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.
Possible game changer
For Achronix, the deal with Intel could be very significant. By beating Xilinx and Altera to the punch at 22-nm, executives say the Speedster22i family could put the company in position to compete for many more design sockets that currently go to standard cell ASICs.
Achronix is one of a number of promising FGPA startup companies that have emerged within the past few years, some of which have since shut their doors. Backed by more than $86 million in venture capital funding, Achronix gained notoriety for the speed of its original 65-nm Speedster family, which operated at a peak performance of 1.5 GHz, far greater than any other FPGAs.
But while Holt said the company has been hitting its internal goals, to date Achronix accounts for a very small percentage of the global programmable logic market. That market is dominated by Xilinx and Altera, which together have more than 85 percent market share.
Even with Intel's process technology, Holt said Achronix would not immediately pose a major threat to the big players. "Xilinx and Altera won't be worried about Achronix, initially," Holt said. "We'll just be the third billion dollar FPGA company soon."
Intel, like many semiconductor companies, once made its own programmable logic devices from the early 80s until the early 90s. There has at times been speculation that Intel would return to the programmable logic market, including a prediction early this year by JP Morgan analyst Christopher Danely that Intel could acquire Xilinx or Altera, which was widely dismissed.
While emphasizing that he could not speak for Intel, Holt said the deal "speaks to how important they [Intel] see FPGAs to the future of the semiconductor industry." But, Holt said, "If Intel wanted to be in the FPGA business they would be already. They certainly have the cash."
The relationship with Achronix could be a precursor to Intel eventually combining programmable logic with its Atom cores on the same die to create a new type of device. Earlier this year both Xilinx and Actel Corp. announced products that combined their programmable logic technology with hard ARM processor cores.
While acknowledging that the Intel deal is a "game changer" that improves Achronix' future prospects, Holt said the company was persevering anyway through a difficult period that has been making it hard on startups, controlling spending and achieving its goal for sales last year, which he described as "single digit millions." Holt said Achronix was originally planning to move from 65-nm directly to 28-nm and would have been taping out a 28-nm device at TSMC in the near future. However, he said, when the strategic agreement with Intel came about the company shifted gears and devoted investment to 22-nm design.
Achronix said the Speedster22i family would establish new standards for FPGAs in terms of size, performance, cost and power consumption. The family will offer devices with up to 2.5 million look up tables (LUTs), twice as many as any other FPGA, Achronix said. Because of Intel's process technology, the devices will also offer a cost advantage of more than 40 percent, according to the company. Like the previous generation of Speedster, the devices will also offer a peak performance of 1.5 GHz, 300 percent faster than other FPGAs, and consume 50 percent lower power, Achronix said.
Achronix plans to target Speedster22i to a wide range of applications in the telecommunication, networking, industrial and consumer markets. The devices will also appeal to emerging applications such as 100G, 400G Ethernet networking and LTE mobile communications, Achronix said.
Xilinx, Altera play rough
Even with a technology advantage, Achronix will still have an uphill battle competing with Xilinx and Altera, each of which is well entrenched and accustomed to muscling competition out of the way. Many FPGA users who are accustomed to using devices from one of the top two vendors are reluctant to switch.
"It can be difficult to get engineers to change if your product is a 'me too' product," Holt said. "But when you offer the engineer and product manager a significant technology advantage, all of that product loyalty goes out the window."
Achronix maintains that its design tools are set up to be familiar to users who are used to using products from Xilinx and Altera. The company has multi-year agreements with Synopsys Inc. and Mentor Graphics Corp. to supply design tools to Achronix customers. The design tools for Speedster22i are essentially the same as Achronix' previous tools, the company said.
Because of Intel's considerable U.S. manufacturing presence, Speedster22i will be the only commercial FPGA family manufactured in the U.S., Achronix said.