Thoughts on Intel and AMD’s chip partnership

Sometimes, the news causes you to do a double-take, such as when Microsoft announced it was developing a Linux version of SQL Server or when Intel struck a deal with ARM to manufacture ARM-based chips for third parties.

The latest shocker also involves Intel, but this time it is teaming up with arch rival AMD to deliver a new Core processor for the mobile market that features an AMD Radeon GPU and HBM2 memory, all in a single chip package. The first fruits of this collaboration are set to come to market in the first quarter of 2018, including systems from major vendors, according to Intel.

Intel's Core chip with AMD Radeon GPU

At first glance, this may seem an unlikely partnership. Intel and AMD have been bitter rivals in the chip market since AMD started producing chips to compete against Intel’s 486 processors back in the 1990s.

However, it makes more sense if you think that both of the companies face competition in the GPU space from a third player, Nvidia. Intel’s integrated graphics and GPU capabilities in its processors have never been a match for those offered by Nvidia and AMD (which acquired graphics chipmaker ATI about a decade ago).

Intel’s official line regarding the new product is that it addresses a gap in the market for a “thinner, lighter, more powerful enthusiast mobile platform that delivers a premium experience.” Currently, a premium mobile platform calls for a processor paired with a discrete GPU chip, which isn’t ideal if you want to deliver a thin and light system.

What Intel needed was to integrate high performance graphics with the processor, and as its own graphics cannot cut the mustard, it needed a third party solution.

The bit of engineering magic that makes all this possible is Intel’s Embedded Multi-Die Interconnect Bridge (EMIB) technology, which is a method of linking several silicon dies together in the one package using small bridges under the edges where they meet.

One advantage of this is that you can deliver a composite product from several dies that may come from different sources and produced using different manufacturing processes, and this is what the upcoming product does.

The yet to be named product, which will be part of Intel’s 8th Gen Core family, combines an Intel processor chip with what it describes as a semi-custom graphics chip from AMD’s Radeon division. In effect, AMD is producing a customised version of one of its discrete Radeon GPUs that Intel can then integrate to deliver the end product.

But there is an epilogue to this tale. Shortly after the announcement of the new chip, Intel disclosed it had hired AMD’s Raja Koduri, senior vice president and chief architect of the Radeon Technologies Group.

Koduri is to head up a newly formed Core and Visual Computing Group within Intel, and will spearhead a new effort to expand Intel’s integrated graphics with new high-end discrete graphics solutions.

Far from being a new-found partnership between Intel and AMD, the forthcoming chip can be seen as simply a stopgap while Intel boosts its own graphics proficiency, by poaching AMD’s graphics talent.