According to Greg Martin, a spokesman for the FPGA maker, Achronix can compete with Xilinx and Altera because it has, at 1.5GHz in its current Speedster1 line, the fastest such chips on the market. And by moving to Intel’s 22nm technology, the company could have ramped up the clock speed to 3GHz.
That kind of says it all in one sentence, or two sentences in this case. The fastest FPGA on the market is quite an accomplishment unto itself. Putting that FPGA on the world’s most advanced production line and silicon wafter technology is what Andy Grove would called the 10X Effect. FPGA’s are reconfigurable processors that can have their circuits re-routed and optimized for different tasks over and over again. This is real beneficial for very small batches of processors where you need a custom design. Some of the things they can speed up is doing math or looking up things in a very large search through a database. In the past I was always curious whether they could be used a general purpose computer which could switch gears and optimize itself for different tasks. I didn’t know whether or not it would work or be worthwhile but it really seemed like there was a vast untapped reservoir of power in the FPGA.
Some super computer manufacturers have started using FPGAs as special purpose co-processors and have found immense speed-ups as a result. Oil prospecting companies have also used them to speed up analysis of seismic data and place good bets on dropping a well bore in the right spot. But price has always been a big barrier to entry as quoted in this article. $1,000 per chip is the cost. Which limits the appeal to those buyers where price is no object but speed and time are more important. The two big competitors in the field off FPGA manufacturing are Altix and Xilinx both of which design the chips but have them manufactured in other countries. This has led to FPGAs being second class citizens used older generation chip technologies on old manufacturing lines. They always had to deal with what they could get. Performance in terms of clock speed was always less too.
It was not unusual to see during the Megahertz and Gigahertz wars chip speeds increasing every month. FPGAs sped up too, but not nearly as fast. I remember seeing 200Mhz/sec and 400Mhz/sec touted as Xilinx and Altix top of the line products. With Achrnix running at 1.5Ghz, things have changed quite a bit. That’s a general purposed CPU speed in a completely customizable FPGA. This means you get speed that makes the FPGA even more useful. However, instead of going faster this article points out people would rather buy the same speed but use less electricity and generate less heat. There’s no better way to do this than to shrink the size of the circuits on the FPGA and that is the core philosophy of Intel Inc. They have just teamed up to put the Achronix FPGA on the smallest feature size production line using the most optimized, cost conscious manufacturer of silicon chips bar none.
Another point being made in the article is the market for FPGAs at this level of performance also tends to be more defense contract oriented. As a result, to maintain the level of security necessary to sell chips to this industry, the chips need to be made in the good ol’ USA and Intel doesn’t outsource anything when it comes to it’s top of the line production facilities. Everything is in Oregon, Arizona or Washington State and is guaranteed not to have any secret backdoors built in to funnel data to foreign governments.
I would love to see some University research projects start looking at FPGAs again and see if as speeds go up, power goes down if there’s a happy medium or mix of general purpose CPUs and FPGAs that might help the average joe working on his desktop, laptop or iPad. All I know is Intel entering a market will make it more competitive and hopefully lower the barrier of entry to anyone who would really like to get their hands on a useful processor that they can customize to their needs.