Intel is preparing to adopt a modular architecture for system-on-chip (SoC) products that will allow the company to quickly adapt its low-power Atom processor to target specific market segments, ranging from smartphones and tablets to microservers.
The move is part of Intel's push to accelerate its low-power roadmap over the next few years, as the chip firm seeks to get Atom chips into smartphones and tablets and better compete against ARM-based mobile processors.
As part of the same move, Intel will shift its Atom SoC chips from 32nm to 22nm to 14nm over the next three years, with chip designs codenamed Saltwell, Silvermont and Airmont respectively.
The rapid shrink in process technology will not only boost power efficiency, but allow more functions to be integrated on-chip, Intel said.
Bill Leszinske, general manager for technology planning at Intel's Atom SoC Development Group, explained that a key part of its strategy has been to create a modular architecture based around an interconnect called Intel On-Chip System Fabric.
"We now have an 'SoC chassis' that introduces modularity at the chip level, and allows you to easily do a dual-core or quad-core design, but also other components that are needed for specific markets," he said.
The idea is similar in concept to the Advanced Microcontroller Bus Architecture widely used in ARM-based chips, which is likewise aimed at making it easier to build an SoC by providing a standard interface to connect reusable functional blocks such as graphics, I/O, custom logic and CPU cores.
Leszinske said that Intel will allow other vendors access to its specifications to help the firm integrate a wider portfolio of intellectual property into its SoC designs.
Intel has also acquired firms such as Infineon's wireless chipset business in order to get the necessary technology components for its mobile strategy.
"It would take too long to develop it all ourselves," Leszinske added.
The roadmap is expected to see a tenfold improvement in graphics and CPU performance over the next four years, Intel predicts.
Leszinske said that Intel-based consumer tablets are expected to hit the market later this year, with smartphones coming in 2012.
He brushed aside suggestions that Intel will find it tough to compete against ARM-based rivals in the mobile industry, saying that he saw "no disadvantages for us in that space".
While there are challenges, Intel has "a huge set of capabilities that will make us successful", he said.
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