Update: The official Intel announcement can be found here.
For anyone that follows the twists and turns of the semiconductor world, the name “Jim Keller” is approaching legendary proportions. He was a driving force in AMD’s K7 and K8 development, he moved on to PA Semi which was acquired by Apple to produce their class leading SoC’s for the iPhone, and then went back to AMD to become lead architect of the Zen architecture which powers the latest Ryzen CPUs from AMD. He then moved on to Tesla to be in charge of chip development for their autonomous driving program.
Very little has been heard from Jim Keller while he was at Tesla. The assumption was that he continued to do his job there and worked hard to innovate the potential chip designs that would power next generation Tesla vehicles to have fully autonomous driving capabilities. While that program has been in its infancy, we have not heard of custom chips being utilized by Tesla in the latest cars.
Now we have confirmation that Jim has left Tesla and has in fact been hired by Intel. Some months back Raja Koduri was hired by Intel to be in charge of all core development with a special interest in GPUs. It looks as if Raja has persuaded Jim to hop on board and help with what appears to be a stagnant core development team on the CPU side.
Intel has a history of “not invented here” mentality that has in previous years caused massive problems with the company. The reliance on the Pentium IV and its further development allowed their primary competitor to sneak up on them and shake up the marketplace. It took a design group out of Israel to set Intel onto a better path with the Banias/Conroe architectures which then lead to the Core architecture that we have seen iterated upon for the past decade.
The company has stagnated again. While the current Core architecture is faster in terms of IPC than Zen, it is a company that has not pursued innovation in a manner that has kept its competitor at bay. Jim Keller went back to AMD and architected what would become the Zen family of chips. In the space of those years he was there, he took the best technology AMD had to offer and built from the ground up a new architecture that could compete against Intel for a fraction of the R&D costs that the semiconductor giant typically spends. Intel stands to lose some significant marketshare in mobile, desktop, and server with the latest offerings from AMD. Combine this with the issues that the manufacturing group have run into with their development of the 10nm process, Intel seems to finally realize that design is really what matters when manufacturing issues hit. We can remember back in the Athlon 64/Pentium 4 days when AMD was 18 months behind on process technology, but still held a power/performance edge over Intel. While manufacturing can give a large advantage to any chip, a great design will not have to rely as heavily on cutting edge process tech to be competitive. Intel should hold all the keys to creating a truly overpowering series of products for their primary markets, but AMD has shown up with the plucky architecture that could cause some serious perturbations throughout the mobile, desktop, and server markets.
It seems that Raja is “getting the gang back together” to revamp the design culture at Intel to more adequately deal with threats to their CPU dominance across the board. They also are probably looking more closely at the ultra-mobile market that ARM has dominated for the past decade. Previous Atom designs have not come close to the efficiency needed to address those markets, but perhaps with a change of leadership and architects we can see Intel successfully address this very important area with high performance/high efficiency chips that we honestly expect them to be able to design.
Jim Keller to Intel looks to be a transformational move. Not just because of his expertise in architecture, but also a shift in how Intel goes about its daily business. Bringing this kind of expertise into the company is a watershed moment that moves away from the “not invented here” mentality that seems to dictate decisions at the company when they are not facing serious competition. We will see what kind of power Raja and Jim can leverage in changing the culture of the company. What cannot be denied is that Intel has frittered away its advantages in core design by not implementing aggressive product and feature changes for the past decade to insure its dominance in the CPU world. Compound this situation with the manufacturing woes at 10nm and we can see that Intel needed a shakeup.
Consider Intel shook.