HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — It looks like Intel's "on again, off again" purchase of Altera is finally going through. The current buzz on the street is that Intel has said that it's agreed to buy Altera for $16.7B.
The deal makes sense for several reasons. From Intel's perspective, the personal computer market that consumes a lot of its processor chips is in decline, with more and more end users moving to tablets or even smartphones for their Internet access and computing needs.
Other big markets for Intel's processors are servers and communications. The problem is that processors are really good at performing decision-making operations and implementing control functions but are inefficient when it comes to many algorithmic data processing tasks.
One solution has been to increase the processor clock frequency. The current world record for the fastest CPU is held by AMD with a Bulldozer-based FX chip "overclocked" to 8.805 GHz; most commercial processors are currently in the 2.0 to 3.5 GHz range, but this also increases power consumption. Another option is to increase the number of processor cores, but it's difficult to create software applications that take full advantage of multiple cores.
By comparison, Altera makes devices called field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), whose programmable logic functionality can be configured on the fly. FPGAs can be used to perform computations in a massively parallel fashion, which makes them ideal for compute-intensive tasks like machine vision and big data processing.
One type of high-performance computing (HPC) architecture employs a mix of traditional processors and programmable logic, with the processors performing the control and decision-making functions while the FPGAs performing the compute-intensive number-crunching operations.
One reason why Altera is attractive to Intel is that Altera is already using Intel's fab to create its latest generation FPGAs and SoCs; Arria 10 FPGAs and SoCs are being implemented using TSMC's 20nm process, while Stratix 10 FPGAs and SoCs are leveraging Intel’s 14 nm Tri-Gate process (see Altera & Intel to Collaborate on Multi-Die 14nm FPGAs). Furthermore, Altera is also using Intel's state-of-the-art packaging technologies.
The bottom line is that, by purchasing Altera, Intel has acquired a tier-one FPGA company whose devices are already being produced on Intel's fabs. Running a fab is an incredibly expensive operation, so producing more chips that you can sell yourself is obviously a good idea. Furthermore, this now opens the door to some very interesting possibilities, such as creating processors that contain programmable fabric, or perhaps presenting multiple processor cores and FPGA die in the same package.
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