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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  • Calin - Monday, November 8, 2021 - link

    If what I remember is correct, the x86 licenses can't be sold. If NVidia would really want the license to produce x86 processors, they might let themselves be bought by VIA (the other way around wouldn't work).
  • Lord of the Bored - Monday, November 8, 2021 - link

    That was part of the AMD settlement, it is not part of the license.
    Via actually got their license by buying National Semiconductors' x86 division, which National got by buying Cyrix.
  • Lord of the Bored - Monday, November 8, 2021 - link

    And just to make things more complex, Cyrix got their license by suing Intel.

    Intel sued Cyrix for reverse-engineering the 486, and patent infringement. The courts said Cyrix was fine, and Intel licensed them the patents in question to make an antitrust suit Cyrix filed go away.

    They got a full x86 license by suing Intel for patent infringement, claiming the P2 and PPro were ripping off Cyrix's power-management patents. Intel settled to make that one go away.
  • pogsnet - Saturday, November 20, 2021 - link

    Wow! Never heard that. Though I live on that period of era already, I also tested Cyrix on that period, yes it is on par with Intel or maybe better than AMD.
  • Igor_Kavinski - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    Chump change for Intel. They probably found some really talented engineers in the team and VIA has some sort of binding clause in their employment contract that won't let them quit and work for a competitor immediately. This is VIA's price for nullifying that contract. But it's also possible that this is an attempt by Intel to take away their most senior engineers, to make sure VIA don't become a threat to them anytime in the near future.
  • Wereweeb - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    VIA isn't a threat to anyone. They're probably just dumping their x86 design team because they've seen the writing on the wall - with stiff competition from AMD in servers, and real competition from ARM-based SoC's everywhere (And in the future also RISC-V SoC's), VIA's x86 license and design capabilities are now worth essentially nothing.

    China probably also prefers having their own CPU architecture, so accessing VIA's x86 license through Zhaoxin will become an unecessary nuisance.
  • easp - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    None of which explains why Intel is paying so much.

    Moreover, if VIA really wants to be rid of it, Intel would be in a position to negotiate a much lower price.
  • TheinsanegamerN - Friday, November 5, 2021 - link

    $125 million is a drop int he bucket for intel.

    And you forget how incredibly territorial intel gets over x86. The opportunity to reclaim one of the old forever licenses they were forced to hand out would likely be snatched up regardless of the price asked.I bet via could have gotten more, frankly.
  • dotjaz - Monday, November 8, 2021 - link

    But they are NOT reclaiming anything. VIA still has the license.
  • Calin - Monday, November 8, 2021 - link

    There are no details on the deal (other than the price). This might be buried somewhere in the "small print".
    Regardless of how much they want to kill the x86 license of VIA, they wouldn't want everybody to know that there are even more choices to x86 than itself.

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