SAN JOSE, Calif. – Intel Corp. will build FPGAs for Altera Corp. using its 14-nm FinFET process technology in a deal that turns up the heat on TSMC in foundry and Xilinx in high-end FPGAs. The deal marks the largest of a string of publicly disclosed foundry deals for Intel to date--and its first at 14 nm--but is not expected to result in products until 2014.
Altera (San Jose, Calif.) declined to disclose details of the deal, including what products it will make when. However, Altera CEO John Daane did say he believes Intel is two to four years ahead of other foundries with its 14-nm FinFET process, which Altera will use initially to give its highest-end FPGAs advantages in density, performance and power.
High-end parts make up about half the FPGA market, with Altera claiming a lead with 40- and 28-nm parts that it aims to extend with the new Intel process. Besides winning more business away from rival Xilinx, the 14-nm parts could help Altera grab more sockets away from ASICs and application-specific standard devices, Daane said.
Intel promised Altera access to the 14-nm process for 12 years to satisfy long-term availability requirements of defense and other customers, Daane said. The multi-year deal allows Altera to use other existing and future nodes, but the FPGA maker initially will focus on high-end parts at 14 nm, he said.
Using multi-die chip stacks, Altera currently ships an FPGA that packs 1.2 million logic elements, lagging a similar chip from Xilinx with 2 million logic elements. However, such parts have relatively high costs and power and take a performance hit due to additional on-chip communications. They are used “for prototyping predominantly—it’s a niche,” Daane said.
Altera surveyed foundries for a year before striking the deal with Intel. It will continue to make chips at TSMC and conduct ongoing evaluations of other processes as they develop.
Daane cited reports that other foundries are grafting a first-generation of FinFETs on to existing 20-nm design rules to create what they are calling a 14-nm node. “Intel’s 14-nm is a second generation FinFET process, while others are just starting to implement their first,” he said.
The deal marks "a significant departure for Altera," said Deutsche Bank analyst Ross Seymore, who doesn't expect Altera to see revenue from it until 2015. It is also "a validation of Intel's manufacturing leadership" that "should help Intel make gains in foundry services," he added.
"It is not Intel's objective to become a general foundry service provider," said Len Jelinek, a chief analyst at IHS iSuppli. Rather it aims "to select a few high volume [foundry] clients [that] provide Intel with an additional revenue stream to help defer the cost of its advanced manufacturing capability," he said.
Intel says 14-nm node ready this year
To date, Intel has announced it is making chips in its 22-nm FinFET process for two FPGA startups, Achronix and Tablua, and network processor maker Netronome. Achronix officially started sampling its FPGAs based on Intel’s 22-nm technology last week, claiming it is two years ahead of competitors using TSMC.
Unconfirmed reports have said Intel could be making 22-nm ASICs for Cisco. Others said the PC chip giant may be working on a deal to make mobile processors for Apple, which is trying to reduce its foundry dependence on archrival Samsung.
Daane expressed confidence Intel will be able to meet Altera’s volume requirements
“Clearly this is a step up for us,” said an Intel spokesman. “We were proceeding slowly and cautiously [into the foundry business] and now we are increasing the pace,” he said.
Intel will have its 14-nm process in production later this year, the spokesman added. Globalfoundries announced last fall it plans to accelerate its road map, making a 14-nm process available some time in 2014.
The Altera deal “puts Intel out there as a contender in the foundry market,” said Joanne Itow, manufacturing analyst at Semico Research Corp.
Itow noted that TSMC founder Morris Chang listed Intel as a competitor in a recent conference call. Altera will get at least a one or two year advantage using Intel’s 14-nm process, Itow said, but she doubted the FPGA maker will be able to ship the parts until sometime in 2014.