Intel has bought Netherlands-based, system-on-chip (SoC) startup Silicon Hive in an attempt to make Intel’s low-power Atom processor more appealing across a variety of devices. Probably the most important market will be mobile devices, where Intel is getting creamed by ARM licensees, but it looks like the embedded processor market (e.g., TVs, cars and network devices), as well as servers, could be potential targets, too. As we have reported on numerous occasions, Intel has become one of the world’s largest companies selling powerful processors for servers and personal computers, but the advent of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets — and the very real possibility they ultimately will cut into computer sales — has Intel on the defensive for the first time in a long while.
According to Silicon Hive, its processors utilize a software-based approach to SoC design that make them both less expensive and more adaptable to a range of applications. Additionally, the company touts performance increases over other SoCs designed for consumer applications, as explained on its website:
Silicon Hive is able to take scalability in parallelism far beyond established limits. Silicon Hive’s underlying architecture template and tooling have no limits (other than silicon process technology) on the amount of parallel compute, storage and I/O resources made available in a given processor. The available number of compute, storage and I/O resource can range from one to many. In practice, Silicon Hive processors typically process 4 to 8 times more instructions in parallel than conventional Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) processors and 10 to 30 times more parallel SIMD operations than most other processors.
New Venture Partners, Silicon Hive’s lead investor, announced the deal in a press release in which it states, “[t]he Silicon Hive capabilities will aid in the delivery of Intel’s more differentiated Atom-processor based SoCs as multimedia and imaging grow in importance across the mobile smart device segments.” So, Atom won’t likely become the processor of choice for devices in the near term, but it would be a boon if its Silicon Hive integration peaked around the time that usage of mobile devices for consuming video and other applications requiring advanced imaging capabilities also peak. These types of applications are prime targets for parallel processing, which is why Nvidia’s Tegra chip, which includes an ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and Nvidia’s GeForce GPU, is such a hot commodity right now among mobile device makers. GPUs are noted for their ability to handle parallel processing. Intel also signed a cross-licensing deal with Nvidia in January that gives Intel access to some of Nvidia’s GPU intellectual property.
However, we also have been extensively covering the advent of low-power processors to power micro servers, and that space has picked up a lot of steam in the past few months. New ARM-based CPUs will power server processors from both Nvidia and Calxeda, and Intel itself has gotten into the same by building a specialized Atom processor for startup server maker SeaMicro — which is packing 256 dual-core Atom processors into a single box — and Intel even announced its own plans to start selling a 10-watt Atom processor for servers some time next year. Silicon Hive’s SoC technology hasn’t been used for server processors yet, but Intel might look at ways of adapting to that end, because the ARM Cortex-A15 design that underpins the Nvidia and Calxeda processors is itself a quad-core SoC.