I just had a briefing with the folks from Altera and Enpirion, and things are starting to make a lot more sense...
I must admit that yesterday's news from the folks at Altera that they had signed a definitive merger agreement to acquire Enpirion took me a little by surprise (Click Here to see the original announcement).
However, I just had a briefing with Jeff Waters (SVP of the Military, Industrial and Communications Division at Altera) and Ashraf Lofti (Founder and CEO of Enpirion), and things are making a lot more sense.
Let's start with the fact that the power requirements of high-end FPGAs are becoming more and more complex, with increasing numbers of power rails, tighter tolerances, complex power-up sequencing requirements, and so forth. Things are only going to get worse in the future when we start to see 3D ICs comprising mixtures of FPGA die, high-end analog functions, and … all sorts of "stuff."
Enpirion's broad portfolio includes 100% coverage of FPGA point-of-load power needs. In particular, Enpirion bring a single chip (package) solution to the table that combines high-frequency switching (boasting high efficiency and low noise) with magnetics engineering and advanced power packaging.
In addition to dramatically reducing board area requirements, the fact that this is a single chip (package) solution offers a tremendous increase in reliability. Ashraf told me that their MTBF (mean time between failures) is at least an order of magnitude better than traditional solutions. This is obviously extremely significant when you also hear that approximately 50% of system failures are power-related.
And speaking of size, in addition to offering 20% lower height than their nearest module-based competitor, Enpirion's PowerSoCs offer up to 7X size reduction over competitor modules and discrete regulators.
When you come to think that really high end FPGAs might require 15 to 20 of these power supplies, then it's easy to appreciate just how significant all of this is. The folks at Altera certainly appreciate this significance, because they are already positioning Enpirion as a key brand within the Altera Galactic Empire:
With this move, Altera now has in-house power expertise to optimize system-level FPGA solutions. From the point of view of Altera's customers, this offers multiple benefits:
- This highly-integrated FPGA power solution offers the smallest footprint
- Better efficiency lowers system power consumption
- Having access to a fully validated solution improves TTM and minimizes board spins
- Fewer components increases system reliability and lowers total cost
- All of this allows customers to focus on their core IP
Quite apart from anything else, there are many non-FPGA designers who are currently using Enpirion's power solutions on their boards, so this purchase now provides Altera with a "window" into these users.And as to the future?
Obviously, the folks from Altera are currently focusing on the "here and now" with regard to this announcement, so it's left to use to speculate as to the future. Let's revisit the image of Enpirion's single chip (package) solution:
Note the "controller" portion. Initially I'd assumed that this was a digital MCU-type controller (that's just the way I think), but in fact it's predominantly analog. When we talk about things like power-on sequencing, these aren’t the devices that would do the controlling – instead they are devices that would be controlled. They do offer support for power-on sequencing and have dedicated pins for this purpose, but the sequencing logic has to be provided external to the device.
Now, this isn’t something that Altera are currently talking about, but I'm predicting that in the not-so-distant future we will be hearing announcements about additional power control and sequencing capabilities, perhaps based on Altera's non-volatile CPLD devices.
All of this has to be seen as bad news (well, at least, not good news) by the folks at Lattice with their power management solutions. It's also got to be bad news for other FPGA vendors whose end users have been employing Enpirion solutions. Altera and Enpirion say that "Existing Enpirion customers will continue to be supported"
(note the "existing"), but I'm not sure just how happy (or unhappy) all of this will leave users of non-Altera FPGAs…
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