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How AMD became a chip giant and leapfrogged Intel after years of playing catch-up

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Advanced Micro Devices made history this year when it surpassed Intel by market cap for the first time ever. Intel has long held the lead in the market for computer processors, but AMD’s ascent results from the company branching out into entirely new sectors.

In one of the biggest semiconductor acquisitions in history, AMD purchased adaptive chip company Xilinx in February for $49 billion. Now, AMD chips are in two Tesla models, NASA’s Mars Perseverance land rover, 5G cell towers and the world’s fastest supercomputer. 

“AMD is beating Intel on all the metrics that matter, and until and unless Intel can fix its manufacturing, find some new way to manufacture things, they will continue to do that,” said Jay Goldberg, semiconductor consultant at D2D Advisory.

But a decade ago, analysts had a very different outlook for AMD.

“It was almost a joke, right? Because for decades they had these incredible performance problems,” Goldberg said. “And that’s changed.”

CNBC sat down with AMD CEO Lisa Su to hear about her company’s remarkable comeback, and huge bets on new types of chips in the face of a PC slump, fresh restrictions on exports to China and shifting industry trends.

‘Real men have fabs’

AMD was founded in 1969 by eight men, chief among them Jerry Sanders. The famously colorful marketing executive had recently left Fairchild Semiconductor, which shares credit for the invention of the integrated circuit.

“He was one of the best salesmen that Silicon Valley had ever seen,” said Stacy Rasgon, semiconductor analyst at Bernstein Research. “Stories of lavish parties that they would throw. And there’s one story about him and his wife coming down the stairs of the turret at the party in matching fur coats.”

AMD Co-Founder Jerry Sanders poses at the original headquarters of Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, in Sunnyvale, California, in 1969


He also coined an infamous phrase about chip fabrication plants, or fabs.

“Jerry Sanders was very famous for saying, ‘Real men have fabs,’ which obviously is a comment that is problematic on a number of levels and has largely been disproven by history,” Goldberg said.

As technology advances, making chips has become prohibitively expensive. It now takes billions of dollars and several years to build a fab. AMD now designs and tests chips and has no fabs.

“When you think about what do you need to do to be world class and design, it’s a certain set of skills,” Su said. “And then what do you need to do to be world class In manufacturing? It’s a different set of skills and the business model is different, the capital model is different.”

Back in the ’70s, AMD was pumping out computer chips. By the ’80s, it was a second-source supplier for Intel. After AMD and Intel parted ways, AMD reverse engineered Intel’s chips to make its own products that were compatible with Intel’s groundbreaking x86 software. Intel sued AMD, but a settlement in 1995 gave AMD the right to continue designing x86 chips, making personal computer pricing more competitive for end consumers.

In 2006, AMD bought major fabless chip company ATI for $5.4 billion. Then in 2009, AMD broke off its manufacturing arm altogether, forming GlobalFoundries.

“That’s when their execution really started to take off because they no longer had to worry about the foundry side of things,” Goldberg said.

GlobalFoundries went public in 2021 and remains a top maker of the less advanced chips found in simpler components like a car’s anti-lock brakes or heads-up display. But it stopped making leading-edge chips in 2018. For those, AMD turned to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which now makes all of AMD’s most advanced chips.

Catching Intel

AMD only has major competition from two other companies when it comes to designing the most advanced microprocessors: Nvidia in graphics processing units, GPUs, and Intel in central processing units, CPUs.

While AMD controls far less GPU and CPU market share than Nvidia and Intel, respectively, it’s made remarkable strides since moving away from manufacturing and reducing capital expenditure. 

Meanwhile, Intel doubled down on manufacturing last year, committing $20 billion for new fabs in Arizona and up to $100 billion in Ohio, for what it says will be the world’s largest chip-making complex. But the projects are still years away from coming online.

“Intel is just not moving forward fast enough,” Goldberg said. “They’ve said they expect to continue to lose share in next year and I think we’ll see that on the client side. And that’s helped out AMD tremendously on the data center side.”

AMD’s Zen line of CPUs, first released in 2017, is often seen as the key to the company’s recent success. Su told CNBC it’s her favorite product. It’s also what analysts say saved AMD from near bankruptcy.

“They were like literally, like probably six months away from the edge and somehow they pulled out of it,” Rasgon said. “They have this Hail Mary on this new product design that they’re still selling like later generations of today, they call it Zen is their name for it. And it worked. It had a massively improved performance and enabled them to stem the share losses and ultimately turn them around.”

AMD CEO Lisa Su shows the newly released Genoa CPU, the company’s 4th generation EPYC processor, to CNBC’s Katie Tarasov at AMD’s headquarters in Santa Clara, California, on November 8, 2022

Jeniece Pettitt

Among the Zen products, AMD’s EPYC family of CPUs made monumental leaps on the data center side. Its latest, Genoa, was released earlier this month. AMD’s data center customers include Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Oracle, IBM and Microsoft Azure.

“If you looked at our business five years ago, we were probably more than 80% – 90% in the consumer markets and very PC-centric and gaming-centric,” Su said. “As I thought about what we wanted for the strategy of the company, we believed that for high-performance computing, really the data center was the most strategic piece of the business.”

AMD’s revenue more than tripled between 2017 and 2021, growing from $5.3 billion to over $16 billion. Intel’s annual revenue over that stretched, meanwhile, increased about 25% from close to $63 billion in 2017 to $79 billion last year.

Geopolitical concerns and PC slump

AMD’s success at catching up to Intel’s technological advances is something many attribute to Su, who took over as CEO in 2014. AMD has more than tripled its employee count since then. Su was Fortune’s #2 Business Person of the Year in 2020 and the recipient of three of the semiconductor industry’s top honors. She also serves on President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science on Technology, which pushed hard for the recent passage of the CHIPS Act. It sets aside $52 billion for U.S. companies to manufacture chips domestically instead of overseas.

“It’s a recognition of just how important semiconductors are to both economic prosperity as well as national security in the United States,” Su said.

With all the world’s most advanced semiconductors currently made in Asia, the chip shortage highlighted the problems of overseas dependency, especially amid continued tension between China and Taiwan. Now, TSMC is building a $12 billion 5-nanometer chip fab outside Phoenix.

“We’re pleased with the expansion in Arizona,” Su said. “We think that’s a great thing and we’d like to see it expand even more.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration enacted big new bans on semiconductor exports to China. AMD has about 3,000 employees in China and 25% of its sales were to China last year. But Su says the revenue impact has been “very small.”

“When we look at the most recent regulations, they’re not significantly impacting our business,” Su said. “It does affect some of our highest-end chips that are used in sort of AI applications. And we were not selling those into China.”

What is hurting AMD’s revenue, at least for now, is the PC slump. In its third-quarter earnings report earlier this month, AMD missed expectations, shortly after Intel warned of a soft fourth quarter. PC shipments were down nearly 20% in the third quarter, the steepest decline in more than 20 years.

“It’s down a bit more than perhaps we expected,” Su said. “There is a cycle of correction which happens from time to time, but we’re very focused on the long-term road map.”

Going custom

It’s not just PC sales that are slowing. The very core of computer chip technology advancement is changing. An industry rule called Moore’s Law has long dictated that the number of resistors on a chip should double about every two years.

“The process that we call Moore’s Law still has at least another decade to go, but there’s definitely, it’s slowing down,” Goldberg said. “Everybody sort of used CPUs for everything, general purpose compute, but that’s all slowed down. And so now it suddenly makes sense to do more customized solutions.”

Former Xilinx CEO Victor Peng and AMD CEO Lisa Su on stage in Munich, Germany, at the


That’s why AMD acquired Xilinx, known for its adaptive chips called Field-Programmable Gate Arrays, or FPGAs. Earlier this year, AMD also bought cloud startup Pensando for $1.9 billion. 

“We can quibble about some of the prices they paid for some of these things and what the returns will look like,” said Goldberg, adding that the acquisitions were ultimately a good decision. “They’re building a custom compute business to help their customers design their own chips. I think that’s a very, it’s a smart strategy.”

More and more big companies are designing their own custom chips. Amazon has its own Graviton processors for AWS. Google designs its own AI chips for the Pixel phone and a specific video chip for YouTube. Even John Deere is coming out with its own chips for autonomous tractors.

“If you really look underneath what’s happening in the chip industry over the last five years, everybody needs more chips and you see them everywhere, right?” Su said. “Particularly the growth of the cloud has been such a key trend over the last five years. And what that means is when you have very high volume growth in chips, you do want to do more customization.”

Even basic chip architecture is at a transition point. AMD and Intel chips are based on the five-decade-old x86 architecture. Now ARM architecture chips are growing in popularity, with companies like Nvidia and Ampere making major promises about developing Arm CPUs, and Apple switching from Intel to self-designed ARM processors.

“My view is it’s really not a debate between x86 and Arm,” Su said. “You’re going to see basically, these two are the most important architectures out there in the market. And what we’ve seen is it’s really about what you do with the compute.”

For now, analysts say AMD is in a strong position as it diversifies alongside its core business of x86 computing chips.

“AMD should fare much better in 2023 as we come out of the cycle, as their performance gains versus Intel start to become apparent, and as they start to build out on some of these new businesses,” Goldberg said.

Intel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Correction: “And we were not selling those into China,” said Lisa Su, AMD’s CEO. Her quote has been updated to reflect a typo that appeared in an earlier version of this article.


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Two children and two adults survive after Tesla plunges 250 feet off California cliff

View from the helicopter during a rescue operation after a vehicle carrying two adults and two children went over a cliff in Devil’s Slide, San Mateo county, California, U.S., January 2, 2023, plunging hundreds of feet, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in this still image obtained from social media video.

CHP – Golden Gate Division | Reuters

Two adults and two children were rescued from a Tesla that plunged 250 feet off a cliff Monday morning in San Mateo County, California, officials said. 

The car was traveling southbound on the Pacific Coast Highway when it went over the cliff at Devil’s Slide, south of the Tom Lantos tunnel, and landed near the water’s edge below, the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit said. 

The car flipped and landed on its wheels in the fall, CAL FIRE/Coastside Fire Incident Commander Brian Pottenger said. Witnesses saw the accident and called 911. 

As crews were lowered down, they were able to see movement in the front seat, through their binoculars, meaning someone was alive.

“We were actually very shocked when we found survivable victims in the vehicle. So, that actually was a really hopeful moment for us,” Pottenger said. 

Fire officials called for helicopters to help hoist the survivors to safety. As they waited, firefighters rappelled to the scene and rescued the two children.

Rescue teams are seen at the scene as a Tesla with four occupants plunged over a cliff on Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Devils Slide on January 2, 2022 in San Mateo County, California, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The California Highway Patrol shared video on social media showing helicopters lower first responders to the scene to extricate and rescue two adults inside. 

All four were hospitalized. The San Mateo Sheriff’s Office said the two adults suffered non-life-threatening injuries and the two children were unharmed.

It’s not clear what caused the car to go over the cliff. CHP is handling the investigation. 

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Tesla shares tumble more than 10% following deliveries report

Tesla vehicles are shown at a sales and service center in Vista, California, June 3, 2022.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Shares of Tesla dropped 13% on Tuesday morning, a day after the electric auto maker reported fourth-quarter vehicle production and delivery numbers for 2022.

Deliveries are the closest approximation of sales disclosed by Tesla. The company reported 405,278 total deliveries for the quarter and 1.31 million total deliveries for the year. These numbers represented a record for the Elon Musk-led automaker and growth of 40% in deliveries year over year, but they fell shy of analysts’ expectations.

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According to a consensus of analysts’ estimates compiled by FactSet, as of Dec. 31, 2022, Wall Street was expecting Tesla to report around 427,000 deliveries for the final quarter of the year. Estimates updated in December, and included in the FactSet consensus, ranged from 409,000 to 433,000.

Those more recent estimates were in line with a company-compiled consensus distributed by Tesla investor relations Vice President Martin Viecha. 

Some Wall Street analysts think Tesla’s deliveries miss spells trouble for the electric vehicle maker, but others see a buying opportunity for the company in 2023.

Baird analyst Ben Kallo, who recently named Tesla a top pick for 2023, maintained an outperform rating and said he would remain a buyer of the stock ahead of the company’s earnings report, which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

“Q4 deliveries missed consensus but beat our estimates,” he said in a Tuesday note. “Importantly, production increased ~20% q/q which we expect to continue into 2023 as gigafactories in Berlin and Austin continue to ramp.”

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they consider the delivery report to be an “incremental negative,” and view Tesla as a company that is “well positioned for long-term growth.” Goldman reiterated its buy rating on the stock in a Monday note and said that making vehicles more affordable in a challenging macroeconomic environment will be a “key driver of growth.”

“We believe key debates from here will be on whether vehicle deliveries can reaccelerate, margins and Tesla’s brand,” the analysts said.

Shares of Tesla suffered an extreme yearlong sell-off in 2022, prompting CEO Musk to tell employees in late December not to be “too bothered by stock market craziness.”

Musk has blamed Tesla’s declining share price in part on rising interest rates. But critics point to his rocky $44 billion Twitter takeover as a bigger culprit for the slide.

Morgan Stanley analysts said they think the company’s share price weakness is a “window of opportunity to buy.”

“Between a worsening macro backdrop, record high unaffordability, and increasing competition, there are hurdles for all auto companies to overcome in the year ahead,” they said in a note Tuesday. “However, within this backdrop we believe TSLA has the potential to widen its lead in the EV race, as it leverages its cost and scale advantages to further itself from the competition.”

CNBC’s Lora Kolodny and Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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Tesla makes China boss Tom Zhu its highest-profile executive after Elon Musk

Tom Zhu Xiaotong, Tesla’s current executive in charge of China, speaks as a new Tesla experience store opens on Aug. 18, 2015 in Hangzhou, China.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

Tesla’s China chief Tom Zhu has been promoted to take direct oversight of the electric carmaker’s U.S. assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe, according to an internal posting of reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

The Tesla posting showed that Zhu’s title of vice president for Greater China had not changed and that he also retained his responsibilities as Tesla’s most senior executive for sales in the rest of Asia as of Tuesday.

The move makes Zhu the highest-profile executive at Tesla after Chief Executive Elon Musk, with direct oversight for deliveries in all of its major markets and operations of its key production hubs.

The reporting lines for Zhu would keep Tesla’s vehicle design and development — both areas where Musk has been heavily involved — separate while creating an apparent deputy to Musk on the more near-term challenges of managing global sales and output.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Reuters reviewed the organizational chart that had been posted internally by Tesla and confirmed the change with two people who had seen it. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Elon Musk needs to go back to Tesla and have others run Twitter, says Jim Cramer

Zhu and a team of his reports were brought in by Tesla late last year to troubleshoot production issues in the United States, driving an expectation among his colleagues then that he was being groomed for a bigger role.

Zhu’s appointment to a global role comes at a time when Musk has been distracted by his acquisition of Twitter and Tesla analysts and investors have urged action that would deepen the senior executive bench and allow him to focus on Tesla.

Under Zhu, Tesla’s Shanghai plant rebounded strongly from Covid lockdowns in China.

Tesla said on Monday that it had delivered 405,278 vehicles in the fourth quarter, short of Wall Street estimates, according to data compiled by Refinitiv.

The company had delivered 308,600 vehicles in the same period a year earlier.

The Tesla managers reporting to Zhu include: Jason Shawhan, director of manufacturing at the Gigafactory in Texas; Hrushikesh Sagar, senior director of manufacturing at Tesla’s Fremont factory; Joe Ward, vice president in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Troy Jones, vice president of North America sales and service, according to the Tesla notice on reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

Tesla country managers in China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand continued to report to Zhu, the notice showed.

Zhu does not have a direct report at Tesla’s still-ramping Berlin plant, but a person with knowledge of the matter said responsibility for that operation would come with the reporting line for Amsterdam-based Ward. Ward could not be immediately reached for comment.

Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, joined Tesla in 2014. Before that he was a project manager at a company established by his MBA classmates at Duke University, advising Chinese contractors working on infrastructure projects in Africa.

During Shanghai’s two-month Covid lockdown, Zhu was among the first batch of employees sleeping in the factory as they sought to keep it running, people who work with him have said.

Zhu, a no-fuss manager who sports a buzz cut, favors Tesla-branded fleece jackets and has lived in a government-subsidized apartment that is a 10-minute drive from the Shanghai Gigafactory. It was not immediately clear whether he would move after his promotion.

He takes charge of Tesla’s main production hubs at a time when the company is readying the launch of Cybertruck and a revamped version of its Model 3 sedan. Tesla has also said it is developing a cheaper electric vehicle but has not provided details on that plan.

When Tesla posted a picture on Twitter last month to celebrate its Austin, Texas, plant hitting a production milestone for its Model Y, Zhu was among hundreds of workers smiling on the factory floor.

Why China is beating the U.S. in electric vehicles

Allan Wang, who was promoted to vice president in charge of sales in China in July, was listed as the legal representative for the operation in registration papers filed with Chinese regulators in a change by the company last month.

Tesla board member James Murdoch said in November the company had recently identified a potential successor to Musk without naming the person. Murdoch did not respond to a request for comment.

Electrek previously reported that Zhu would take responsibility for U.S. sales, delivery and service.

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