Intel Turns Up Heat in Silicon Foundry Business

ntel is turning some heads in the foundry arena. Intel’s latest foundry customer is Netronome, a high-profile developer of flow processors for the networking market.

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By Mark LaPedus

Intel Corp. continues to make waves in the foundry arena. The chip giant has recently announced three new and major customers within its embryonic foundry business. Some speculate there are more customers on the horizon, reportedly including a rumored on-and-off again foundry deal with Apple Inc.

At this point, Intel is a niche player in the foundry business, as the company appears to be focusing on select high-end accounts. But needless to say, foundry rivals GlobalFoundries, Samsung, TSMC and UMC are keeping a close eye on Intel — and for good reason.

Two FPGA startups — Achronix and Tabula — have recently announced plans to use Intel as their sole foundry vendor for the 22nm node. Intel’s latest foundry customer is Netronome Inc., a developer of flow processors for networking gear. Netronome has announced an extension of its strategic relationship with Intel under which Netronome’s next-generation flow processors will be manufactured on Intel’s 22nm tri-gate process. Netronome has also gained access to Intel’s EDA tools and design-for-manufacturing (DFM) technology to help speed up its product development.

Netronome and Intel are no strangers to each other. In 2007, Netronome licensed Intel’s IXP28XX network processor line, which forms the basis of its flow processor technology.

Still, the move represents a major coup for Intel and its foundry efforts. Netronome’s current flow processors are based on a 65nm process node and are manufactured on a foundry basis by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC), said Jarrod Siket, senior vice president and general manager of marketing at Netronome, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Instead of moving to a 40nm or 28nm process, Netronome decided to make the jump from 65nm to 22nm, Siket said. “It is a big leap,” he told SemiMD. “If we went to a 45/40nm process, we would not have been able to pack as many cores as we had wanted,” he said, adding that power is also a major issue.

Powered by 16 to 40 multi-threaded, internal programmable networking cores, Netronome’s current 65nm flow processors support both Layer 2 to Layer 3 packet processing and Layer 4 to Layer 7 application- and content-aware deep packet inspection. In 2010, the company began sampling that part for use in blade servers, edge routers, wireless infrastructure gear and other networking systems. The company says it has grown from zero to $24 million in sales in 2011.

Netronome did not disclose the details of its 22nm flow processor. On its roadmap, the company is looking for 10-40X performance and a 30 percent reduction in power. It plans to begin sampling in early 2013.

Netronome claims it has no complaints about TSMC. “They are an excellent partner,” Siket said. “I have nothing bad to say about them.”

The company made the foundry move to Intel for several reasons. First, the two parties have close ties after the licensing deal back in 2007. Those ties became even closer in February, when Netronome named Howard Bubb, once an executive at Intel, as its new CEO.

But for some time, using Intel as a foundry “was not an option,” as the chip giant’s fabs were used for captive purposes only, he said. Then, “the invitation opened up to a select group of partners.”

Netronome jumped at the chance for good reason. The company’s flow processor rivals, namely Broadcom, Cavium and others, are just now “disclosing their 45/40nm and 28nm ” products, he said.

“Intel is years ahead of the competition,” he said. “They are four or five years ahead.”

While the foundries are ramping up 28nm devices, Intel is currently making processors based on a 22nm process, which incorporates tri-gate or finFET transistors. The foundries are still on planar transistors, with plans to move to finFETs at 14nm.

One foundry vendor weighed in on the development. ”I can’t comment specifically on Intel,” said Michael Noonen, senior vice president of worldwide sales and marketing at silicon foundry vendor GlobalFoundries Inc.

Noonen believes that the pure-play model is the right formula in the foundry business. “Having that strategy is the right recipe,” he said. “We feel the pure-play model is the right way to go.”

In contrast, IBM, Intel, Samsung and others are sometimes considered IDM foundries.  In some (but not all) cases, the IDM foundries aggressively pursue customers to fill a fab when times are bad. But when times are booming, there is a tendency to give a preference to one’s own products in a fab — at the expense of foundry customers.

There is another important element that gets lost in the shuffle. “Just having a transistor model doesn’t make a foundry,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a service business.”

Meanwhile, Netronome says Intel is the right partner at the 22nm node. Besides offering its 22nm tri-gate technology, Intel “also partnered with us for a co-optimized design,” Netronome’s Siket said. Intel also gave the startup access to its design tools, IP, mask operations and test. This in turn “lowered our risk across the board,” he added.

Sunit Rikhi, vice president of the Technology and Manufacturing Group at Intel, said: “While working with Netronome during the product design cycle to co-optimize its flow processors and our foundry offerings, it was clear that Intel’s 22nm silicon technology and design infrastructure are a significant value-fit with Netronome’s products.”