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In Silicon Valley, we take things like faster chips and Moore’s law for granted. It seems like progress is always inevitable, given the history of semiconductors and the accomplishments of chip makers such as Intel, which turns 50 this year.
But the fact is that advances in chip processing take hard work and smart people. This explains why Intel announced in April that it had hired Jim Keller as a senior vice president. He will lead the company’s silicon engineering efforts, which include putting together chips that can handle just about every task in a system.
Keller’s hiring has turned heads, as few can boast a trail of accomplishments like he has had as a chip architect, the person who defines what a whole family of chips could look like. Chip design is increasingly complicated, sometimes requiring thousands of engineers working on details that are as intricate as designing the flow of people and traffic in a 3D metropolis.
Linley Gwennap, longtime chip analyst at the Linley Group, speculates that Keller might be taking a fresh look at Intel’s aging x86 architecture from the ground up. Or he could be working on the next chip designs for artificial intelligence, or for marrying more than one chip in a system. Those all represent big ideas in the $412 billion semiconductor industry.
Keller isn’t saying what he’s working on yet, and maybe he won’t for years. But I spoke with him about his hiring and the publicity around his moves, which are watched carefully in the industry. He’s not a publicity seeker, but he has had a remarkable career as a chip architect. He started at Digital Equipment Corp., where he played a role in the 1990s design of the DEC Alpha processors.
In 1998, he moved to AMD, where he worked on the Athlon (K7) processor and led the K8 project that disrupted Intel’s 64-bit Itanium chips and gave AMD its first foothold in the lucrative market for server chips. Then, in 1999 — as the dotcom bubble was growing — he left for startup SiByte, which Broadcom acquired in 2000 for $2 billion in stock. When the bubble collapsed, so did the value of that deal and Broadcom’s own hypergrowth.
In 2004, Keller moved on to head engineering at P.A. Semi, a startup focused on mobile processors. Then he moved to Apple in early 2008. Apple also bought the P.A. Semi team, which went to work on the A series processors for iPhones. That was part of Steve Jobs’ strategy to become independent from chip makers, and it turned out to be a brilliant move that saved Apple billions of dollars.
In 2012, Keller sensed a shift coming again. Advances in PC processors were slowing. He rejoined AMD to lead a new microarchitecture, dubbed Zen. AMD launched the first chips based on Zen in 2017, and for the first time in years the company is rapidly gaining share on Intel. In 2015, Keller left AMD and joined Tesla to work on autopilot engineering for the company’s electric cars. (No doubt Tesla CEO Elon Musk is getting tired of paying Nvidia for AI chips for Tesla’s electric cars). Now, for the first time, this famous processor architect is working at the world’s biggest processor maker.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: I was looking at a Motley Fool story from last year that talked about this famous chip architect, Jim Keller. Apparently there can be a famous chip designer.
Jim Keller: I had no idea. I got to Tesla and they had a bio for me. I said, “Where did you get that?” They said, “It’s your Wikipedia page.” I thought, “I have a Wikipedia page?” I sent that to my mom. She was pretty impressed.
VentureBeat: It’s an interesting time. People have heard of things you’ve done. It’s interesting to me, having covered semiconductors since 1994. What do you think about this fame or notoriety? What does it mean about where we are?
Keller: I have no idea. Aside from bragging to my kids. I have a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old. They think it’s pretty cool that somebody called me a guru on a web page. You can’t beat that. But there are plenty of famous technologists. I’m not exactly a fame-seeker. I was surprised that there was a forum on some products I did, where people would passionately talk about what choices I made and why, what I was going to do next.
The fact that people are quite passionate about their computers — the gamer guys are especially passionate about the processor and the GPU and the next game and the framerate, and the people behind doing that. That’s kind of cool, that people are interested.
VentureBeat: I think they can tell that who’s behind something sometimes makes a big difference.
Keller: Yeah, that’s normal. The fact that they even go figure out that someone like me, who has relatively little public footprint — I’ve been lucky. I worked at Digital, which was a bloody great place to work. Then I went to AMD and some startups and Apple and back to AMD for a second try at that relationship. Tesla was super interesting. And then I got asked to join Intel, which has been great.
VentureBeat: It seems like you don’t mind bouncing around from job to job.
Keller: I really like working on the next product, the next really interesting problem. I’m an architect, but the problem of working with organizations to build products is a really interesting problem too. Finding the people — people are so interesting, right? There are innovative people. There are conscientious people. There are people who are great at teamwork. Verification people used to bug me, because I worried about everything. Then I realized that’s a genius plan. Some people worry about everything and you need that. But I like the dynamics of technical problems and organizing to go solve them.
VentureBeat: It seems like this becomes very strategic, every now and then. What you did at Apple helped give them independence from the chip vendors in a lot of ways. That seems like it helped them go more vertical and retain more of the profit in their business.
Keller: That was Steve Jobs’ idea, not mine. I’m a computer architect. When I was invited to work there, it was like, “Well, what am I going to work on?” They said, “That’s a secret.” So I hardly had an idea about that idea. Oddly enough, when I was there I worked with Intel on a couple of the Mac products, and that was interesting too. I’m the product guy.
VentureBeat: The notion that the big system companies can and should design their own chips, what do you generally think of that? Compared to the notion that chip-makers like Intel can supply that.
Keller: I’ve been in this business long enough to see both verticalization and horizontalization. The pendulum swings back and forth. It’ll continue to swing. There are different reasons for it at different times. We’re at a couple of inflection points in terms of technology change. Mobile is still running through the industry, low power. The expansion of cloud has been amazing. We’re in an AI revolution, if you go count the startups in that space.
Whenever you have inflection points, things move around a bit, but then there’s constant — foundries are really hard. High-end processor design is really hard. Bringing the components together to make a processor that’s really differentiated and really valuable is hard. If you look at the semiconductor market today, it’s continuing to grow on the top line. The pieces in the middle are moving around a bit. Some of it’s standard products from big companies and some of it’s customized silicon in-house. The mix of that has changed several times in the last three years, but the stability of — the super-hard problems tend to be designed by people who are experts at it.