How will Intel's purchase of Altera affect embedded space? -

How will Intel’s purchase of Altera affect embedded space?

Do you feel a ripple in the force? As you are doubtless aware, the hot news this week is that microprocessor behemoth Intel is purchasing programmable logic giant Altera (see Intel to Buy Altera for $16.7B by yours truly, Intel, Altera: Math in Questionby Rick Merritt, and 2015 Mergers, acquisitions and change in the global electronics industry by Steve Taranovich).

This has sparked all sorts of discussions and questions. One that interests me in particular is: “How will this acquisition affect embedded space?”

But before we go there, let's briefly peer into the mists of time… Intel was founded in 1968 by Gordon Moore (of “Moore's Law” fame), a chemist, and Robert Noyce, a physicist and co-inventor of the integrated circuit. Intel actually started out as a memory company; its first product was a 64-bit static SRAM in 1969. Even after Intel created the first commercially available microprocessor — the 4004 — in 1971, followed by a raft of increasingly sophisticated descendants, its business continued to be dominated by DRAM chips into the early 1980s.

Simple programmable logic devices (SPLDs) first appeared on the scene in the early 1970s. They started with PROMs in 1970, followed by PLAs in 1975, PALs in the late 1970s, and GALs in the early 1980s. The early 1980s also saw the emergence of more sophisticated components called complex programmable logic devices (CPLDs). A big leap forward occurred when newly-formed Altera Corporation introduced a CPLD based on a combination of the CMOS and EPROM technologies. Meanwhile, in 1985, recently-formed Xilinx presented the world's first FPGA to the market.

It probably won’t surprise you to discover that Intel had its own Programmable Logic Device (PLD) Business Unit, and that they offered families of programmable “iPLD” components ranging from SPLDs and EPLDs to FPGAs. The ironic thing here is that, in 1994, Altera increased its share of the programmable logic market to 20 percent by purchasing Intel's PLD business for ~$50 million in stock and cash.

But we digress… These days, we tend to think of Intel as predominantly being in the personal computer and server spaces. As I discussed in my EE Times column, Intel's processors are really good at performing decision-making operations and implementing control functions, but they are relatively inefficient when it comes to many algorithmic data processing tasks. By comparison, FPGAs can be used to perform computations in a massively parallel fashion, which makes them ideal for compute-intensive applications and tasks like communications infrastructure, machine vision, and big data processing.

Many servers already employ a mix of CPUs and FPGAs to implement high-performance computing (HPC) solutions. With Intel's fab and advanced packaging technologies, we can expect to see state-of-the-art processor and FPGA dice in the same package, and also processor and FPGA cores on the same die.

But what does all this have to do with embedded computing? Well, when you say embedded systems, many people tend to think of things like the Internet of Things (IoT), and — from there — they are inclined to think of incredibly small, low-power sensor and processing nodes “on the edge.” But “embedded space” covers much more than the IoT, and there's a tremendous market for embedded systems that can offer extreme processing performance.

Consider Intel's arch adversary AMD, which is its only significant rival in the central processor (CPU) market for (x86 based) personal computers. In recent years, Intel has taken the high-ground in the personal computer and server markets, but AMD is making significant thrusts into a variety of high-performance embedded markets. If AMD sees a market opportunity, then you can bet that Intel is interested also.

Chips that mix CPU and FPGA functionality on the same die offer all sorts of interesting possibilities. We should also remind ourselves that Intel isn’t totally tied to the highest performing and power-guzzling processors. Similarly, Altera does more than make the biggest and hairiest FPGAs. Consider Intel's Atom processors, which deliver energy-efficient performance to power devices ranging from smartphones and tablets, to intelligent cars, to cutting-edge healthcare devices, to microservers for the cloud, and … the list goes on.

Of particular interest here is the fact that Intel has already paired an Atom-series processor with an Altera FPGA in a single package. One limitation to this early incarnation is that all communications between the Atom processor and the FPGA have to funnel through a 1×1 PCIe channel linking the two die, thereby forming a bottleneck that makes offloading some tasks from the CPU to the FPGA impractical. Now that Intel has acquired Altera, we might start to see more innovative implementations in which the processor and FPGA dice are linked using silicon bridges that could potentially offer tens of thousands of inter-die connections.

To be honest, my mind is reeling with various possibilities — new ideas keep on popping into my head. How about you? What do you think about all of this? How do you think this acquisition might play out in embedded space (where no one can hear you scream)?

9 thoughts on “How will Intel’s purchase of Altera affect embedded space?

  1. “I was just chatting to Richard Wawrzyniak, who is the Sr. Market Analyst for ASICs & SoCs Sat emico Research Corp. Richard noted that one of the biggest challenges facing us today is security — we haven't done a very good job of it.nnThe world is a sca

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  2. “FPGAs are certainly eye-opening when it comes to security.nnOn devices like the Altera SOCFPGA (ARM + FPGA in one device), no matter how secure the software is, the FPGA can access every byte of RAM and every peripheral on the system. The FPGA operates

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  3. “I'm not too familiar with the security systems provided by SRAM-based FPGAs and SoC FPGAs (like those from Altera and Xilinx), but what about the Flash-based SmartFusion2 SoC FPGAs from Microsemi?nn

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  4. “But Intel bought Altera not Microsemi LOLnnSeriously, I'm not familiar with what Altera has for security in their configuration process but I know that some newer Xilinx parts have an option to encrypt the bitstream and only allow it to be loaded if it

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  5. “The issue is not in the encryption of the bitstream.nnThe issue is that the FPGA logic can access the entire CPU address space (just like a peripheral can in a PC).nnThese days most people do not design FPGA logic from scratch. They drop in pre-design

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  6. “Secure booting only prevents malicious software from being booted. It does not stop malicious IP blocks from running.nnThere are some SecureZone (or some such) features that are available on some bus architectures to prevent malicious access by hardware

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  7. “Yes, flexibility is definitely a mixed blessing.nnThe problem is that, no matter what features are put in to insure that only authorized code or IP blocks are run, the burden is still on the designer to make sure that nothing malicious is hidden in code

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  8. “Hello guys!.nIn the embedded world, this could lead to a plethora of different IC's with dedicated hardware functions, including power control or artificial vision.nBut I think that this purchase has more to do to fight against their enemies in the CPU

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