Is Facebook looking to build its own data center chips?

A job listing on Facebook has some speculating that the social media company is building a team to design its own semiconductors, ending their reliance on Intel.

Is Facebook looking to build its own data center chips?
Alan Carrera (CC0)

A job posting on Facebook has led to speculation that the company is building a team to design its own semiconductors, thus ending their reliance on Intel. If so, it would be another step in the trend of major firms building their own silicon.

Bloomberg was the first to note a job opening, titled “Manager, ASIC Development,” that sought a manager to help build an "end-to-end SoC/ASIC, firmware and driver development organization." There is also an opening for an “ASIC & FPGA Design Engineer,” which seems an unusual position for a social network website to need.

Facebook is more than social media

But let’s not forget that Facebook is in the consumer hardware business. It owns Oculus, the virtual reality headset maker. Next month it will launch Oculus Go, a $200 headset, and it is powered by a Qualcomm processor. The company is also believed to be working on a “smart speaker” that would compete with Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s HomePod, the latter of which is reported to be a dud in the marketplace.

It wouldn’t be Facebook’s first foray into silicon. It partnered with Intel last year to help the chip giant develop its own AI processor. But this would be a first for Facebook if it’s looking to make its own silicon.

This job listing, though, indicates something data center-oriented and not for consumer devices. The position calls for someone to work with software and system engineers “to understand limitations of current hardware and use their expertise to build custom solutions targeted at multiple verticals including AI/ML, compression, and video encoding.”

The question, then, is for what? The CPU can be a pricey piece of the data center puzzle, but it’s far from the only piece. Why stop there? Why not make your own motherboards, racks, and cabinets? Plus, we are talking billions invested for a product that might never be sold. So, what's the return on investment?

The plus side to Facebook using its own processors is the company would have finer control over product development and be better able to tune its software and hardware.

Other companies making their own silicon

It wouldn’t be the first time a tech giant decided to make its own silicon. Google has designed an AI chip called Cloud Tensor Processing Units that are specifically designed for AI acceleration. Microsoft has made custom silicon for years, mostly for Xbox and the ill-fated Kinect.

And now there are rumors Apple is looking to make its own processors for the Mac, starting in 2020. I personally think that’s a very long shot. Mac is a shrinking piece of Apple’s pie, and some people have even wondered if the Mac line would be spun off or sold off. Why would Apple invest billions in a product that is shrinking and then put developers through the painful transition like when it moved from PowerPC to x86? So, that rumor doesn’t wash.

But whatever Facebook does, it’s another example of a giant that has the funds to make its own custom silicon and doing it, ROI be damned.

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