

Intel’s Renewed Foundry Efforts
One of the main announcements is Intel’s renewed efforts at being a competitive foundry making semiconductors for companies other than Intel. Some may remember, Intel has tried this before, but those efforts failed for a variety of reasons. The main one being the priority for Intel was always their own products and not others. So what has changed this time around?

The first is a very different market than when Intel first attempted being a foundry. There has never been more demand for semiconductors than right now, and that demand will remain and grow stronger for years to come. Amidst significant semiconductor demand, leading to chip shortages for every segment, Intel remains one of the only semiconductor manufacturers with the capacity to offer immediately.

Another significant difference is Pat Gelsinger is a different leader, with different ambitions and goals than those who led Intel’s previous foundry efforts. Intel Foundry Services is a stand-alone business unit, which reports directly to Pat Gelsinger. Intel Foundry Services will have its own PNL, revenue goals, and growth targets. This is a much different model than what Intel had set up in their prior foundry efforts.

Lastly, Intel Foundry Services will have one of the more robust I.P. portfolios for foundry customers. This statement from the press release is succinct “IFS will be differentiated from other foundry offerings with a combination of leading-edge process technology and packaging, committed capacity in the U.S. and Europe, and a world-class I.P. portfolio for customers, including x86 cores as well as ARM and RISC-V ecosystem I.P.s.” Two things about this are unique to Intel foundry customers.

The first one being x86 cores, which assume some x86 I.P. At the moment, AMD is the only other company offering a cooperative effort to build custom x86 products for customers in their semi-custom business. While it is unclear how deep down the customization efforts would extent for Intel x86 I.P., but it will be extremely interesting to see how foundry customers take advantage of x86 I.P.

The other element of interest to me is Intel’s packaging technology, particularly their 3D packaging technology, which is quite innovative and unique. Foundry customers can take advantage of this unique technology which could turn out to be a significant differentiator for Intel Foundries, as well as Intel’s own products going forward.

While there is no slam dunk for Intel Foundry Services, I remain conservatively optimistic about their efforts. As I’ve outlined before, Intel being competitive as a foundry is extremely important for U.S. technology companies, so I personally believe it is in the best interests of many that Intel succeeds in this area.

Catching up in Process Technology
A fundamental part of Intel’s turnaround efforts is to close the gap between their foundries and TSMC and Samsung in process nodes. Intel will roll quickly past 10nm, something they should have done years ago, and look on track to deliver 7nm in a timely fashion and then quickly move to 5nm on a regular cadence going forward. Part of the reason I have more confidence Intel can do make these process node advancements going forward is due to their embracing of EUV and their less aggressive density targets. Both of these recipes are what TSMC has used to remain a steady cadence, and there is no reason to believe Intel can’t do the same.

Assuming Intel can close the gap, even if not catch up, there is reason to believe they will remain extremely competitive even if they are not making products on the same nodes as TSMC and Samsung. A lot of that has to do with Intel’s packaging technology which Gelsinger argues is the best packaging technology in the world, and there is some truth to this claim.

Intel is not actually as far off as its competition when it comes to performance. They are a bit farther when it comes to performance-per-watt but not in sheer performance. This is a testament to their architecture, and as we will see with future competitive products is a testament to their packaging and transistor design.

Getting to the point of at least some parity on process technology is essential for both Intel’s own products manufactured by Intel and customers of Intel Foundry Services. The next few years will be critical at an execution level for Intel to deliver on this front and for us to gauge their success at meeting regular cadence schedules.

I’ve always been curious to see what it would look like for other companies to collaborate with Intel to have their architecture designs run on Intel’s advanced packaging technologies. Hopefully, soon we may finally see if Intel process and package technology is truly that differentiated. I’d also love to see what Intel packaging technology looks like designed on Arm (hint Apple).

Outsourcing Intel Chips
As interested as I’ve been to see what other semiconductor companies can do with Intel’s packaging technology, I’m also quite interested to see what Intel architecture looks like running on other company’s process technology. We have been watching to see if Intel would outsource its CPU designs on a different process, and it looks like we may see that reality.

As a part of Intel’s announcements, it became clear that they would now start outsourcing some CPU designs to TSMC and possibly Samsung in the future. While this may be a trial run at first, I’m extremely interested to see how Intel CPU designs perform on a leading-edge TSMC process. Again, this will bring quite a bit of clarity to the quality of Intel’s architecture and potentially their process as well.

The other area of intrigue this creates is the competitive dynamic between Intel Foundry Services and other foundries. If Intel (who is Intel Foundry Services’ largest customer) sees significant benefits from their products made at TSMC, then it creates a competitive dynamic that did not exist before. Intel should be building its products on the best technologies, and if that becomes clear it is not Intel Foundry Services, then IFS will be truly competing for Intel’s business. A fascinating storyline to watch develop.

What is also new to this equation, and one that will be interesting to watch is the dynamic of Intel now competing with any outside foundry they make their products with. Intel may be partnering with TSMC, but they will also be trying to compete with them, directly, with Intel Foundry Services. This, in my opinion, is the most awkward part of the overall new structure and announcement. We will watch this new dynamic closely.

Overall: I am significantly more bullish on Intel now than I was a year ago. Pat Gelsinger is the right guy at the right time, and as I mentioned with the observation on Microsoft, sometimes all it takes is the right leader. These announcements are a huge step in the right direction, but as Gelsinger continued to emphasize during his presentation, it will all boil down to execution. That being said, now more than any time in the last decade, I’m more optimistic Intel can execute going forward.

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