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Intel's biggest chip design overhaul in 40 years integrates AI

Thu, 18th Jan 2024

The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) functionalities into Intel's Core Ultra processors has required a significant redesign of the conventional chip structure, according to Tim Wilson, the lead on the system-on-chip (SoC) development for the Intel Core Ultra processor.

"It was hotly debated," Wilson stated in reference to the incorporation of AI. The question a few years back was "Why dedicate so much silicon to this NPU? AI is amorphous – we don't know how they'll use it." Today, as AI functions become increasingly integral to modern computing, Wilson finds the implementation of AI in their designs gratifying.

Central to the integration of new AI capabilities into Core Ultra was a complete architectural overhaul of the processor's design. Wilson and his team shifted from a traditional monolithic chip design to a more efficient and modular tile-based architecture.

The tile-based design approach is not an innovation unique to Intel, and this is not the first instance of Intel employing it. Previous Intel deployments have targeted servers and high-end desktops. However, Wilson explains how Core Ultra brings this design approach to more mainstream client devices, "The technology is mature enough and the need is there. We wanted to bring it to mainstream and at the same time bring in major new capabilities like AI."

This altered approach to chip design prompted an overall strategic reassessment on the part of Wilson and his team. Rather than merely being about the feasibility of a disaggregated assembly, it was also about strategic application for the product's benefit.

Wilson shared how this change has resulted in a "complexity that breeds simplicity." As chips have expanded over the past two decades to include more cores, higher functionality, memory, and display capabilities, thus increasing the simultaneous optimisation of around 100 intellectual properties (IPs) on a single piece of silicon has become progressively more challenging.

"It forces simplification at the tile level. Breaking the tiles apart means you can choose the right transistor for the right tile - high-performance transistors for the CPU, high density for the GPU and low power for the SoC blocks," says Wilson. This permits easier adaptation to different requirements and ensures all blocks within the SoC can get full memory bandwidth when required.

The undertaking of redefining chip architecture was a major project, with Wilson referring to Intel Core Ultra as "Intel's biggest SoC design change in 40 years." The gravity of the project necessitated a larger and more diverse team than had previously been used for such projects. Wilson takes pride in the inclusiveness of the team involved, stating, "You'd be hard-pressed to find a more inclusive team, I think."

A series of industry firsts and fresh challenges emerged from this project. Not least of these included a new 3D performance hybrid architecture and significant improvements in power efficiency, among others. In the face of these, Wilson highlights the importance of relationships. "The smartest person in the world is going to fail if they haven't built good relationships, and Meteor Lake’s success is in the trust between the people and teams," he says. He attributes the success of the project to the combined input of the diverse team involved.

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