NY Times - Big Feature on Sapphire Rapids Delays

I’m surprised this was featured rather prominently in the Times.


Last May, Sandra Rivera, a top executive at the chip giant Intel, got some alarming news.

Engineers had worked for more than five years to develop a powerful new microprocessor to carry out computing chores in data centers and were confident they had finally gotten the product right. But signs of a potentially serious technical flaw surfaced during a regular morning meeting to discuss the project.

The issue was so troublesome that Sapphire Rapids, the code name for the microprocessor, had to be delayed — the latest in a series of setbacks for one of Intel’s most important products in years.

“We were pretty dejected,” said Ms. Rivera, an executive vice president in charge of Intel’s data center and artificial intelligence group. “It was a painful decision.”

The launch of Sapphire Rapids wound up being pushed from mid-2022 to Tuesday, nearly two years later than once expected. The lengthy development of the product — which combines four chips in one package — underscores some of the challenges facing a turnaround effort at Intel when the United States is trying to assert its dominance in the foundational computer technology.

In October 2021, Ms. Rivera and a top design executive established weekly Sapphire Rapids status meetings, held each Monday at 7 a.m. Those gatherings showed steady progress in finding and fixing bugs, she said, bolstering confidence about starting production in the second quarter of 2022.

Then came the discovery of the flaw last May. Ms. Rivera would not describe it in detail but said it had affected the processor’s performance. In June, she used an investor event to announce a delay of at least a quarter, which pushed Sapphire Rapids later than the launch of a competing AMD chip in November.

“We were ready to ship,” Ms. Nassif said. The final delay “was just so sad given all the effort that had gone into it.”

Ms. Rivera saw a series of lessons from the setbacks. One was simply that Intel packed too many innovations into Sapphire Rapids, rather than deliver a less ambitious product sooner.

She also concluded that the team should have spent more time on perfecting and testing its design using computer simulations. Finding bugs before they are in sample chips is less expensive, and would have made it possible to remove features to simplify the product, Ms. Rivera said. She has since moved to bolster Intel’s simulation and validation abilities.

“We used to have a lot of this kind of muscle that we let atrophy,” Ms. Rivera said. “Now we’re rebuilding.”

She also determined that Intel had scheduled more products than its engineers and customers could easily handle. So she streamlined that product road map, including pushing back a successor to Sapphire Rapids to 2024 from 2023.

More broadly, Ms. Rivera and other Intel executives have pushed the organization to develop better processes for documenting technical issues, and sharing that information inside and outside the company.

Some Intel customers say the communication has gotten better.

“Has everything gone well? No,” said Lenovo’s Mr. Skaugen, who once ran Intel’s server chip business. “But we were surprised a lot less than we were in the past.”