Semiconductor giant Intel is to open its fabrication facilities to ARM, after Altera announced that it had contracted with Intel to produce 64-bit ARM chips.
The move opens the way for ARM microprocessors to be built to Intel's latest process architectures, which are the most advanced in the industry.
The announcement was made at the ARM developers' conference today. Altera will use Intel's 14-nanometre Tri-Gate process to manufacture its quad-core, 64-bit Cortex-A53 Stratix-10 system-on-a-chip.
In addition to providing Altera with significant advantages over rival ARM device makers, it will also provide a big challenge for Intel's own low-power-consumption mobile and embedded microprocessors.
In a statement, Altera claimed that its design produced with Intel's 14-nanometre process technology will enable six times more data throughput "compared to today's highest performing system-on-a-chip FPGAs [field programmable gate arrays]".
It continued: "The Cortex-A53 also delivers important features, such as virtualisation support, 256 terabyte memory reach and error correction code (ECC) on level-one and level-two caches. Furthermore, the Cortex-A53 core can run in 32-bit mode, which will run Cortex-A9 operating systems and code unmodified, allowing a smooth upgrade path from Altera's 28-nanometre and 20-nanometre SoC FPGAs."
The surprise move was described by analyst Nathan Brookwood as "huge". Speaking to Forbes magazine, he said: "Imagine ARM's most powerful and technologically advanced 64-bits processor built on Intel's leading-edge fabs. A duo that will be hard to beat."
The deal between Altera and Intel will pose a significant challenge to other semiconductor companies developing high-performance ARM designs, especially for 64-bit server applications. TSMC, Samsung and Qualcomm are all keen to use forthcoming 64-bit ARM technology as a means of getting into the PC and server microprocessor markets profitably dominated by Intel.
While Intel says that it is shifting its leading-edge production to 14-nanometre process facilities over the next year, rivals are producing products on 28 or, at best, 22 nanometre process facilities, giving Intel a clear advantage.
Intel has only recently indicated that it will open up its fabs to designers, competing for business against TSMC, Samsung and Globalfoundries - the foundry business spun-out of its main PC and server chip rival AMD.
Intel holds a wide-ranging ARM licence - acquired when it bought the semiconductor operations of Digital Equipment, which produced high-performance StrongARM microprocessors - and uses a few designs in fringe applications.
But it has historically used its lead in semiconductor manufacturing to keep potential rivals at bay, and sold off the StrongARM business, which it had rebranded XScale, to Marvel in 2006.