Friday, January 15, 2010

Intel Acquiring FPGA Vendor?

EE Times reports on a JP Morgan Analyst prediction that Intel will acquire an FPGA vendor. The purported reason: to expand its competitiveness in embedded systems and system-on-chip. The two obvious market leaders in that category are Altera and Xilinx, though there are several smaller vendors like Actel and Lattice as well.

Fake Intel x86 with FPGAs

The SoC angle is interesting, in terms of the disruptive change it might allow. Freescale carries a huge variety of part numbers with various combinations of PowerPC core plus networking, USB, CAN-BUS, encryption, etc. Some of the functionality is implemented via an independant communications processor (a 68k descendant) alongside the PowerPC, to try to make each chip more flexible and able to serve different markets. Nonetheless, its still a very large collection of chips. Intel could be aiming for just a few different parts, with embedded FPGA blocks of various sizes and I/O pinouts. Need CAN-BUS? Buy a part with the right type of pins bonded out, with a license for soft logic IP to load into it. More sophisticated customers could load their own design logic into the FPGA blocks.

At one time Xilinx offered parts with hard logic PowerPC cores, but the CPU performance was modest and did not remain competitive over time. Xilinx and Altera both now emphasize soft logic CPU cores instead. These certainly work... but implementing a CPU in FPGA gates is an awfully expensive way to get your software to run. If Intel were to enter this space it would come from the opposite direction: a modern CPU core paired with a modest amount of FPGA logic.

EETimes published a subsequent rebuttal of the acquisition rumor, throwing around big numbers about the premium to be paid for Altera or Xilinx. The numbers make my head hurt, but its worth a read if you're interested in the topic.