SAN FRANCISCO—Intel Corp. will lend its semiconductor process technology muscle to build FPGAs for programmable logic startup Achronix Semiconductor Corp. at 22-nm and beyond under the terms of a strategic agreement between the two companies announced Monday (Nov. 1).
Executives from Achronix (San Jose, Calif.) said the deal would not only help the company bring 22-nm FPGAs to market faster than programmable logic market leaders Xilinx Inc. and Altera Corp., but also give the startup a leg up in 15-nm and future technology nodes.
"If you look at history, Intel over the last 11 process generations has done a new process successfully every two years," said John Lofton Holt, Achronix founder, chairman and CEO. "We believe that trend will continue, and we are going to benefit from that."
Holt said he could not comment in detail on the specifics of the strategic agreement between Intel and Achronix, other than to call it a "partnership with a capital p" that would benefit both companies. The two companies have been discussing the arrangement since early this year, Holt said.
Achronix said it would have engineering samples of its 22-nm devices, Speedster22i, by the fourth quarter of 2011, the same time that Intel is set to be in production on its own 22-nm devices. Because of Intel's capacity and process technology, Holt said Speedster22i could be in volume production at the same time.
The Achronix parts will be built with the same 22-nm process technology that Intel will use for its own chips. Intel's 22-nm process technology will include high-k metal gate, a technologically difficult trick which Intel has been employing since the 45-nm node but that other firms have been struggling to perfect.
Xilinx has said it will begin sampling 28-nm parts made with high-k metal gate process technology this year, with volume production expected early next year. Altera will reportedly be in volume production of 28-nm parts made by leading foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) this year, also using high-k metal gate.
The Achronix deal is an unusual one for Intel, the world's No. 1 semiconductor vendor and the leader in process technology among logic chip vendors. Intel has rarely—if ever—used its manufacturing muscle to make parts for another chip vendor. Holt and other Achronix executives said that to their knowledge this deal represented a first, though that could not immediately be confirmed. But Intel has never dabbled in the foundry market the way many large semiconductor companies have.
In 2001, Intel entered the fabless ASIC business, offering logistics support and other services for fabless chip vendors to bring their ASICs and ASSPs to market more quickly. But in that case, Intel did not use its own manufacturing facilities to build the parts, instead forging alliances with several foundries, including TSMC. Intel subsequently exited that business in early 2003.
A spokesperson for Intel said that manufacturing of Achronix parts would make up "significantly less than one percent" of the company's manufacturing capacity and that Intel would leave the door open to adding more foundry customers. "All I can say for the record is that our factories are our prized possession," the spokesperson said.
Indeed, Intel is testing waters in both aspects, FPGA and foundry service provider. It could have worked with Achronix from a distance, letting them use TSMC as foundry, or completely acquired Achronix, as mentioned well.
Great comments guys, thanks. I can't figure this one out myself. You have raised some issues I considered, but I have questions about both.
@eewiz- If Intel's motivation here is to be back in the FPGA business, why do a strategic agreement and not just an acquisition? My first thought was that this was the first step toward an acquisition, but then I wondered, why not just pull the trigger? As Achronix CEO John Lofton Holt pointed out, if Intel wanted to be in the FPGA business, they would be. They would buy Achronix and/or another FPGA startup with (what is for Intel) loose change. So if that's the goal, why wouldn't they just do it?
@resistion- In my opinion, this is more about the strategic importance of programmable logic than it is about Intel going into the foundry business. I think if Intel wanted to go into the foundry business, the company would make a big PR push and announce a division called Intel Foundry Services or something like that. If this was just about Intel generating some extra revenue through foundry work, I just don't think they would start with Achronix, which is, for all of its promising technology, a pretty small player. If Intel wanted to go foundry, there are dozens of other chip companies they could have started with that would generate more revenue. (For that matter, why not start with Xilinx or Altera?)
My bet is this (my colleague Brian Fuller first suggested this to me and I think he is right): This is the first step to an eventual offering that pairs programmable logic with an Atom core in the mold of Actel's SmartFusion and the forthcoming Xilinx chips, both of which offer programmable logic and a hard ARM core.
Yeah I think going foundry was inevitable path for Intel, as it sees its bread and butter PC business model overwhelmed by apple-driven smartphone business model. Samsung also found it inevitable to relieve itself from the virtually suicidal memory market death spiral.
Woa! Big Blow to Xilinx and Altera. The only reason I could see for Intel to do this is an Acquisition. As TingLu pointed out, Intel would have already reached an agreement with Achronix that they would buyout the FPGA startup later on. But then the question is why would Intel want to get into FPGA business!! Already they have many things to figure out with McAfee and Infineon WLS acquisition.
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