AMD Takes On Both Intel and Apple: Will It Win?

AMD’s chiplet design is taking on Intel’s heterogeneous chip design, but Team Red seems poised to win.
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It’s the year 1995. AMD just won a groundbreaking settlement against Intel, the pioneer behind the x86 standard, that allows it to continue manufacturing chips using this method. Almost three decades later, AMD has not only leapfrogged Intel’s technology, but dominates Team Blue (Intel) in every segment of the semiconductor market. 

As Intel is plagued with more delays to its roadmap, AMD is belting out chips like hotcakes. From the Z1 series chips made for handheld gaming, to the 7000 series chips for desktops and laptops, to the EPYC series chips for the enterprise, Team Red (AMD) is handily beating Intel at every turn.

On the other hand, both Intel and Apple — currently AMD’s biggest competitors — have moved to collaborating with ARM. This IP giant relies on a big.LITTLE design for their chips. This design uses smaller cores for less power-intensive tasks while reserving bigger, more power-hungry cores for powerful tasks, improving overall efficiency. 

AMD, on the other hand, is relying on a chiplet design to scale processor size and power. Instead of packing all of the chips’ features into a single big piece or ‘die’, AMD opted to split up the chip into separate, smaller parts known as ‘chiplets’ and connect them together using ‘Infinity Fabric’. With the launch of AMD’s Zen 5 on the horizon, a question arises — Will AMD go the ARM way, or double down on its winning strategy?

Can chiplets keep winning?

When AMD wanted to compete against Intel in the server chip market in 2015, they turned to chiplets as their last resort. This technology debuted with the launch of the first EPYC server chip, to great success.

Moving to this process not only helped AMD to cut manufacturing costs by 40%, it also enabled the creation of chiplet-based desktop CPU. The Zen 2 lineup of chips brought chiplets to consumers, further optimising the manufacturing process. What’s more, the company could simply scale up the number of chiplets in the package to increase the number of cores or power of the chips, subverting the limitations put in place by Moore’s Law.

Speaking of Moore’s Law, the 1965 article that spawned this rule also spoke about chiplets as the chip technology of the future. While it didn’t mention the technology by name, the article stated, “It may prove to be more economical to build large systems out of smaller functions, which are separately packaged and interconnected. The availability of large functions, combined with functional design and construction, should allow the manufacturer…to design and construct a considerable variety of equipment both rapidly and economically.”

The economical and manufacturing advancements that have come with the last 5 decades of chip manufacturing have finally made the economy of manufacturing chiplets possible. The approach also allows for a mixed bag approach to manufacturing chips, provided a chiplet standard is in place. 

The industry also seems to think along the same lines, as seen by the introduction of the universal chip interconnect express standard. Supported by AMD, ARM, Google Cloud, Microsoft, Meta, and even Intel, this new chiplet ecosystem promises to go beyond Moore’s Law to make the computing systems of the future.

 ARM and Intel’s support of this standard shows that even AMD’s direct competitors see the benefits of chiplets design. In a way, it seems that they are admitting defeat to the superior chip design methodology. 

AMD also seems to be doubling down on chiplets for its next generation of CPUs, which are rumoured to provide up to an 18% performance increase while reducing power consumption by 34%. This improvement will be made thanks to a move from TSMC’s N5 manufacturing process to the N3 manufacturing nodes. However, for the time being, it seems that Intel is content to push its existing technology to the brink of obsolescence. 

big.LITTLE loses out

Manufacturing a non-homogenous chip is no joke, which is something that Intel found out the hard way. Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs, which were the trial run for the efficiency cores and performance cores design (Intel’s version of big.LITTLE), were delivered without a hitch. However, it encountered problems when moving towards more complex architectures in the same design.

Another of Intel’s line of chips called Sapphire Rapids, better known by the market name ‘4th Gen Xeon Scalable’ CPUs, were plagued with a host of delays. In May 2022, it was reported that Intel ran into a major technical flaw in the design of Sapphire Rapids, resulting in the delay of the chips to the beginning of 2023. 

However, this was already too late for Intel, as AMD handily beat the company with the 96-core EPYC Genoa CPU. The competing offering beat Intel’s chips by over 70%, using chiplets to gain the edge. To add salt to the wound, Intel’s next lineup of chips, codenamed Meteor Lake, has also been hit with delays due to production issues. 

To gain back some of the ground Intel lost with the botched launch of Sapphire Rapids, it entered into a partnership with ARM. This partnership mainly focused on the manufacturing of mobile chips in the form of SoC or System on Chip approach. Where Intel’s Foundry arm got a deeper insight into ARM’s intellectual property, ARM got access to Intel’s 18A manufacturing process. 

Interestingly, another emerging player in the ARM-based processor game, Apple, has also been facing issues. While the chips are undeniably well-suited for their deployed applications, especially in terms of power efficiency, it seems that this is not enough to carry the MacBook’s sales. Reportedly, the next generation of M-series chips will include even more cores in an attempt to entice customers to buy them. 

However, it seems that the big.LITTLE architecture is beginning to show its age. As Moore’s Law begins to reach the point of obscurity, older manufacturing designs are beginning to see diminishing returns when it comes to performance. Chiplets are the way of the future, and it even seems like Intel and ARM believe this. With its commitment to the chiplet design, it seems that AMD is uniquely positioned to make the most out of the next decade of chips. 

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Anirudh VK
I am an AI enthusiast and love keeping up with the latest events in the space. I love video games and pizza.

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