Intel pays VIA $125m to acquire its x86 design talent

Centaur's brains will be transplanted to make hybrid AI tech for Chipzilla

Taiwanese manufacturer VIA has traded employees from its CPU design subsidiary Centaur Technology to Intel.

"Intel will recruit some of Centaur's employees … with certain covenants from the Company … As consideration, Intel will pay Centaur US$125m," read VIA's Taiwan Stock Exchange (TWSE) announcement.

VIA purchased Centaur in 1999 and gave it the job of developing x86-compatible processors that were cheaper and more efficient than Intel's, with the intent of breaking into the embedded systems market.

That plan didn't work, and VIA never won more than one or two per cent of the x86 market. These days it's more excited about its dashcam and forklift safety systems than microprocessors.

But Centaur kept operating – not that you can tell from its website, which presently indicates it's under construction.

A spot of Wayback Machine action reveals that as recently as July 2021 Centaur was working on "the industry's first high-performance deep-learning coprocessor integrated into server-class x86 processor." The old website claimed the kit provided 20 tera-operations per second through eight high-performance cores, targeting edge analytics servers running x86 software and DL Inference on multiple data streams.

It's not hard to see why Intel is interested in that. Chipzilla is all-in on AI and is working on the multi-tile Ponte Vecchio chip that will blend many types of cores – some from manufacturers other than Intel. The company is also keen on blended chips, as demonstrated by the recent release of Alder Lake silicon that borrows from the big.LITTLE approach used by Arm licensees.

Intel is also keen on edge, and doubtless aware that it's a fine location at which to run some AI to prevent pointless data being sent to the core data centre or cloud. A blended AI/x86 chip could help in such scenarios.

And, as The Register has pointed out many times, good silicon designers are hard to find. Centaur clearly had some that Intel wanted and VIA was willing to offload – perhaps making this transaction a no-brainer, even though it's all about buying brains. ®

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