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Clash of FPGA devices expected for 2015

Posted: 05 Dec 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Altera? FPGA? Intel? Altera? Xilinx?

At the same time, Samsung and pure-play foundries such as TSMC claim massive strides with their own versions of FinFET technology. In fact, Moshe Gavrielov, the CEO of Xilinx, told Wall Street analysts in October that he hopes to sample devices manufactured by TSMC in "early 2015."

So the gap between Altera and Xilinx is either closed or at least is significantly narrower than it appeared back in 2013. Altera has ceded the high-end to Xilinx through 2014 while gambling that devices processed by Intel would propel it into a strong leadership position.

By the way, this may very possibly still turn out to be the case. Intel has vital production experience with both 22nm and 14nm FinFET processes. Nobody doubts that the move from producing a few samples (called risk production) to full blown production is fraught with difficulties, only time will tell on that one.

The technical press has also pointed out differences between the Intel 14nm and TSMC 16nm process. The route TSMC chose to follow to get quickly to FinFET gave no scaling advantage at 16nm over the 20nm die size. Various claims showed that the TSMC die size would be significantly larger than the Intel equivalent. A larger die size translates to a higher cost (if the yields from processes are similar). This would put Xilinx at a disadvantage. TSMC, however, has disputed this point and produced two FinFET process variants. It recently announced its 16nm FinFET Plus (16FF+) enhanced process is now in risk (early) production.

However, with both FPGA companies reporting gross margins of close to 70 per cent, it would be possible for either company to take an initial hit on margin to gain key socket wins, especially as both know that yield will increase as the process matures. Another unknown (at least to me) is the wafer cost. Intel is rumoured to have high prices, while TSMC live and die by offering competitive foundry prices.

The final variable is a big one. The design tools used by the designers are the key to success. They are highly visible, and the complexities and speeds of FinFET FPGAs will be a severe test. In August, Altera shipped FinFET design tools to beta users, and it reported that customers are seeing a doubling of performance across a range of designs.

The battle for FPGA market share continues unabated. 2015 promises to see initial product releases and (no doubt) a deluge of marketing claims and counter-claims. One thing is certain, 2015 will not be boring.

- Paul Dillien
??EE Times


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