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Intel on track to build two chips with ARM inside

Even as its x86 arm competes fiercely with ARM, Intel is taking on work to build ARM-equipped chips for its own customers. One of those chips will pack a whopping 4 billion transistors

Intel is parlaying its x86 chip manufacturing expertise into making ARM chips for customers.
Intel is parlaying its x86 chip manufacturing expertise into making ARM chips for customers.

Intel may be developing a split personality.

The high-tech giant is slated to build chips for two customers that have ARM processors inside -- even as the x86 side of the company competes fiercely with the U.K.-based chip designer ARM and its partners.

The most striking silicon that Intel will build is an Altera system-on-a-chip (SoC) that integrates a quad-core 64-bit ARM processor.

The Altera system will use the ARM component as a control processor that helps to manage the data packets on Altera's field-programmable gate array (FPGA), into which the ARM chip is integrated.

"When this chip comes out it will be among the largest chips ever produced on this planet in terms the number of transistors. It should pass 4 billion transistors," said Chris Balough, senior director of SoC product marketing at Altera, in an interview with CNET.

By comparison, Intel's latest Haswell chip has roughly 1.5 billion transistors.

The Altera chip is expected to be available in late 2014 and to go into production in 2015.

And Altera wasn't even the first. Well before Altera's 64-bit quad-core ARM revelation this week, Netronome announced in April that Intel would make its flow processor, which incorporates an ARM processor.

Netronome and Altera went to Intel because it is making steady progress in building up its contract manufacturing operations, aka "foundry" business. Currently, it has five publicly announced customers.

And Intel expects more ARM customers in the future. "Will other people come ask us? Probably. Will we talk about it beforehand? No," said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

If Altera's praise is any indication, more prospects will indeed be knocking on Intel's door.

"In testament to how advanced their technology is, [Intel is] going into production status of 14-nanometer in Q1 of next year," said Altera's Balough, referring to the fact Intel is the first chipmaker in the world to achieve production on the minuscule 14-nanometer scale, the most advanced process to date.