2021 came in on Intel like a big storm. CEO Bob Swan, named to his position after his predecessor stepped down following an affair with an Intel employee, announced his retirement after only two years at the job. He was replaced by Pat Gelsinger, former CEO of VMware. At that time, Intel had a hard time trying to match the technological progress of its competition while market trends seemed to be working against them.
Two months after his nomination, Gelsinger called his former right hand, Greg Lavender, whom he had known since early 2000. "I need your help," Lavender recalled the call with his old friend. This is how Lavender swapped his CTO position at VMware for the CTO role of the world's largest hardware corporation. Armed with substantial experience, Lavender plunged into his new mission: to reposition Intel as the technological leader, not only in hardware but also in software.
In an exclusive interview with GeekTime, Lavender recounted his discoveries in the first few days on the job, the approaches of his predecessors that led to some of Intel's problems, and how he plans to handle the competition regarding talent and technological superiority. He also shared the similarities between working with chips and baking a cake.
From 8-bit processors to Intel's future processors
Lavender's experience with hardware started at a very young age. As a child, he used the opportunities when his parents were not home to dismantle the electric home appliances. However, instead of getting mad with him, his father made young Greg reassemble the appliances. Shortly thereafter, the curious child came to know the Intel processors. "I used the Intel 8085 processor in high school when I built a PC from a kit and programmed the entire system around it. Of course, the resulting PC could not run Crysis, but still, it was an 8-bit computer with a maximum clock speed of 6 MHz.I was always the hardware guy”, Lavender told me, “But that does not mean I'm out of touch with software." Lavender spoke about himself in the same way one would describe Intel; the company that rose to fame primarily because of its hardware business. Nonetheless, software may prove the secret of its success in the next few years, but we will get to that later.
Because of this, Lavender said he has three jobs at Intel. "I'm saving the company quite a lot of money," he smiles. In his first position, he oversees Intel's research group, which employs 700 researchers and 500 students, many of them from Israel. "In this capacity, I feel like the dean of the engineering faculty." In his second position, he is responsible for Intel's IT Group, commissioned with expanding the corporation's fabrication plants– the new production facilities. Finally, his third role, perhaps the most meaningful for him, is to build Intel's software group. He explains that Intel used to have numerous units working with different aspects of software, which he regrouped under a single organization.
Lavender has good reasons for bringing together software professionals. Intel corporation employs 121 thousand people worldwide (12,000 of them in Israel), of whom over 19 thousand are in software. In other words, approximately 15% of Intel employees, the company best known as a hardware company, are people involved with software. "As CTO, I want to understand every aspect of the company, from fabs [production facilities] to the uppermost parts of the software. So, in a way, all I had to do was to get the inside information I needed," he said. Later in our talk, he proved his point when he told us how he visited each booth of the Israeli companies exhibiting at a Texas conference held a few months ago. These companies grew at Intel's accelerator, Ignite, with Lavender seeking to understand exactly what they do and how.
Bring the Apple ecosystem to the PC
An interview with an Intel executive used to revolve around nanometers, NAND, production architectures, and clock speed. In recent years, however, the company has emphasized software more strongly. Does the company believe this is the way to win or at least align with companies such as TSMC? Intel's software applications come not only as programs etched onto chips or in the Windows OS and various drivers, but also in the software that controls the production facilities of the company that makes the same chips. "Software is embedded in every layer of Intel, from the physical aspects to firmware. Some of our software people started their careers at Intel, while others joined the company because of the company's massive acquisitions in recent years, many of which were from Israel. Think about it– until a few years ago, we would have expected Intel to only buy companies such as Habana Labs because it can make more of what Intel is making. However, Intel made some major changes in its inner workings, and is buying more software companies such as Moovit, Granulate, and Screenovate, an Israeli company whose technology allows reflection of different devices running on different platforms and operating systems on the same screen.”
What were you trying to accomplish with Screenovate's acquisition?
Lavender: "Apple did excellent work integrating digital lifestyle. Even though their devices account for less than 10% of the PC market, they created smooth integration between phones, iPad, laptops, the cloud, and the like. This leaves us with 90% of the market running on Windows and Chrome OS or Android. Our goal with Screenovate was to open this platform to achieve integration between diverse devices and makers. 90% of the market does not have this capability. We want to open up the PC market so the user experience with mobile devices will be far more uniform."
In other words, Windows and Android can often just watch in envy the smooth interface and inter-device transition Apple users enjoy, with MACs to iPhones and even headsets. For example, MAC users can use the Sidecar feature to transform their iPad into a mobile second display. To do the same when using a Windows PC and Android tablet, users need to embark on a journey of downloading software, drivers, and configurations. The assimilation of the Israeli technology will allow Intel to enable a similar experience already on the chip and OS level, making it easier for Windows or Linux systems to provide a similar, albeit not an identical experience to that offered by Apple.
"Our previous leaders were not very communicative"
Intel has announced numerous new products over the past year, most of them around its flagship processor, Alder Lake. However, when I ask Lavender which announcement, he found the most exciting since he has been on the job, he does not mention Alder Lake, or Intel ARC but Pat Gelsinger's Manifesto, which exemplifies Intel’s software-focused strategy. "The geek is back," he said. "This has always been Intel's strategy, but the message got lost amongst all the noise. The previous Intel leaders were not very communicative when it came to software.” For example, he recalled how in 2017, his predecessors called off the Developer Forum, Intel's annual development conference, which used to attract thousands of developers every year.
As soon as they assumed their positions, Gelsinger and Lavender announced the developer conference would return in a new format and under a new name ("Intel Innovation") as early as this September. "We are going to introduce many more geeky hardware and software innovations the world has not seen yet." While he does not disclose details of the upcoming announcements, Lavender hints that the company made significant progress in GPU and AI and ML. So, get ready for some exciting announcements to come.
Lavender compared the hardware-software combination to food. "It's a little like a layered cake. You build the chips and the CPU, then you move to the Soc. You make up the motherboard and then you place everything in a device such as a laptop or a server. Topping it all off is software, which is like the soul of the machine or the cake's frosting. In my current position, I have a delicious cake on which I am going to add the frosting. Everyone likes a good cake, but the software is what makes the hardware sing. Without good software, hardware is enough only for enabling a nice green light."
Intel invests in more than its own software. It is one of the biggest contributors to the Linux kernel. Lavender, so it seems, is planning to double down on these investments, not curb or slow them. He pointed out that the global software developer community has grown by one million people over one year and that many of them focus on low-code or no-code development. He said that whether they know it or not, 20 million out of these 25 million developers use programs defined as Intel optimized. In other words, the programs, and tools they work with perform their best when used with Intel processors. He cites TensorFlow, the ML open code library that Google is developing and is used by teams for developing and training neural networks. He adds that after the update of 2.9, the library is even more suitable for performing on Intel processors, so that "every developer who uses it will immediately notice the performance improvement."
People who see Intel's focus on software say that Intel is doing it to make up for lagging behind TSMC, Apple ARM, and Nvidia…
Lavender: “No. We already have hundreds of millions of devices worldwide, from Amazon Cloud that runs on the Haswell Platform (introduced in 2013), to running a respectable number of various generations of our processors. Look at Tesla, which sends software and new feature updates to their cars globally. This is what we do. I have hundreds of millions of devices out there. The effect of each Tensorflow update is immediate. This is the value developers, users, and customers derive from our software updates. This is the reason we have the largest share of the public cloud. Even a 10%-enhancement of this base is advancement but also more opportunities for revenues and new markets for Intel. It would be silly of me and for Intel not to tap this potential."
Is that you, Intel?
So now we know Intel wants to emulate the user experience of Apple users and is prepared to cover the cost whatever it takes. However, the terrible experience of the PC users starts much earlier – as soon as they unpack their brand-new computer. As impressive as the PC's hardware is and as high its price tag is, I invariably bumped into crapware and bloatware in each PC I reviewed. I had to jump through the hoops, windows, and diverse notifications and settings just to launch Windows properly. I am pretty sure this also impacts the PC performance, and the experience Intel is trying to create. When I asked Lavender could it be that OEMs enjoy too much freedom with PCs, he said that this is the direct outcome of the healthy competition in the PC market and that this is the OEMs’ way of differentiating themselves from one another. "Apple has the luxury of proprietary hardware and operating systems." He attempted to explain the differences a little: "They did good work in creating the digital lifestyle experience that merges the entire proprietary architecture. When you have this luxury, you are free to choose. But 90% of the market opts for Windows, and the laptop I'm using right now runs Windows," Lavender said.
Healthy competition? 90% of the market? I was not convinced, but I do understand how he feels. Note that Intel is not a B2C company. Its key customers are OEMs like Lenovo, Dell, and HP, not you, the end-users. Therefore, it isn't likely that the company will embark on a new route any time soon. Windows users will probably continue to suffer from nagging antivirus programs, unnecessary software suites, and driver updates. As someone who toggles daily between the two, the difference will remain as glaring as they used to be.
Having talked about Apple and its architectures, let's talk about ARM. Apple made a good move by switching from Intel to homemade ARM processors. Microsoft now tries to leave its mark alongside Google with Tensor on Pixel devices. Do you think the market will persist in moving to self-developed processors?
“The processor market is huge. The demand for processors keeps growing, and we are making and selling more chips than ever. I do believe some market segments will demand different prices and capabilities. Competition is a good thing, and we will compete. The playing field has become more competitive, which excites me. I like to play against good competitors."
Alongside the compliments to his competitors (would you expect anything else from a senior multinational executive?) Lavender does not miss the chance to criticize Apple as well by highlighting its limited market share. He argues that the market is searching for a range of processor solutions (simply put, not just X86 but also ARM). At the same time, he said there's a limit to diversity too. He does not believe all the companies will start developing processors that sync perfectly with their hardware. "We keep innovating on the client-side and make the products perform better at better prices. The gaming community obviously prefers Intel to ARM. So again, competition in a healthy market is a good thing. It helps you focus your attention and push your prices. We will continue to compete." As we know, Intel is not alone in the gaming and heavy-duty performance scene. "What interested me the most was understanding how we will compete against Nvidia and our GPU plans. So, I jumped in to enhance our software's quality and bring our products to the market as fast as possible."
The competition over the Israeli employees: "We'll go where the talent is"
In recent years, Intel realized its competition against other technology companies such as Nvidia, Apple, or ARM is not only in products and technology but also in HR and talent acquisition. Intel, the largest employer in the Israeli high-tech industry, has already announced it is building an extensive mega-campus on top of its many other sites. The announcement was attended by CEO Pat Gelsinger. But Intel is no longer alone in this regard. The battle over talent was joined by Apple, which is building a 30-story tower, Microsoft with five more centers, Google with a new chip development center, and Nvidia, which announced that with the acquisition of Mellanox they would hire hundreds of people to develop its CPU in Israel. The countless hardware and software startups fighting over the same worker pool were not included in this list.
Lavender evades giving a direct answer. "We are an excellent employer and will remain an excellent employer. We will go where the talent is, full stop." Going where the talent is also means deeper involvement in Israeli startups, investing via Intel Capital, partnerships with local universities, student mentoring programs, the Intel Ignite incubator, and more.
A significant Intel acquisition from the past few years was undoubtedly that of Habana Labs, which recently launched Gaudi 2, the first flagship processor it developed as an Intel company and is touted to compete against Nvidia's sophisticated processor. While it is not meant to run Cyberpunk 2077 or RDR 2, it is supposed to deliver ML, AI, and Data Centers performance. Lavender said that already in his second week at Intel, he asked Intel's Data and AI chief to join him in a meeting with Habana in Israel to get to know them better. He told him he had to meet them. "So, we embarked on a flight during my third week at Intel and spent two days at Habana Labs. We went through it all: mounting the CPU on the motherboard, the cooling, and the communication systems. I just wanted to understand everything”. Talking about the Gaudi-2 evolution, Lavender said, "The world should get ready because here we come."
"It's not sand but silicon I'm building castles with"
Lavender and Gelsinger are precisely the new spirits Intel has been looking for in recent years. It has become a more focused organization from a relatively clammed-up and defensive company that made many wrong bets and suffered chronic timetable issues. This may be the result of the new-old pro-developer attitude. It may also be due to the slap it received from the competition, which caused it to reorient, or maybe the fact that the CTO of Intel, the world's largest chip company and its hardware and software troops, is trying to make sure he knows every circuit, thread, code line and wafer the company makes. "I could have been on the beach in Greece now, having fun, but no. I'm here at Intel. It's not sand I'm building castles in, but silicon," he said. At the same time, one must remember that changing an aircraft carrier's course is not easy. Processes and policies do not change over a month. A great deal also depends on the company's employees. That's how we will transform the industry: 'get on board, everybody. People are responding. The morale at Intel is at its peak now. People tell me, ‘The good old Intel is finally back.'”
"I wasn't here to comment on the previous years, but I am here to say everyone at Intel is lending a hand. We are going to introduce peerless hardware and software. That's the reason I'm here. People ask me why I came to Intel, and I tell them, 'Pat did not bring me in to babysit but rather to take Intel in the right direction. So, this is what I'm doing. I've had a wonderful career so far, but what I am doing now is the greatest fun I've had in a long time."
It's still too early to tell if the transformation will succeed. After all, it has been implemented amidst fierce competition in the chip market as the competitor that keeps capturing additional market shares and record technological feats. A very successful move by Apple may signal to the rest of the market that a robust and ARM-based PC is feasible. Above all, the global chip crisis is expected to stay for the next few years. Either way, it's too early to appreciate the change the two leaders champion. But the change is underway, and this is a start.