While I was at the imec Technology Forum someone asked me “Why did Intel pay $15B for Altera?” (the actual reported number is $16.7B).
The received wisdom is that Intel decided that it needs FPGA technology to remain competitive in the datacenter. There is a belief among some people that without FPGA acceleration available for vision processing, search and other algorithms that map better onto a hardware fabric than a processor, then Intel will gradually have more and more competitors in the datacenter. Even if you only put that possibility at 50-50 (say) then the “only the paranoid survive” attitude is to get an FPGA acceleration solution anyway. Of course they don’t need to buy Altera to do that. I’m sure Altera (or Xilinx even) would be happy to sell them all the chips they need. But at some point that technology may need to be embedded in which case having it on the same process already counts for something.
The next question was “Couldn’t they just build an FPGA solution themselves? It wouldn’t cost $15B.” At the technical level I am sure that the answer is that they could do it. Intel has great engineers and if they put their mind to it I’m sure they could produce something.
But I see 3 problems with doing it in-house.
Besides, Intel has already tried to grow their own FPGAs from seed with Tabula and Achronix, in both of which they were major investors and provided foundry services. Tabula closed its doors. Achronix’s are still open but rumors are not enthusiastic.
So if Intel wants a mature FPGA fabric with a working tool chain that allows compilation of offload software into hardware, they pretty much have to buy Altera or Xilinx. I don’t think Lattice have powerful enough software or large enough arrays, it’s not what they do. Xilinx are deep partners with TSMC, 10nm just announced. Altera are partners with…Intel (and TSMC too, to be fair). So easy decision which girl to chase at the dance.
The next question. “So why would Intel want to run a merchant FPGA business?” I have to say that I agree with the question. If I put myself in Intel’s shoes I wouldn’t want to. Mostly they are shipping TSMC silicon and have no opportunity to move it into an Intel fab. The Intel/Altera 14nm arrays are not even sampling (or even taped out, I hear). For anti-trust reasons they may have had to promise to keep the business going as a condition of the deal closing, but otherwise the first thing I would do is shut it down, or at least not invest in it for the future. It doesn’t need enough wafers to “fill the fab”. And it doesn’t move the needle in revenue either (Altera is a little less than $2B, all TSMC silicon, and Intel is $60B or so). So Altera’s merchant business is a pure distraction from Intel’s business in the datacenter and notebooks.
Who benefits? Everyone else. The Altera 14nm FPGAs have ARM processors on them. Who in their right mind is going to kick off an ARM-based project on Altera FPGAs now? Xilinx would seem a much safer choice. They are not about to exit the merchant FPGA business, nor switch ARM out for Atom, nor fail to get timely access to ARM’s latest and greatest next-generation cores, or whatever your nightmare of choice is.
With regards to the acceleration in the datacenter question, there are two outcomes. One, it turns out to be really important, which bodes really well for Intel/Altera but also for the ARM/Xilinx ecosystem, which will be basically everyone else other than Intel, including some powerful players such as Qualcomm. Or, two, it isn’t a major factor. ARM’s partners can still compete on the basis of power, price and physical size and may get some traction. And Intel wasted $15B.
Also Read: Xilinx in an ARM-fueled post-Altera world