Psst! Intel will make ARM chips

Say what? Intel manufacturing ARM chips on the side? Well, that's the case for at least one customer.

Netronome's Intel-manufactured chip has 96 packet processing cores and 120 flow processing core.  And, oh yeah, an ARM chip too.
Netronome's Intel-manufactured chip has 96 packet processing cores and 120 flow processing core. And, oh yeah, an ARM chip too. Netronome

Intel will do what many would consider, at the very least, unusual: make the very kind of chip that it has vowed to crush.

That would be ARM, Intel's biggest nemesis.

First a little background. Intel is the world's largest chipmaker because it owns the x86 design that Apple and all of the world's PC makers use for laptops, desktops, and servers.

But Intel's x86 chips must compete mightily these days against ARM, the chip of choice for smartphones and tablets. Those chips are supplied by Nvidia, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and Samsung.

So, this is where it gets a little more complicated. Intel also has a budding contract chip manufacturing business, referred to in the industry as a "foundry," which has nothing to do with x86. Like the world's largest foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Intel simply contracts with customers to build chips, irrespective (more or less) of design.

One of those customers is Netronome, which made an initial announcement of the manufacturing deal with Intel on April 4.

But yesterday, the Santa Clara, Calif., company disclosed details of its "200Gbps Flow Processor" that packs "120 flow processing cores and 96 packet processing cores" and an ARM11MP processor.

Netronome's chips, aimed at networking equipment, do "deep packet inspection, flow analysis, content processing, virtualization and security."

And here's one of the most intriguing aspects of this deal: if Intel succeeds at the foundry business and the word gets around, for example, that it's as good or better than TSMC (or simply has more capacity than TSMC), then Intel's foundry business could blossom.

And before you know it, you would have Intel making both of the world's leading chip designs for PCs, tablets, and smartphones. Sound crazy? Well, listen to what Sundar Gopalan, senior director of product management at Netronome told CNET today.

"With TSMC we would have had to compromise...Intel's process allows us to operate at a higher frequency and with more integration and at lower power," Gopalan said.

Netronome's chip is slated for manufacture by Intel in 2013.

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