Does Altera Have “Big Data” Communications on the Brain?

In wireless, wireline and financial “big data” applications, moving all those packets needs prodigious FPGA resources, not all of which Altera had before their recent series of acquisitions, partnerships, and otherwise wheeling-and-dealing.

Chris Balough of Altera (left) interviewed by Andy Frame from ARM. (Courtesy: YouTube.)

Chris Balough of Altera (left) interviewed by Andy Frame from ARM. (Courtesy: YouTube.)

I caught up with an old friend at April’s DESIGN West 2013 conference in San Jose: Chris Balough, Sr Director, Product Marketing for SoC products. I knew Chris from when he was at Triscend (purchased by Xilinx). Chris is now in charge of Altera’s SoC products which are Arria V, Stratix V and Cyclone FPGAs with ARM cores in them which compete with Xilinx’s Zynq devices. Chris shed some light on some of these announcements, but remained mum on what they all might mean taken collectively. I think they add up to something big in “Big Data”.

(Fun facts: Altera’s first “SoC” was Excalibur, no longer recommended for new designs. Altera’s most popular SoC processor is the soft Nios II, sold in roughly 30 percent of production SoCs, says Balough.)

X before A? We’ll See

Subconsciously I think of Xilinx first when the word “FPGA” is flashed in front of me, but Altera’s the company pushing more boundaries of late. Their rat-a-tat machine gun announcements this year got my attention.

In the summer of 2012, I did an interview with Altera’s Sr VP of R&D Brad Howe and he spread out as much of the roadmap on the table as he could. Things like HSA, OpenCL, and better gigabit transceivers were all on the horizon.  Shortly thereafter, Altera extended their  relationship with TSMC to 20nm for Arria and Cyclone FPGAs. Then in early 2013, they rocked the industry by locking up an exclusive FPGA relationship with Intel for the industry’s only production 14nm tri-gate FinFETs.

Spring Cleaning ; Altera’s Getting Ready For…?

Now in Spring 2013, Altera is making headlines like these:

- FPGA Design in the Cloud–Try It, You’ll Like It, Says Plunify. At DAC, Altera and Plunify are pushing cloud-based FPGA design tools. (See our February 2013 article with Plunify here.)

- Altera and AppliedMicro will Cooperate on Joint Solutions for High Growth Data Center Market.  Combines Stratix FPGAs and AppliedMicro’s Server on a Chip devices targeting data centers and optical transport networks (OTN).

- Altera Expands OTN Solution Capabilities with Acquisition of TPACK. Altera buys TPAK from AMCC to provide IP for FPGAs used in OTN for tasks like cross-bar switches used in 10/40/100Gbps PHYs.

- Altera Stratix V GX FPGAs Achieve PCIe Gen3 Compliance and Listing on PCI-SIG Integrators List. Right now, Gen2 and Gen3 PCIe is critical to data centers, cellular base stations, and all manner of high-speed long-haul/back-haul telco gear. Within 12 months, PCIe Gen2/3 will be “table stakes” in all manner of high-performance embedded systems like ATCA- or VME/VPX-based DSP systems for radar, sonar, SIGINT (signals intelligence) or data mining.

- Altera to Deliver Breakthrough Power Solutions for FPGAs with Acquisition of Power Technology Innovator Enpirion.  Maybe Enpirion’s DC-DC converter PowerSoCs with integrated inductors may some day end up inside a Stratix package (perhaps like Xilinx’s stacked chip interposer technology), but for now the two-chip solution reduces board space by 1/7 and simplifies system design considerably. The programmable DC-DC converters provide the multiple power rails–and power-up sequences–needed for big FPGAs.

The blue regions show places where FPGAs are used in wireless basestations.

The blue regions show places where FPGAs are used in wireless LTE basestations. (Courtesy: Altera.)

My Take: Altera’s Move in Big Data

Analysts estimate that nearly 50 percent of the revenue in  FPGAs comes from high end, high density, costly FPGAs like the Xilinx Vertex 7 and Altera Stratix V. Segments like wireless and wireline packet processing, plus financial or image processing algorithm processors increasingly rely on these kinds of FPGAs in lieu of ASICs, GPGPUs, or proprietary network processors. So every advantage in IP, process technology, or partnership that Altera has, gets the company one step closer to more design wins.

We’ll see what Altera does with all of these recent announcements. I’d expect to see something shake loose before the traditional “summer doldrums” set in when the semiconductor industry goes on its annual vacation next month in July.