Intel shakes up its chip design process

Intel has had a bit of an epiphany. It has come to the realization it cannot continue to design semiconductors like it always has, and is shaking up the design process in what it hopes will be a more effective means of chip design.

At the London Analyst Summit earlier this month, Josh Walden, vice president and general manager of the company's platform engineering group, discussed why the company has struggled and what organizational changes it has made to adapt.

The "old" way of doing things was to "handcraft" each CPU in its entirety. Even though Intel will release a lot of different chips at once, if you looked close, there wasn't much variance. It would be a bunch of dual cores with various speed differences, and maybe L2 or L3 cache differences, and the same with quad-core designs. Cores, speeds and caches were the only real differentiators.

That worked for PCs and servers. But with so many differentiated devices on the market and the market only growing more complex thanks to the Internet of Things, the company wanted more flexibility in creating processors.

So seven months ago, the company did its biggest reorg ever, putting all of the different IP blocks, such as the core CPU, graphics, PCI Express interface, SATA interface, etc., under one organization. Then, the various integration teams would assemble the right IP blocks to create the right system-on-a-chip for the right market segment or for a customer requesting a custom IP.

"We're able to pick and choose IP based on the value to the customer and I can change my design methodology and focus on those key domains where we can really differentiate," said Walden. This method will let Intel spin out more custom and different styles of chips.

For that reason, Walden said the company now sees itself as a SoC company. "I need it for time to market, I need it for flexibility, and when it comes to user experience, that will change in time," he said. Walden said this method allowed them to create a custom chip in ten weeks for one customer.

As part of this change, Intel has ramped up its software engineering. The company has gone from software engineers making up 30% of engineering to now constituting half of its engineering staff.

This is nothing new. Qualcomm, Broadcom, and chip vendors have done this for some time. That's why Qualcomm has so many Snapdragon chips out there for so many different devices. So it will be interesting to see how Intel products change and mature going forward.

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