A Brief History of Intrinsity

Apple made its third semiconductor company acquisition in a stealthy manner by not making any public announcements. The alert online community discovered via some careful sleuthing that Austin, TX based Intrinsity Inc's employees had started to work for Apple from the beginning of April 2010. SEC filings made by Apple for its quarterly earnings report on April 20, 2010 indicated that Apple spent around $325 million for business acquisitions. Though Intrinsity's name wasn't publicly disclosed, a knowledge of Apple's recent acquisitions indicated that the total amount was spent on Quattro Wireless, LaLa and Intrinsity. Quattro Wireless was purchased for $275 million and TechCrunch had previously suggested that LaLa was purchased for $17 million. Based on this, some infer that Apple spent less than $50 million in order to grab Intrinsity's tech and employees. However, the NYTimes report confirming Apple's acquisition quoted analyst Tom Halfhill in suggesting a purchase price of $121 million. The analyst contends that that Apple may not have paid all the money at once or 100% in cash. That, he says, may account for the lower estimates that people derive from Apple's publicly disclosed expenditures. This is very much within the realms of possibility, but people suggesting that Apple paid less than $50 million for Intrinsity say that this doesn't take into account the financial state of Intrinsity in the few months preceding the acquisition. Let us take a brief detour to trace Intrinsity's history and analyze this further.

Technology

Founded in 1997 by 22 veterans in the microprocessor design industry, the firm initially worked towards developing interesting circuit design techniques and related design infrastructure for performance improvement (speed of circuit operation) using domino logic. If you are interested in the details, there are some course slides from MIT to help you out. Intrinsity's website also had a 'Technology' section devoted to detailing their version of domino logic. The summary is that it is a circuit level technique which gets rid of the slow components inside the transistor level implementations of the various logic gates / functions. This makes it unsuitable for the usual design flow (writing RTL code in a hardware description language, followed by synthesizing it using automated computer tools to get a gate level description, which is then translated to the actual chip layout by placing and routing the standard cells corresponding to the generated gate netlist). Creating standard cells for domino logic is not an easy task, and companies often prefer to just handcraft the relevant logic in domino style in the slowest part of the circuit. Intrinsity has developed a design flow using domino logic cells, called Fast14. However, the whole flow is specific to a particular foundry's process node, and shifting to a new foundry or process requires quite a bit of rework. Usually, the foundries provide the standard cells, but, in this case, one is reliant on Intrinsity to supply the cells. This is usually much later than the delivery date for the static CMOS standard cells. This is the main reason for the flow to be not as popular with fabless semiconductor companies as the usual design flow. On the other hand, companies like Intel devote huge amount of resources to perfect the layout of each and every gate in their pipeline to get the requisite performance. It is believed that Intel also uses a variant of domino logic for designing many components in their datapath. Intrinsity's approach (as well as the associated delay in taping out the chip) lies somewhere between the static CMOS standard cells flow used by most companies and the full custom approach used by ones with lots of resources.

Business

After five years of flying under the radar (by which time the headcount had increased to 80-odd and $15 million had been burned through), Intrinsity finally managed to tape out a chip using their domino logic scheme towards the end of 2002. This DSP-centric processor (called the FastMath) was able to clock an impressive 2GHz in TSMC's 130nm process. It enjoyed critical acclaim, but business for this chip wasn't exactly forthcoming. In May 2003, with just around $7 million left in the bank, Intrinsity was forced to get back to the VCs for more funding. An investment of $35 million followed which was supposed to be used for sales efforts. However, taking the processor into full production had to be shelved following general market apathy towards a DSP from a relatively unknown company. In order to keep down the cash burn rate, 20-odd employees had to be let off. With no revenue stream available, Intrinsity decided to begin efforts to license their technology to other fabless semiconductor companies.
 

click to enlarge

Intrinsity Inc's Business Timeline


As outlined in the 'Technology' section, convincing companies to ditch their original design flow for something novel like domino logic is not easy. In February 2004, they entered into a deal with ATI, wherein, the technology would be used for a multitude of future ATI GPU designs. This lent them financial stability for some years. In early 2005, there were some organizational changes, with the old CEO moving into the role of a CTO, and the hiring of a new CEO. Deals with AMCC and Agere Systems followed in 2006, generating some more revenue. For AMCC, Intrinsity helped develop the Titan core based on the embedded PowerPC architecture. AMCC even invested and got some stake in the company. Business began to look up as ARM joined hands with Intrinsity to develop a FastCore version (the tag given by Intrinsity to any logic core synthesized with their Fast14 domino technology) of the Cortex-R4 called as the Cortex-R4X in 2007. Analysts expected a FastCore version of the Cortex-A8 to have very good performance too, but ARM didn't appear too interested in pursuing that line. Despite all these deals, the expenses were still high, and Intrinsity had to snag more investments. In early 2008, $31.5 million was obtained in a Series E funding round, bringing the total money raised to more than $88 million (The amount of money invested by AMCC in exchange for stake in the company isn't public).

In September 2008, Samsung went against ARM's suggestion that any semi-custom implementation of the Cortex-A8 wouldn't be faster than TI's OMAP3 version. They inked a deal with Intrinsity to develop a FastCore version of the Cortex-A8 called as the Hummingbird. In the meanwhile, Apple was also looking for a way to speed up the Cortex-A8 for their iPad. It is believed in industry circles that Samsung asked Intrinsity develop a FastCore version of the Cortex-A8 at the behest of Apple for A4, and also ended up using it for the S5PC110 / S5PV210 after splitting the cost (according to rumors). The hardening was completed in July 2009, just in time for the rest of the A4 SoC to be taped out for the iPad and the S5PC110 for the Samsung Galaxy S.

Intrinsity also raised $4 million in late January 2010 from 11 different investors, bringing the total amount raised by the company closer to the $100 million mark. The LinkedIn page for Intrinsity suggests that they had around 120 people at the time of acquisition. For such a company, $4 million is barely sufficient for a quarter's expenses. It must have been known at that point of time that the company was fast running out of cash and would need to be sold. The above timeline also indicates that Intrinsity had to keep hunting for investment and was never able to sustain profits for long. The LinkedIn page of one of Intrinsity's employees indicates 'Controller at Intrinsity (Assets Acquired by Apple Computer)' in the 'Past Experience' section. It is believed that 'asset acquisition' is different from a straightforward 'acquisition' in the sense that it is more of a 'fire sale' rather than a purchase based on the true valuation of the company's technology. This is not surprising, considering the fact that Intrinsity's financial position appears to have been precarious in January 2010. All these tend to make some people in the industry believe that Apple could have got hold of the company by offering them a rock-bottom price. This, they suggest, may also be the reason why Intrinsity wouldn't want the purchase price made public, as it would show their investors as well as the value of their technology in poor light.

While introducing the iPad in January 2010, Steve Jobs specifically commented on A4 as the best and most complicated chip Apple had ever designed. Industry watchers were skeptical when it became obvious that the A4 was just a SoC hooking up various IPs available from different companies. Once it became evident that Apple had indeed purchased Intrinsity, Steve Jobs's claim began to make more sense. In effect, Apple had developed their most advanced silicon to date!

Apple and Intrinsity's Perspective
POST A COMMENT

24 Comments

View All Comments

  • ganeshts - Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - link

    @Mike1111, Thanks for your inputs.

    When I mentioned that 'MOST' of the PA Semi engineers had moved on, I referred to the top brass consisting of PA Semi's CEO / CTO / COO etc. A quick Google search reveals that all these guys had indeed moved on to Agnilux. As for the rest of the PA Semi employees who stayed on at Apple, I am sure they are no different from any other Silicon Valley VLSI engineers that Apple could hire since Apple doesn't seem to be using any IP / specific knowhow of PA Semi in their products.

    As for GlobalFoundries, yes, Apple could always shift foundries, but the acquisition of Intrinsity lessens this probability, in my opinion. Considering that Intrinsity engineers are very familiar with the Samsung process, it would probably increase development time if they were to shift to another vendor. Note that Intrinsity's technology is closely tied to the process and foundry. So, it is unlikely that Apple would take the risk of schedule slip. Of course, this is just a conjecture, and stranger things have happened in the industry. If I have left off some specific angle which would make Apple shift foundry allegiance, please do let us know :) I am very open to corrections.
    Reply
  • MySchizoBuddy - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Correction. Apple isn't using any PA.Semi specific IP "that we know off". Apple is too secretive to draw conclusion that PA.Semi was a lost acquisition. Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Well, this is the same thing that people were talking about when no Raycer Graphics products appeared under Apple's name even after 3 - 4 years of the acquisition.

    Many professional analysts ( and I am not one :) ) have long since beaten this to death, and I will put it down here again : "PA Semi's IP at acquisition time was a 25W ARM processor based chip. There is no product line that Apple currently has, which could be using this type of chip. If Apple indeed had planned on using PA Semi IP of some sort in any of their products, the best bet would have been in the iPad -- of which, rumors abounded towards the beginning of this year. This didn't turn out to be true. There has been no tangible benefit (except for engineering resources) to Apple from the PA Semi purchase yet -- even after 2 years of the acquisition"

    I don't find anything which would make me disagree with the analysts' conclusions.
    Reply
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    If Apple is sticking with Samsung, any information out there what's Samsung's LP roadmap for 28nm (if they do half-node) and 22nm/20nm looks like? I couldn't find anything concrete (only that 32nm and 28nm will be rolled out this year - is that HP(L) or LP, risk or volume?). GlobalFoundries seems to be on an aggressive schedule, as is TSMC (although their problems with 40nm make me skeptical that they can really deliver 20LP in volume production in the third quarter of 2013 as announced).

    As for PA Semi: If Apple is really trying to develop its own CPU core (like Scorpion), then it's no wonder that they weren't involved in the A4. A custom ARMv7 architecture won't find its way into products until 2012 at the earliest. 2012 would also be the year when I expect a dual-core Cortex-A9 (or similar custom architecture) to come to the iPhone, so that would fit (because I don't think dual-cores make much sense for smartphones before available in 32nm/28nm).
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Except for TSMC's public roadmap (which, in my opinion, is something to save face while their 40nm fiasco continues), foundries usually put their roadmaps under NDA. So, it is not surprising that we are unable to find out information about Samsung's plan beyond 28nm.

    GlobalFoundries looks aggressive and acts aggressive because they want to attract customers (Remember that they are starting out completely new!).

    @ Mike1111, Yes, I agree with you on PA Semi possibly working on ARMv7 architecture (assuming Apple does have the architecture license). This custom architecture could be further accelerated using Intrinsity's technology too. This is exactly what Tom Halfhill suggests in Microprocessor Report dated April 26th, 2010.

    Note that Qualcomm licensed ARMv7 in 2005, and it took them till 2009 end to start shipping products based on this. If one assumes PA Semi team started this in 2008, it would take them the timeframe that you mention to get designed into a working phone or tablet. However, loss of the top guys from PA Semi would have definitely pushed this behind schedule. As I noted in the article, Intrinsity tech, if applied to this custom architecture, is only bound to delay this further.

    Just look at how the A4 Hummingbird designed in 6 - 8 months by Intrinsity seems to be better than the Snapdragon Scorpion which took more than 4 years! When Apple comes out with their version, I am sure a stand alone processor from ARM itself (like the off-the-shelf Cortex-A9's successor) would have better performance; That way, I am not sure Apple would be taking full advantage of Intrinsity's tech.
    Reply
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the response!

    Regarding Samsung's foundry business: I couldn't even find detailed information on Samsung's 32nm and 28nm process, not just the stuff beyond 28nm. Is that information out there? I would be really interested in knowing when the 28LP volume production is scheduled to start. Early enough for the 2012 iPhone (AFAIK that would mean Q3/2011 or earlier)?

    Halfhill's Intrinsity article sounds good, but since I don't have a subscription I can't really access it. But in the part I could access he says that Intrinsity has already put more than 1 year into a Fast14 implementation of ARM’s Cortex-A9 dual-core processor. Interesting.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Mike, an article appeared in ElectronicsWeekly just today:

    http://www.electronicsweekly.com/Articles/2010/04/...

    Summary from the above link: Looks like Samsung will offer 32, 28 and 22nm ; Q3 2010 is when 32nm volume production might start ; No hard dates provided for other nodes.
    Reply
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the link!

    Q3/2010 for 32LP volume production is very good. Just risk production or 32HP in Q3/2010 wouldn't have suprised me.
    That means that a 32nm SoC in 2011's iPhone could be theoretically possible. Although, going from 65nm to 32nm in 2 years in a smartphone sounds too good to be true. And if Apple wants to continue to use the same SoC in the iPhone (Q2/2010) as in the iPad (Q1), it gets even more unlikely.
    Reply
  • Mike1111 - Thursday, April 29, 2010 - link

    Correction: And if Apple wants to continue to use the same SoC in the iPhone (Q2/2011) as in the iPad (Q1/2011), it gets even more unlikely. Reply
  • Mat3zz - Friday, April 30, 2010 - link

    This article seems to imply that ATI used Fast14 in their GPU's. I'm pretty sure they never did. When ATI released the R600 series in 2007, it was asked of Eric Demers in a Beyond3D interview about Fast14 and he made it clear it wasn't in their product. Radeons haven't increased in clock speed much since then. If ATI paid Intrinsity, it was probably for nothing. Where's my Ghz GPU!? Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now