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Pigs Fly. Altera Goes with ARM on Intel 14nm

Pigs Fly. Altera Goes with ARM on Intel 14nm
by Paul McLellan on 10-29-2013 at 7:00 am

Altera announced in February that they would be using Intel as a foundry at 14nm. Historically they have used TSMC. Then in June they announced the Stratix 10 family of FPGAs that they would build on the Intel process. At the Globalpress summit in May I asked Vince Hu about their processor strategy. Here is what I wrote about itat the time:”Microprocessors? ARM is a great partner, at 20nm we are committed to ARM. What about 14nm? Is Intel going to manufacture ARM? Is Altera going to put Atoms on FPGAs? Too soon to comment but there may be an announcement soon. So my guess would be that Intel isn’t going to be building ARMs into Altera arrays and some sort of Altera/Intel processor deai will be announced in the future.”

 It turns out I was wrong. Today Altera announced their processor strategy for the Stratix 10 series. They will use a quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex A-53. Yes, Intel is going to be building 64-bit ARM processors in their 14nm FinFET (they call it Trigate) process. And yes, that is a pig you see in the sky.

I asked Altera about the schedule for all of this. Currently they have over 100 customers using the beta release of their software to model their applications in the Stratix 10. They have taped out a test-chip that is currently in the Intel fab. In the first half of next year they will have a broader release of the software to everyone. They will tape out the actual designs late in 2014 and have volume production starting in early 2015.

Why did they pick this processor? It has the highest power efficiency of any 64-bit processor. Plus it is backwards compatible with previous Altera families which used (32-bit) ARM Cortex-A9. The A53 has a 32-bit mode that is completely binary compatible with the A9. As I reported last week from the Linley conference, ARM is on a roll into communications infrastructure, enterprise and datacenter so there is a huge overlap between the target markets for the A53 and the target markets for the Stratix 10 SoCs.

You probably know that FPGAs are typically used as a process driver in foundries. They are very regular and so can be used to generate lots of statistical yield data. But this means that FPGA companies are typically working on both a new architecture and a new process at the same time. Intel doesn’t use FPGAs as a process driver, they use microprocessors of course. With all that on-chip cache they have some of the same desirable features as a process driver. Altera feel that they are in better shape as a result. They will be ramping in early 2015 but not in a new process, in Intel’s 14nm process which should have been in volume production for about a year with Intel’s own microprocessor families.


So what about the Stratix 10 family. Of course it is faster (2X) and lower power (70%). They will also have the Arria 10 midrange FPGA family, which will be build in TSMC’s 20nm planar process. But the Stratix 10 has a gigahertz fabric, 10 teraflops of signal processing…and a quad-core 64-bit ARM. The programming chain is based on OpenCL. You can start by programming the ARM and ignoring the FPGA, then gradually use the FPGA fabric to accelerate various functions, transparently to the programmer.

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