What Intel will do with Altera, a programmable-silicon IP gold mine

Date: 28/03/2015
There are quite a number of news stories reporting the rumour of Intel acquiring field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip maker Altera. Let's look at what makes FPGA such an attractive market. Worldwide there are only six important companies in this market of FPGA chips. They are Xilinx, Altera, Lattice Semiconductor, and Microsemi, and the two new startups Tabula and Achronix. Though QuickLogic makes programmable silicon based chips, they are different compared what is so-called FPGA. But the business model used by QuickLogic helps to understand how programmable silicon can be used for multiple applications. FPGA/programmable silicon helps electronics engineers to redesign the physical-architecture and hardware of digital circuits including processor architecture, so that any change in requirements can be easily implemented without changing the chip or board. Then why not everyone use FPGA? Well, FPGAs are expensive and also consumes more power compared to standard logic chip. But at 14 nm, the power consumption issue of FPGA is not that significant because they do not consume that much high level of power for many number of applications. Depending on the volumes, FPGA cost can be bought down close to many standard logic chips which are also called ASICs. So at deeper nodes such as 16nm/14nm, FPGA is lot more attractive in areas, which earlier never thought off.

What is already proven in the market is, Xilinx and Altera and Microsemi have launched SOC class chips having both FPGA and standard hard logic blocks (ARM Cortex A series processor or a ARM Cortex M series as hard block) and also some analog/interface in one monolithic chip. They are called as "programmable SOC". One of the successful product is Xilinx's Zync SoC IC, which has created lot of new markets.

Another interesting trend to share is, there is continuous change of standards and protocols in multiple number of applications, more so in mobile communications. Such change in standards and protocols demand redesign of electronics hardware with new chips. But with the FPGA, same boards and chips can be reprogrammed to adopt to new standards and protocols. With all-CMOS RF integrated SoC chips under development, having FPGA blocks on SoC make sense for both re-configurable radios and processors. Silicon can change its internals logic and other blocks' physical architecture like chameleon changes its color.

Nearly every ARM Cortex processor and many other popular processor IP architectures can run on FPGA fabric. So with a large silicon real estate of FPGA made using 16nm/14nm/10nm, engineers can design supercomputer to servers running on multiple number of FPGAs. This gives rise to importance of FPGA in server/data center market. And also due to low power consumption of 16/14 nm FPGA chip, they can be used even in personal computers. so that the PC users need not bother about changing hardware when they upgrade or move to new operating system. PC processors can be reprogrammed for any new on-line security threats at silicon level rather than using anti-virus software. FPGA-based chips are also can be used in sensor signal processing in smart phones/mobile devices.

So finally there are high chances of having a block of FPGA in every silicon, to make it more flexible, re-configurable and customisable.

To be more specific, the SOC market is becoming programmable SOC market. Leading semiconductor vendors who want to be in the programmable SOC market, they should have FPGA capabilities. You can't built FPGA business capabilities overnight, because they're heavily IP driven, a lot of patents are already given to leading semiconductor vendors such as Xilinx and Altera. So the best way for leading semiconductor vendors to make the chips more hardware-programmable is to acquire a FPGA company. The two other interesting FPGA vendors in the market other than Xilinx and Altera are Tabula and Achronix. Intel is already offering foundry services to Altera and Achronix. Intel has understood the FPGA market deeper by closely working with Achronix and Altera.

Xilinx is a big fish in the semiconductor sea and has revenues supporting capability to acquire many smaller non-FPGA companies. Its hard to see any bigger fish than Xilinx eyeing to acquire Xilinx in semiconductor industry. From the larger OEM electronics industry, there might be some companies who might acquire Xilinx. There are good number of electronics companies such Apple and Cisco which do significant semiconductor development for their internal use.

If rumours have to be believed, Intel may have to pay anything excess of $10 billion to acquire Altera , making it one of the biggest acquisition by Intel.

Intel stock prices are already rising. We will update you in our next article on this interesting development.

Author: Srinivasa Reddy N
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