Intel rumoured to be taking a Mali licence from ARM

Intel is rumoured to be planning the unthinkable: a partnership with its bitter rival ARM over the latter's Mali graphics processing unit (GPU) designs.

Intel and ARM are direct competitors in a variety of fields: the California-based chip giant has been increasing its effort to push the Atom x86 processor family into ARM's traditional stronghold of embedded and mobile devices, while British company ARM has responded by retooling its low-power architecture for use in Intel's profitable data centre market.

The two didn't always fight, however: back in the mists of time, Intel was an ARM licensee. Following its purchase of Digital Semiconductor, the chip arm of Digital Equipment Corporation, Intel produced an ARM variant known as the StrongARM. This was followed up by the XScale family, a series of 32-bit chips based on the ARMv5TE instruction set architecture, before Intel sold the technology to Marvell and exited the ARM market altogether.

The days of collaboration between ARM and Intel could be due to resurface, however, with Italian IT news website Notebook Italia pointing to documents proclaiming Intel to be a semiconductor partner for ARM's recently announced Mali-T658 graphics processing technology.

The Mali family is one of ARM's biggest successes: despite having little background in dedicated graphics hardware, the company has produced a family of GPU designs that offer incredible performance in a low power envelope. For Intel, Mali could represent a means of offering a powerful system-on-chip design, combining an Atom CPU with a Mali GPU.

In doing so, however, Intel would have to change the Mali design - which is built to be a companion device to an ARM-based processor - considerably. Whether that's easier than developing its own high-performance mobile graphics design is questionable.

Thus far, Intel has not commented publicly on the rumour - but if it proves true, it will represent a major design win for ARM.