What is Intel making at TSMC?

Update – Exclusive: The first Intel core on TSMC revealed

Intel LogoIs Intel actually going to make products at TSMC, and if so, what and when can we expect to see the results? SemiAccurate has confirmed what is likely to be the first Intel/TSMC product to feature Intel CPU cores, and it is really interesting.

Before this whole Intel/TSMC debate devolves into a mess of semantics about what is first, and what is a ‘real’ chip, lets just set a few ground rules. Intel is one of TSMC’s biggest customers and has been for decades. They have many products at TSMC over the years, mainly chipsets and other things on ‘older’ processes.

Some of this was due to capacity, some of it was due to Intel’s process lead, and some of it was because TSMC had IP or a process tuned for something Intel didn’t, think RF for starters. Intel also used outsourcing as a weapon, in the 40nm days they would buy wafer starts and use them for things they didn’t strictly need to in order to deprive the competition of cutting edge, for them, silicon. It also doesn’t hurt for your biggest competitor to hand you their roadmap with specific technical details years in advance.

In short there were lots of reasons Intel is a TSMC customer, some of them were what you expect, some came with ulterior motives. That said to the best of SemiAccurate’s knowledge there has never been a product sold with an Intel core made on a TSMC process. There are good reasons for this, both technical and marketing, for Intel to not let their cores out of the internal fabs, but there was one time when it almost happened.

At Computex in 2009, Intel announced they would offer 32nm Atoms as a ‘black box’ IP offering at TSMC. For some reason none of the few hundred other people in the audience seemed to grasp the significance of this downplayed bombshell, but we did. (Note: I know the picture is missing, working on that). In a hilarious coincidence, TSMC canceled the 32nm node that Intel was planning to use a few months later as we exclusively reported.

So to the best of our knowledge, aside from test chips and a few near misses, there has never been an Intel CPU core produced on a TSMC process that made it to the store shelves. With the disaster of Intel’s Q2/2020 analyst call, there were lots of statements about Intel finally outsourcing the crown jewels to TSMC. This wasn’t by choice, if Intel wants to move beyond their 14nm process, and they have to if they want to survive. Unless they fix their process development… err… process, they need to produce at TSMC. 10nm is still not viable for a number of reason, but that is a story for another article.

Bob Swan’s statements just fueled the fire that has been raging for weeks in the rumor mills around Intel, TSMC, and outsourcing. The only official statements were about the datacenter GPU called Ponte Vecchio, and they were fairly backhanded and intoned an upbeat scenario that we feel was wholly unwarranted. So SemiAccurate dug in to the rumors and products to see what was really happening and we found the first big CPU project that Intel is outsourcing to TSMC, and it is quite interesting.

Note: The following is for professional and student level subscribers.

Disclosures: Charlie Demerjian and Stone Arch Networking Services, Inc. have no consulting relationships, investment relationships, or hold any investment positions with any of the companies mentioned in this report.

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate