$INTC | Intel Unleashed, Gelsinger on Intel, IDM 2.0 – Stratechery

Good morning,

Three notes about today’s update:

  • First, the Intel keynote I’m going to write about, along with the analyst Q&A session that followed, has the potential to go down as one of the single best keynotes I’ve covered in my career. If you want to abandon this newsletter and watch it now I won’t blame you.
  • Second, if you do decide to soldier on, I’m going to include a lot of clips; it may be easier to consume all of them on the Stratechery website instead of email, so that the videos play in-line.
  • Third, I will send out a second email in a few hours with a transcription of the clips. I do recommend you watch them, but I recognize that is not always possible.

Finally, this Daily Update is free to share.

On to the update:

Intel Unleashed

Intel Corp.’s chief executive is fast-tracking efforts to revive the semiconductor giant with a broad plan that mixes increased outsourcing with a commitment to spend $20 billion on new factories that could help address a chip shortage. New CEO Pat Gelsinger said Tuesday that Intel would rely more heavily on third-party chip-making partners, including for some of its most cutting-edge processors, starting in 2023. But Mr. Gelsinger, on the job a little more than a month, said Intel wasn’t abandoning its historic roots of being both a designer and manufacturer of chips and would retain most production in-house. The company, he said, also is renewing efforts to make chips for others and targeting customers such as Apple Inc. and chip rival Qualcomm Inc.

Yesterday’s keynote delivered on almost every meaningful strategy change I have asked from Intel, from building out a foundry business to re-organizing the company (it’s not a split, but close) to explicitly addressing geopolitics to embracing modularity to channeling Andy Grove.

Just as important, though, was the way in which Gelsinger delivered this news: he was transparent about how Intel had screwed up, demonstrated tremendous clarity of thought about Intel’s strategy, particularly in the Q&A, and was captivating and inspiring about why Intel’s best days were ahead of it. Of course a keynote is just a keynote — Intel has real work to do — but Gelsinger absolutely left the impression that if there is any chance of Intel delivering on his promises he will realize it.

There is also the timing: Gelsinger has only been in the job for 37 days (38 today), yet is already delivering the most sweeping overhaul of Intel’s business since Andy Grove and Gordon Moore got the company out of memory thirty-five years ago. That is, frankly, the best execution that Intel has demonstrated in years.

Gelsinger on Intel

I think the best way to approach this is to start at the top; I’ll provide clips of important points in the keynote, with a bit of commentary.

The Opening

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This is pitch perfect. Gelsinger very explicitly casts himself as following in the footsteps of Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove, even as he makes clear that he hasn’t been around for the last ten years. It’s an example of the exact sort of posture Intel needs to adopt: confidence rooted in the company’s industry-leading past, tempered by humility about the degree to which it has lost its way.

What Went Wrong

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The actual news here is very bad! Gelsinger effectively announced that the 7 nanometer process is even more delayed than former CEO Bob Swan announced last summer, but actually, that’s less of a problem than it seems: it was very clear at the time that Swan was almost certainly not being entirely honest about just how behind Intel was, in part because it didn’t seem like he really understood the problem.

Here was the problem: over the last decade ASML — and ASML alone — has perfected extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV), which is essential for making the most advanced chips, but Intel, instead of committing to ASML’s technology, tried to go its own way with its own technology and preferred supplier (Nikon) using immersion lithography. After a few years of delays the company finally got 10 nanometer working (barely), but instead of realizing it had hit the wall with immersion lithography, Intel believed it could apply its 10 nanometer learnings to 7 nanometer, which had been developed in parallel. It couldn’t.

Instead, Gelsinger made clear that Intel had to go back to the drawing board with 7 nanometer, fully committing to ASML and EUV. That is why 7 nanometer won’t appear until 2023, but at the same time, the transparency of Gelsinger’s explanation — which makes perfect sense! — is also reason to believe the new timeline.

This is also a reason to believe that Intel can re-accelerate future process shrinks; the most advanced lithography machines are a necessary component for making cutting-edge chips, but far from the the only factor. Intel retains all of its other strengths and know-how — which remember, kept the company ahead of the industry for decades — which it can bring to bear once its lithography problems are solved.

System-in-Package

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In a system on a chip (SoC) much of the computer’s functionality is a part of a single silicon die; Apple’s current top-of-the-line A14 chip, for example, has two high-performance cores, four low-performance cores, four GPU cores, 16 neural engine cores, an image processing core, machine learning accelerators, and the secure enclave all on a single die that is manufactured using TSMC’s 5 nanometer process. Traditional computers, to go to the other extreme, have all of those different components in modular pieces, connected via a motherboard.

A System-in-Package is in the middle: not everything is on the same die, but it is all in the same package. That means that some cores could be on one process, other cores on another, but ultimately they are delivered stacked on top of or next to each other on single substrate that has the potential to offer superior performance and smaller footprints than traditional computers, with more flexibility than SoCs, and more fault tolerance (since any one die is smaller).

I wrote a bit about this approach of using “chiplets” last fall in the context of AMD acquiring Xilinx; Gelsinger’s argument is that Intel has the best packaging technology which, when combined with Intel’s vertical integration, will result in the most powerful Systems-in-package. As you will see, this is critical to understanding the headline announcements.

IDM 2.0

This is the part of the keynote that made all of the headlines; IDM means “integrated device manufacturer”, which is certainly what Intel has been for decades: the company sold chips that integrated its own designs with its own manufacturing. What is fascinating about calling the new strategy IDM 2.0 is that in many respects it is about introducing modularity into this model, both in design and in manufacturing.

Start with the actual IDM part:

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Intel’s core business isn’t going anywhere. It is, though, going to be both an augmenter, and an augmentee. Start with latter:

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Gelsinger calls it “a unique competitive advantage”, I call it “paying the price for dropping the ball with EUV.” It’s good that Intel has (hopefully) corrected course with its manufacturing, but in the meantime it has high performance chips to sell. That is why for the first time it is out-sourcing the manufacturing of not just secondary items like communications chips or chipsets, but also its CPUs. Note, though, that Gelsinger refers to its CPUs as “modular tiles”: this is where Intel’s focus on — and, Gelsinger will tell you, superior technology for — Systems-in-Package will start to pay off.

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Intel is finally going to make chips for other companies. What is fascinating about this introduction is how heavily Gelsinger leans into the geopolitics of chip production. Yes, there is a huge market, and yes, Intel is one of the only companies with the capability to pursue the cutting edge, but just as importantly it is the only one of those companies not in Asia. That, you will recall, is a big deal given the U.S. geopolitical rivalry with China; from Chips and Geopolitics:

Taiwan, you will note, is just off the coast of China. South Korea, home to Samsung, which also makes the highest end chips, although mostly for its own use, is just as close. The United States, meanwhile, is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. There are advanced foundries in Oregon, New Mexico, and Arizona, but they are operated by Intel, and Intel makes chips for its own integrated use cases only.
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No longer! Which is why Gelsinger included a strikingly similar map:

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It is also notable that Gelsinger repeatedly referred to the E.U.’s need for chip production, in addition to the U.S.; the bloc pledged $150 billion earlier this month to “technological autonomy”, including increasing its share by value of semiconductors from 10% to 20%. Intel wants in.

Still, Intel has tried to be a foundry in the past, and failed miserably; that is why the details are incredibly important. Start with organizational structure:

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The entire premise of Intel Problems from earlier this year is that (1) Intel needed to become a foundry to ensure it had sufficient volume to justify future investments in cutting edge technology, (2) the U.S. needed cutting edge foundries because of the China threat, but (3) I doubted that Intel could ever build a successful foundry business given the degree to which the company was integrated. That’s why I proposed Intel split, with the U.S. government as a guaranteed buyer for the foundry.

Gelsinger obviously didn’t go that far, but he is going as far as possible while keeping Intel whole. The fact that the foundry business is completely separate from the rest of Intel, with its own profit-and-loss line item and a leader that reports directly to Gelsinger is crucial. Intel Foundry Services has to be its own independent entity, and the most important job facing Gelsinger is ensuring Intel itself treats it that way, both in terms of guaranteeing capacity and access to Intel’s best IP, and otherwise keeping the rest of Intel at arm’s length.

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I’ll forgive Gelsinger the corniness: what is important is the acknowledgment that building a foundry is about a lot more than fabs. One of the things that makes TSMC so attractive is that you are signing up for not just a manufacturer but a customer service organization that makes it easy to build chips. It is going to be very difficult for Intel to build a similar culture and library of IP, but the fact Gelsinger is talking about it at launch is critical.

As for IP specifically, Intel partners have long been concerned about the propensity of Intel to learn a little too much from its partnerships. What Gelsinger is promising is the opposite: Intel is going to make its best IP available to Intel Foundry Services, including x86 cores (alongside ARM and RISC-V). Moreover, this is another area where Intel’s focus on Systems-in-Package could be real advantage.

That x86 part is a big deal, by the way, as Gelsinger explained in the investor Q&A that followed the presentation; this was his response to a question about why this time would be different:

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Actually, this isn’t a big deal — it’s a massive deal. Intel’s unwavering commitment to being a true IDM has meant dictating processor design to its customers, realizing the profits from integrating design and manufacturing. The problem for Intel, though, and one of the reasons I have been so concerned about their volume in the long run, is that the quantity of their customers is dwindling: Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Alibaba, and Baidu account for a huge portion of Intel’s sales, and in the long run those customers were going to want to create their own integration in the value chain — like Amazon designing its own ARM chip.

Intel is heading that threat off by giving up its integration: now Amazon or Google or Microsoft or any other big cloud provider can build their own custom chip, just as they can with ARM, but with x86. This is important because the problem facing Amazon and Graviton is that there is a massive ecosystem built around x86, which makes it hard to persuade customers to switch, even though Graviton is cheaper. Given that reality, why not just go with Intel?

Intel isn’t out of the woods, to be sure: what will the company charge for using x86 IP, and exactly how much will it let its customers mix-and-match said IP? You can bet that all of the people still dedicated to building and selling Intel chips will demand prohibitively high prices and strict restrictions; that, though, is why Intel Foundry Services being a separate organization is so critical, and it will be up to Gelsinger to prevent old Intel from scaling the wall.

There was a lot more in the keynote and Q&A, including a new partnership with IBM on future chip technologies, as well as Intel’s two new factories in Arizona, which will include dedicated capacity for Intel Foundry Services. It is worth noting that this is where Intel staying one company is beneficial: as long as the company can credibly guarantee that Intel Foundry Services will not be crowded out by Intel’s own business, sharing capex is a big advantage. I also appreciated Gelsinger’s insistence that Intel is making these structural changes without a guarantee of government assistance, either in the U.S. or in the E.U. It does seem clear, though, that Intel is banking on it.

That brings me to what was the most striking moment of the presentation; when I wrote Intel Problems, I was all but ready to give up on the company, arguing that the U.S. should not give Intel anything unless the company abandoned its model. As I noted, Gelsinger didn’t go all the way, but he went pretty far; more importantly, I finally understand why it is so many Intel employees believe he can pull this off:

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This incredible answer was delivered in response to a question as to how Intel would manage to build its own business while keeping its promises to the customers of Intel Foundry Services. What if Intel fell short again, and had to choose?

This is where Gelsinger took things full circle, going back to Grove and Intel’s history. The thing about Moore’s Law is that it wasn’t a law at all: it was a choice, one that Intel made to push the entire industry forward year after year after year. That is why it was so important that Gelsinger invoked that attitude: Intel is in a huge hole right now, but they finally have the right strategy, and if this keynote is any indication, the right spirit leading the way. Now it’s time to execute, execute, execute.

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