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Nvidia CEO: We're open to Intel making our chips

Matching TSMC is not for the faint of heart, though, Huang warns

GTC Nvidia is considering expanding its supplier base by getting at least some of its chips made in Intel factories.

"They're interested in us using their foundries," said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang regarding Intel, during a virtual press conference on Wednesday. "We're very interested in exploring it."

Demand for Nvidia's GPUs has outstripped supply as gamers, crypto-miners, and others scramble to get hold of the gear. This, and scalping, has forced up retail prices. The GPU shortage is so dire, buyers are paying premiums for older components, such as Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1080Ti, which can handle high-level gaming and graphics and is priced higher than when it was released in 2017.

This situation hasn't been a problem for Nvidia, which last month reported monster profits. That said, the chip designer is trying to increase its output capacity by growing its roster of suppliers and adjusting its product mix so that it can ship a range of components fabricated on older and newer process nodes.

And while Nvidia is trying to book as much factory capacity it can, Intel is spending billions on advanced factories in the US and Europe as it relaunches its foundry business, TSMC-style. Supply, meet demand; demand, meet supply.

Strength in diversity

"We've built diversity in the number of process nodes that we use," Jensen said. "We qualified a lot more process nodes. We're in more fabs than ever. We've expanded our supply base four-fold in the past two years."

That lines up with Nvidia's plans to sell multiple generations of GPUs at the same time. As the COVID-19 coronavirus took hold, the biz saw success selling GPUs based on its recent Ampere microarchitecture alongside the previous generation Turing architecture.

"It's given us the opportunity ... to continue to sell both the current generation as well as the Turing generation," said Nvidia CFO Colette Kress said earlier this month at a Morgan Stanley event. "We've been doing that to provide more supply to our gamers. We may see something like that continue in the future. It was successful with Ampere and we'll see as we move forward."

Nvidia unified its consumer and enterprise GPUs under the Ampere microarchitecture, though it could separate them again. At its GTC shindig this week, it introduced the datacenter-grade TSMC-made 4nm H100 GPU, the first silicon based on its latest Hopper microarchitecture, and is supposedly developing a separate Lovelace architecture for consumer GPUs.

Nvidia hasn't offered a release date for its next-generation consumer GPUs. Kress said the hunger for Ampere chips hasn't yet been sated, and a transition to next-generation gaming processors also depends on advances in such things as real-time ray tracing, which is maturing rapidly and has made its way to hundreds of gaming titles.

"Ray tracing being in its second generation with Ampere has really expanded the capabilities of how you build out games," Kress said. "Three years ago when we started out with ray tracing, it was a chicken and the egg kind of challenge – what comes first, the infrastructure or the games? Now they're both here."

Old pals

Interestingly, Huang has a strong working relationship with Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, who previously led VMware. VMware is an important cog in Nvidia's datacenter strategy. During the press conference, Huang said Nvidia sees Intel as a partner, adding that Intel's strategy under Gelsinger to focus on manufacturing is the right way to go.

"I'm encouraged by the work that is done at Intel. I think this is a direction they have to go and and we're interested in looking at the process technology," Huang said. We're told details need to be ironed out, though.

"We have to align technology. The business models have to be aligned. The capacity has to be aligned. The operations process and the nature of the two companies have to be aligned. It takes a fair amount of time and a lot of deep discussion," he said.

Being a foundry the caliber of TSMC is not for the faint of heart. This is a change not just in process technology and investment of capital. It's a change in culture

(By the way, we can't help but recall that Intel not only designs its own graphics processors built into its x86 chipsets, it's also working on blurring the line between integrated and discrete graphics. Manufacturing discrete Nvidia GPUs would be quite a thing to see from Intel.)

Nvidia has built strong foundry partnerships with TSMC and Samsung, which provide design and validation expertise to see the chip blueprints through manufacturing and into shipments. Partnerships that Intel would have to elbow itself in between.

Like Apple, Nvidia has worked closely with TSMC. The pair have figured out how to bundle together a collection of complex technologies to form the H100 GPU. The 80-billion transistor chip uses TSMC's 4N process and chip-on-wafer-on-substrate packaging to tightly bind HBM3 RAM and math-crunching cores.

"Being a foundry the caliber of TSMC is not for the faint of heart," said Huang, referring to Intel. "I mean this is a change not just in process technology and investment of capital. It's a change in culture."

TSMC has the experience of working closely with hundreds of companies worldwide on chip design, supply chain logistics, and other manufacturing needs, Huang said. By comparison, Intel in the past made chips for itself, and will now have to replicate TSMC's operations when working with other companies.

"The ability to dance with all of these different operations teams, supply chain teams, is not for the faint of heart," Huang reiterated.

A manufacturing partnership means Nvidia will have to adapt its GPU design to Intel's advanced process technology that includes Foveros, which is for packaging, and EMIB, a high-speed communication link for processing blocks inside a package.

Small is beautiful

Nvidia, which has a preference for large monolithic dies, also shed further light on its production strategy at GTC.

It appears Nvidia supports the use of chiplets. These are dies, or tiles as Intel calls them, that contain CPU cores, AI engines, other forms of hardware acceleration, and other blocks of IP, and a single chip package can contain more than two or more chiplets. AMD takes the chiplet approach in its Zen family of microprocessors. Intel is moving its manufacturing facilities toward chiplets as it tries to welcome more businesses to use its manufacturing facilities.

Specifically, Nvidia's CEO suggested a customer could design their own chiplet with application or workload specific acceleration, and have the die manufactured and placed alongside one or more Nvidia GPU dies in a single package.

"Do I believe in chiplets in the future? There will be little tiny things that you can connect directly into our chip. As a result, a customer could do a semi-custom chip with just a tiny engineering effort and connect it into ours and differentiate it in their own datacenter in their own special way," Huang said.

Nvidia also welcomed, to a degree, the Universal Chiplet Interconnect Express (UCIe), which is a common-language interconnect for a wide array of GPUs, CPUs, AI engines, and other accelerators to link up inside a chip package.

UCIe was revealed earlier this month, and its launch supporters included Intel, TSMC, AMD, and Arm. Nvidia and Apple weren't listed as supporters at the time. Nvidia's CEO isn't ruling anything out.

"As soon as the UCIe spec is stabilized, we'll put it into our chips as fast as we can," Huang said, adding that "it will take, as it did with PCI Express, about half a decade or so." His approval of UCIe opens a pathway for UCIe-supporting Nvidia chiplets to make their way into Intel-manufactured packages on advanced nodes.

"UCIe has the benefit of allowing us to connect many things to our chips and now allow us to connect our chips to many things," Nvidia's CEO said. ®

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