As part of their third quarter earnings release, VIA Technologies has announced this morning that the company is entering into an unusual agreement with Intel to offload parts of VIA’s x86 R&D subsidiary, Centaur Technology. Under the terms of the murky deal, Intel will be paying Centaur $125 million to pick up part of the engineering staff – or, as the announcement from VIA more peculiarly puts it “recruit some of Centaur's employees to join Intel,” Despite the hefty 9-digit price tag, the deal makes no mention of Centaur’s business, designs, or patents, nor has an expected closing date been announced.

A subsidiary of VIA since 1999, the Austin-based Centaur is responsible for developing x86 core designs for other parts of VIA, as well as developing their own ancillary IP such as deep learning accelerators. Via Centaur, VIA Technologies is the largely aloof third member of the x86 triumvirate, joining Intel and AMD as the three x86 license holders. Centaur’s designs have never seen widescale adoption to the extent that AMD or Intel’s have, but the company has remained a presence in the x86 market since the 90s, spending the vast majority of that time under VIA.

Centaur’s most recent development was the CNS x86 core, which the company announced in late 2019. Aimed at server-class workloads, the processor design is said to offer Haswell-like general CPU performance, which is combined with AVX-512 support (executed over 2 rounds via a 256-bit SIMD). CNS, in turn, would be combined into a product Centaur called CHA, which added fabric and I/O, as well as an integrated proprietary deep learning accelerator. The first silicon based on CHA was originally expected in the second half of 2020, but at this point we haven’t heard anything (though that’s not unusual for VIA).

As for the deal at hand, VIA’s announcement leaves more questions than answers. The official announcement from VIA comes with very few details other than the price tag and the information that Intel is essentially paying Centaur for the right to try to recruit staff members to join Intel. Despite being the buyer in this deal – and buyers typically being the ones to announce acquisitions – Intel has not said anything about the deal from their end.

We’ve reached out to both Intel and Centaur for more information, but we’re not expecting to hear from them until later this morning given the significant time zone gap between Taiwan and the US. Update: We've since heard from both Intel and Centaur. Intel is confirming the deal, but without providing additional details. Meanwhile Centaur has no comment.

In the meantime, local media reports are equally as puzzling, as language barriers aside, apparently even the local press isn’t being given much in the way of concrete details. None the less, local media such as United Daily News is reporting that the Intel deal is indeed not a wholesale sale of Centaur’s team, and that VIA is retaining the Centaur business. So what Intel is getting out of this that’s worth $125 million is, for the moment, a mystery.

Adding an extra wrinkle to matters, the Centaur website has been partially scrubbed. Active as recently as the end of last week, the site’s contents have been replaced with an “under construction” message. In which case it would seem that, even if VIA is retaining Centaur and its IP, the company no longer has a need for a public face for the group.

Meanwhile, given the overall lack of details, news of the acquisition raises a number of questions about the future of VIA’s x86 efforts, as well as just what Intel is getting out of this. If VIA isn’t selling the Centaur business, then does that mean they’re retaining their x86 license? And if Intel isn’t getting any IP, then what do they need with Centaur’s engineering staff? Does Intel want to make their own take on the CNS x86 core?

Overall, it’s not too surprising to see Intel make a play for the far-flung third member of the x86 ecosystem, especially as the combination of AMD and Arm-based processors is proving to be stiff competition for Intel, dampening the need for a third x86 vendor. Still, this isn’t what we envisioned for Intel buying out Centaur.

As always, we’ll have more details on this bizarre story as they become available.

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  • meacupla - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    Wait wait wait... VIA is still in business?
    What exactly are they making that is profitable?
    They literally had the worst and buggiest chipsets, and their C series CPUs were worse than intel Atom.
    I know they did low power designs, but I don't think they even bothered to switch over to ARM architecture.

    Who still uses them?
    Reply
  • StevoLincolnite - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    They make a ton of IC's. Networking, Audio. etc',

    They also appeal to various industrial applications.. Automation, safety and so forth.

    They also have a big presence in the chinese market.. Aka. Zhaoxin.
    Reply
  • arnd - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    I think the successor companies are only loosely related any more, but it's not really clear how closely they work together, as far as I can tell it's something like:

    - VIA Technologies (https://www.viatech.com/en/) is what is left of the old parent company, but now mainly sells embedded systems based on both old VIA chip designs and third-party chips from NXP, Qualcomm and others.
    - VIA Labs (via-labs.com) is a separate company or subsidiary and they sell USB and SATA peripheral chips
    - VIA Telecom was sold to Intel a while ago, and presumably ended up in the 5G chip division that is now part of Apple
    - Wondermedia was spun out as the company to make ARM SoCs, which decent success in early Android tablets but never made it to 64-bit designs before they disappeared.
    - Zhaoxin appears to have inherited the SoC business, both x86 and Arm chips, but is only minority owned by VIA
    - Centaur's recently announced CNS chips look like they have the same heritage as Zhaoxin's ZX series but are now developed independently.
    Reply
  • Calin - Monday, November 8, 2021 - link

    If I remember correctly, they had the USB controller of choice at the launch of USB 2.0.
    Before that, I think they had the first 100MHz FSB chipset in the days of Intel BX (i.e. Pentium II and Pentium !!!).
    Haven't heard much of them since then.
    Reply
  • pogsnet - Saturday, November 20, 2021 - link

    Their last X86 chipset is in P4, it is where Intel and VIA had disagreements, since then Intel don't give license to make chipset for their chips. Though Intel offered ditch the x86 license to continue as chipset partner manufacturer but VIA declined. Reply
  • ICBM - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    Actually the Nano series proved to be superior to the Atom. I don't think the power savings was quite there, but it was close. Performance was overall quite better. They never got the press attention in my opinion, but at the time it was good option.

    We still run a dual core fanless model with pfsense for our main office.
    Reply
  • Oxford Guy - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    VIA also made it possible for Agner Fog to expose Intel’s ‘Genuine Intel’ benchmark scam — by engineering its processor to be able to be seen by software as an Intel CPU. Reply
  • Soulkeeper - Sunday, November 7, 2021 - link

    I don't fully agree that their chipsets were "the worst and buggiest".
    They actually had pretty good memory controller designs back in the socket A days.
    Most of the problems and bad reputation came from the windows drivers never having been updated. I actually preferred via chipsets back then and kinda miss via fading into irrelevance. In many cases they were better than sis or ALi, in those days, and cheaper than the nforce, amd, or intel chipset boards.
    I had high hopes that either via or transmeta would make a breakthrough in cpu design ... ohhh well RIP.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Tuesday, November 9, 2021 - link

    Actually, it depended HEAVILY on the chipset in question. Even with the latest beta drivers and BIOS, KT133 reliability was questionable, at best. Meanwhile, KT133A was rock solid. Ditto for the switch to DDR... the KT266 was dodgy. The KT266A was extremely reliable. After that, the KT333 and 400 were also pretty good, thankfully. There were a lot of good, affordable boards built on those chipsets. After that though... they started to fall behind the competition. Reply
  • danielfranklin - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    Is this literally just a way of ensuring the 3rd licence holder will always be unable to use it? Or be purchased by someone Intel doesn't want to have it?
    Would love to know what the state of the x86 licence is after this. If it achieved getting it out of circulation, seems like a cheap deal for Intel, and gets some engineers too!
    Reply

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