Monday, November 1, 2010

Intel follows AMD's lead, spins off foundry business

</sensational headline> Well, the spinoff is yet to be announced :-P, but Intel is indeed opening their fab to an outsider for the first time.  Achronix, a relatively new FPGA company (background), must have seriously impressed some execs to win the keys to Intel city, and their 22nm fabrication facilities coming online next year .  With Intel now maintaining roughly a half-node advantage over all other fabs, Achronix will be releasing production 22nm FPGAs by the time Xilinx and Altera are at full production with their 28nm FPGAs from TSMC.  When fabricating the same design, 22nm will hold about 60% more than 28nm, and Intel's 22nm will probably consume about 30%-50% less power for the same design at the same speed.

The current method of circumventing the power wall, ILP wall, and memory wall by adding more cores to each processor die,may not maintain the Moore's Law rate of 2x per cycle.  A nice aspect of FPGAs is that they still achieve 2x per tech node, or slightly better.  Designs on even the biggest and fastest FPGAs are still not near the ~150-watt power wall, and off-chip communication bandwidth continues to roughly double as the onboard high-speed transceivers are still getting faster and more numerous.  Part of the reason for this continued ability to scale is that FPGAs are programmed in Hardware Description Languages (HDLs) in which huge amounts of parallelism must be declared directly by the programmer (hard problems like timing closure and clock boundary crossing also fall on their shoulders).

Thus, with Intel's 22nm tech node not expected to deliver a big improvement in serial processing speed, and only (optimistically) doubling x86 core count to 12 (which AMD's 32nm Magny Cours already reaches at 2.2ghz), the greatest capabilities reaped from the timely arrival of Intel's 22nm tech node (potentially 1-2 years ahead of Global Foundries, TSMC, UMC, etc.) may come in the form of FPGAs with the highest speed and capacity on the planet (by a large margin).

More importantly, these new best-on-the-planet FPGAs may be provided at prices like $400.  That is  25x less than today!  Even if you can afford ~$10k to get the best right now, you still need like 3 -6 months lead time.  Taking all this into account, what's most surprising is that stock prices didn't plummet for companies that will soon be competing on unlevel ground (Xilinx up 0.1% and Altera down 0.1% on the day).

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