Intel looks beyond x86, puts 64-bit ARM processor in new FPGA chip

Intel's decision to embrace ARM chips for the FPGA may show a thawing of the chilly relationship between the two companies

It seems like the chip war between Intel and ARM is slowly winding down, at least for the time being.

Intel for decades has doggedly sworn by chips based on its homegrown x86 architecture, but the company is putting a 64-bit ARM processor in its new Stratix 10 FPGA (field-programmable gate array), which was announced on Tuesday.

The FPGA -- based on Altera technology -- can be reprogrammed to do a wide variety of server or network tasks. It can also run algorithms for machine learning.

In a larger context, the chip points to a long-term strategy of Intel thinking beyond x86 and warming up to other architectures as it looks to shed its reliance on PCs.

In the future, it's possible that x86 and ARM could be integrated in some Intel's chips. Intel plans to integrate Altera FPGAs in Xeon server chips and may put x86 and ARM CPUs on one chip. Intel is already pairing Xeon and Altera FPGAs on multi-chip circuit boards.

ARM CPUs have been used in Altera FPGAs, but the Cortex-A53 in Stratix 10 shows Intel isn't shying away from the latest ARM technology. There's also the possibility of Intel eliminating the ARM CPU for x86 in its integrated Xeon FPGA chip.

Intel and ARM have feuded in the past on architectural superiority, sometimes indulging in petty arguments over power and performance. Intel wants to put its x86 chips in as many devices as possible, but it is willing to tap into ARM CPU designs when necessary.

A sequence of events has led to a friendlier relationship between Intel and ARM. Facing a slowdown in the PC market, Intel in April restructured to focus on robots, drones, cars, and the internet of things. Most PCs use x86 chips, but ARM dominates many of the fast-growing markets Intel is now focusing on.

ARM is also helping drive Intel's lucrative server business. ARM-based mobile and IoT devices feed information to servers that perform data analysis, image recognition, and natural language processing tasks. Intel's x86 chips dominate servers, and the growth in ARM-based devices will indirectly drive sales of high-margin Intel Xeon chips.

Intel can now manufacture ARM chips following a licensing deal both the companies signed in August. Intel will make chips for LG's mobile devices on its 10-nanometer process and could even make chips for Apple's iPhone. Intel previously dedicated its factories mostly to x86 chips, but the PC market slowdown is forcing the chipmaker to take on contract manufacturing.

Intel has used ARM designs sparingly. Intel previously made mobile phone chips and networking equipment based on ARM but sold that business to Marvell in 2006. Intel put ARM's Mali graphics in an x86 Atom X3 chip code-named Sofia, which was originally designed for smartphones but is now in IoT devices. Intel also used ARM processors in an XMM modem but is switching over to x86.

One of the big areas of focus for Intel is FPGAs, which provide a high-speed chip alternative to its CPUs. The quad-core 64-bit Cortex-A53 CPU in Stratix 10 is faster than previous chips, Intel said.

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