Monday, November 1, 2010

Intel and Achronix Get Engaged

Fake Intel x86 with FPGAsIn January JP Morgan predicted that Intel would acquire an FPGA vendor in 2010. Speculation immediately focussed on Altera and Xilinx, which are large enough to have a material impact on Intel's sales. I wrote about it then, speculating that Intel would use the technology to get into various embedded market segments without needing a zillion SoC variants. Choose a die with appropriate I/O pins, load the logic into FPGA blocks alongside the CPU, and voila!

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that Intel is opening their fabs to Achronix Semiconductor, a startup with interesting FPGA technology. The Achronix home page highlights what is presumably the immediate benefit to Intel, in unlocking additional sales to US military and intelligence agencies.

"The Achronix Speedster22i FPGA Platform uniquely enables applications that require an end-to-end supply chain within the United States. Being built at an onshore location offers significant advantages to programmable logic users who demand the highest level of security."

Presumably the agencies interested in using these parts want to embed optimized hardware to offload algorithms from software. This can be necessary for some applications, if the customer has the resources to implement it. The desire for an on-shore supply chain which can be audited is in reaction to the inadvertent use of counterfeit chips in previous military systems.

Achronix is using branding for the product line which looks remarkably like Intel's, and it seems certain the deal has provisions for cancellation or modification upon change of control to another party. This announcement also amounts to Intel marking their territory for an acquisition.

I/Os Considered Important

DoD requirements notwithstanding, there are relatively few applications where embedding algorithms in FPGAs makes sense. The drawback has never been a technological one, in requiring closer cooperation between CPU and FPGA. It is a business issue: once you commit to a specialized hardware design, the clock starts ticking. There will come a day when a software implementation could meet the requirements, and at that point the FPGA becomes an expensive liability in the BOM cost. You have to make enough profit from the hardware offload product to pay for its own design, plus a redesign in software, or the whole exercise turns out to be a waste of money.

There is another quote on the Achronix technology page which is quite relevant:

"Speedster FPGAs include four embedded DDR1/2/3 controllers, each offering up to 72 bits of data at 1066 Mbps. ... The DDR controllers are fully by-passable so the pins can be used as general I/O if the DDR controllers are not needed." (emphasis added)

Being able to select various I/O drivers for a pin in an FPGA is relatively common, but generally quite limited. Very high speed SERDES pins often cannot be reassigned or are restricted in what else they can be used for, because the high speed interface is sensitive to layout and loading. If Achronix has developed robust I/O muxing with more flexibility, this would be very interesting to Intel. It gets them closer to having a small selection of silicon dies, with different IP loads to target specific markets.

Using FPGAs as a way to tailor chips for specific markets makes a lot more sense than algorithm offload, IMHO. This provides products which could not otherwise exist, as it would be difficult to justify the incremental cost of each different chip. Amortizing the cost of silicon development over a much larger number of different applications makes more sense.