Intel Buys Altera: FPGA’s Future is Brightened

On December 28th, 2015, Intel acquired Altera for $16.7 billion. Meh, who cares? It’s just another overpriced buy of yet another silly unicorn, right?

Wrong.

Altera is a leader in FPGA technology. We all know what Intel does.

Connecting FPGA tech to Intel’s marketing, research, and product development abilities has me excited.

You should be excited too.

What the hell is FPGA anyway?

FPGA is not the French Professional Golfers Association. It ‘s an acronym for “Field-Programmable Gate Array.”

They are chips, if you will, not the ones you munch on, the ones that drive our beloved devices. Not the stuff us Average Joes talk much about. We prefer munching chips. This is an exception.

Let’s get some Tech Speak out of the way

FPGAs are semiconductors (ICs). The “A” in FPGA stands for “array” so we’re looking at a group of things that work together as one. It’s a gestalt type of thing.

FPGAs consist of;

Configurable Logic Blocks (CLBs) are the brains of the outfit. The important word here is “configurable,” as in adjustable, or changeable.

Interconnect: You need some way to get the brains connected to everything else.

SelectIO (IOBs): IO is input/output. Flexibility is at the heart of this technology. It’s logical that they support a wide variety of input/output standards. They do.

Memory: You know what this is and what it does. Nothing new here, except when looked at as a part of the whole.

Complete Clock Management: This is not as important to us Average Joes as it is to designers. (As an aside, this is an excellent reminder not to trust spell check. At first, I forgot an “L”. I’ll let you guess which.)

Here’s what’s cool

FPGAs allow chip designers to change chip parameters at any point. They can even change things after the product has shipped. Heck, they can change things after deployment!

Better yet, they can make those changes remotely.

That’s huge.

The implications for future applications are mind-boggling. Everything from Aerospace to Wireless will feel the impact. Every industry will be touched.

Soon enough, you may even be able to adjust your processor to match your needs. You will be able to make that change at the moment you need it.

If they can change something remotely, sooner or later, they will do it with software.

That’s humongous!

Let’s try an Analogy

ICs are the drive train of the electronic devices we all know and love/hate. Forget all that stuff for a bit. Let’s use the drive train of our cars as an analogy.

You’re out for a Sunday drive along a twisty mountain road. Your eyes feast on majestic panoramas in all directions. Cruising along at a steady 55mph, your car is set for best fuel efficiency and greatest comfort.

You’re running on three cylinders. Your transmission is in overdrive. Your tires are stiffer and thinner for fuel economy. Your suspension is set softer for comfort. Even your seats are softer, plusher.

Your roof, well, it isn’t there. Beautiful days, scenery, and convertibles just go so well together. You have the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and phenomenal views all around.

You are in exactly the vehicle you need at this particular moment.

Darn it!

You’re coming up on an RV doing 40mph. Up ahead is the last straight stretch of highway for fifteen miles.

You’re in no particular rush. But, who wants to replace mountain views with a view of an RV’s backside?

You need to pass that RV. You need to do it now!

You press your “Power Mode” button.

Your car responds. Fuel efficiency is no longer an issue. Now you need power and speed. You need it at all costs.

The wheelbase lengthens for high-speed stability. The roof reappears. It’s lower than usual for reduced air resistance.

The fuel injectors push as much fuel as they can. Compression ratios climb. The transmission readjusts itself. So does the differential. All six cylinders roar into angry life.

Your tires get wider and softer to get all that new-found power to the pavement.

Your timid grocery-getter car is now a raging beast. The kitten has become a ferocious jungle cat.

That’s exactly the vehicle you need right now.

Your jungle cat of a car snarls as your floor the accelerator. G-forces slam you into seats pre-stiffened in anticipation.

You rocket by that RV like it was standing still.

The RV is now in your rear-view mirror where it belongs. You press “Econo Cruise” mode.

Your seats soften up while your tires stiffen and narrow. You drop back down to three cylinders. The roof evaporates.

Everything goes back as it was.

The Beast is back in its cage.

Goodbye, Jungle Beast. Hello, Kitty!

Your leisurely scenic cruise continues as before.

Like all metaphors, this one is imprecise but you get the picture. It will never be possible to morph your car on the fly, but it would be great.

Soon enough, it will be possible to morph your devices’ abilities. That’s thanks to future evolutions of FPGAs.

Why Intel’s participation changes things

FPGAs have been on my radar for a while. Until Intel hopped aboard, I wasn’t all that excited.

Sure, the tech is great. But, mainstream adoption was still a long way off.

Some technology purists are now screaming profanities at their screens. “FPGAs are here NOW! You %(&% moron!” they say.

To them, I say this.

I am not talking about FPGAs as they exist now. I’m talking about what happens when the tech follows its natural evolution.

I’m talking about FPGAs in common use at the consumer level.
Sooner or later, “Field-Programmable” will be “Self-Programmable.” To be more accurate, the line between software and ICs will blur into non-existence.

Maybe it won’t be so much “Self-Programmable” as “Software-Programmable.”

That’s when FPGAs (SPGAs?) will change the world. That’s when this technology will hit its full stride.

FPGAs, or a variant, will be everywhere and in everything.

To be honest, I never expected FPGAs to reach that full potential within my lifetime. Now I have hope.

No, I have an expectation.

That expectation is due to Intel’s involvement. Their involvement and $16.7 billion commitment will likely cut the wait in half.

Don’t hold your breath, though.

What excites me is that something that was decades away is now only years away. We can’t expect FPGA driven laptops and smartphones anytime soon.

Intel will start by pushing this technology in the data center. Its Xeon processor family is already the standard there. Just getting FPGA in that niche will take a few years.

Expect massive server farms to push Intel’s schedule to the limit. Companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook can really use this stuff.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if they announced a joint venture. No advance knowledge here, just a hunch.

Technology evolves all the time.

After the data center, FPGA will come to corporate server deployments. Then business-computing deployments will see FPGAs. Last, they will appear in the home and in our pockets.

We are not talking about an overnight thing.

My challenge and my hope

I turn 57 in April of 2016. I expect FPGA-style tech to be available to me, as a consumer, by my 70th birthday.

I’m adding an FPGA device to both my bucket list and my birthday present wish list.

Intel, I have faith in you.

You have thirteen years and four months.

Don’t let me down.
Don’t let US down!

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About the Author: Paul Croubalian is a problem-solving artist who uses both Words and Technology as his mediums. Paul often wonders if he is a tech-savvy writer or a writing-savvy technologist.

Maybe he’s both.

Paul hates to talk about himself in the third person as much as he hates the “Walter T. Freed Manual of Style.” You may know it better by its initials, “WTF!”

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