Report: Intel has quietly bought chip startup Soft Machines for $250M

Growing competition in the chip market is driving Intel Corp. to aggressively hunt for new technologies that can help maintain its leadership position. According a tipster who recently spoke with The Register, the vendor has secretly acquired a startup called Soft Machines Inc. as part of the effort in a deal worth about $250 million.

This  new deal is on the heals of Intel shedding as part of a spinout their security unit into a new company that will be owned in-part by private equity firm TPG. Intel will retain a 49 percent ownership stake of the entity with TPG taking the majority stake. In exchange, Intel will be receiving $3.1 billion in cash.

This acquisition would be the latest by Intel to diversify well beyond its own processors to new architectures that can handle emerging tasks ranging from running artificial intelligence algorithms to powering Internet of Things devices. Intel earlier this week acquired another semiconductor startup called Movidius Ltd. that has developed a microprocessor for powering machine learning algorithms. And last month, it reportedly paid $400 million to buy Nervana Systems Inc., which was also in the process of designing an ASIC optimized for running artificial intelligence software.

“It’s a very big sign of a company that has learned a lot over the years” about the benefits of not being wedded to one chip architecture, said Jeff Bier, founder and president of the embedded-chip consultant Berkeley Design Technology Inc. “They’re really showing the way.”

The acquisition of Soft Machines, whose co-founder, chief executive and chief technology officer is former Intel computer architect Mohammad Abdallah (above), is reportedly the culmination of a 12-month negotiation that started not long after the outfit first debuted its technology at the 2014 Linley Microprocessor Conference (video below). Soft Machines’ demonstration starred a 500MHz chip fabricated using a 28-nanometer process that was touted as a breakthrough in semiconductor design.

Whereas conventional CPUs like those Intel sells are built to run several concurrent threads on each of their physical cores, the startup’s system takes the opposite approach and distributes every thread across multiple processing units. Work is automatically split up using a built-in load balancer.

The system supposedly requires so little computing capacity to perform the parallelization that it can squeeze out to four times more performance per watt than traditional CPUs. Additionally, Soft Machines’ architecture also simplifies application design since developers don’t need to bother with splitting up their software across multiple threads.

Incorporating the core components of the technology into its chips could go a long way towards helping Intel compensate for its slowing hardware release cycles. The deal couldn’t have come at a better time: Intel recently abandoned its famous “tick-tick” model for improving CPUs’ physical processing density every two years due to the increasing difficulty of shrinking transistors.

Staying ahead in the performance department is essential for the vendor if it wants to fend off competitors like ARM Holdings plc, which are working hard to win over market share in key segments such as the server industry. The acquisition of Soft Machines marks a step in the right direction of the acquisition rumors are true, but Intel has a lot of work ahead of it. The startup’s technology is still at an early stage and has drawn skepticism from analysts who believe that it may not live up to the hype.

With reporting from Robert Hof.

Image from Soft Machines/YouTube

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