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I don't normally write about the FPGA market. There are three reasons for this. First, Cadence doesn't participate in the market for FPGA tools (for FPGA users. I'm pretty sure the arrays themselves are almost all designed on Virtuoso). Second, it's not a market I know a lot about, having been in the ASIC, foundry, IDM part of the business all my career. And thirdly, there is another person who trod a similar path to me and went from being an EDA insider to a journalist, but specifically the FPGA part of EDA. That would be Kevin Morris. When I first met him, he was running marketing for Exemplar, Mentor's FPGA synthesis product line (I was helping Mentor run a strategic planning process for the business). He left and created FPGA Journal, which has morphed into today's EE Journal, providing daily coverage of the industry.
But he lives in Oregon, when he's not running his media empire from his boat Airship. Achronix were having a ribbon-cutting party for their new building, just 10 minutes from Cadence, plus I know Kevin was on Airship heading for Alaska. This is what counts as a scoop in the cut-throat world of EDA journalism. Of course, I don't really care that much about a company moving to a new building, but an event like that is always a good opportunity to catch up with what's going on in the industry. I'd heard rumors that Achronix was doing really well, so I wanted to find out.
Achronix (the insiders seem to pronounce it with a soft "a") were known to me for a few things.
First, they were in the FPGA market, which is a graveyard of startups who had FPGA architectures that were "better than Xilinx and Altera." Even if they could get past the patent minefield, they soon discovered that they were more in the software tool business than the silicon business. Tabula was perhaps the most visible recent corpse, 3rd on WSJ's "next big thing" list in 2011, shut down in 2015. I did due diligence a couple of times for VCs looking at programmable logic companies of some sort, and the story was always the same. The company was founded by silicon guys. The chip design team was in place. There were a couple of software guys. The first products looked promising, although they were put together by hand since the software wasn't ready. As a software guy myself, I could tell it never would be.
The second thing I knew was that Intel was their foundry. In fact, they were the very first customer of Intel Custom Foundry, building arrays in 22nm (which Intel called TriGate when it was first announced, before falling in line and saying FinFET like everyone else). However, Intel Capital was an investor in Achronix, so it never seemed all that significant. As a startup, and an FPGA startup at that, the wafer volume would never be huge for a long time. So Achronix built several generations of arrays with limited success.
The third thing I knew was that last year they announced SpeedCore eFPGA (embedded FPGA). This was FPGA fabric that could be put on an SoC. Their datasheet says that it can be manufactured on "any" process, after a porting fee, meaning it is not tied to Intel being the foundry. This is a market with an interesting dynamic. Almost all server processors in datacenters are sold by Intel, and they have their Programmable Solutions Group (PSG, but colloquially still called Altera by most people). When I was at VLSI Technology, we made PC chipsets. At one point, Intel even OEMed them. But long term we knew that market would end up with Intel for a mixture of technical (they would always know what next generation processor specs would do before we did) and business (bundling processor and chipset together) reasons. I think the same is likely with FPGA for datacenter acceleration, even when the FPGA is not even in the same package. However, this also has the effect of making Intel arrays unacceptable to any other acceleration need, such as Arm and AMD servers, and other non-datacenter markets. Before you say those markets are tiny and not growing...read the title of this post again.
I got a little extra information about the FPGA market when I arrived. One of the first people I talked to was Michiel Ligthart of Verific. He told me that there is lots going on in the FPGA market. In just the last month he has been in negotiations with four Chinese FPGA companies about product licenses (they make SystemVerilog parsers and more), none of which he'd ever heard of. But they have product.
Robert Blake, CEO of Achronix, welcomed us and gave us some history. He reiterated something I said above, that they are in a market where many have failed. The company was founded in 2004 in Ithaca NY. They moved to Silicon Valley in 2006. In embedded FPGA technology, he said "we are the technology and market leaders."
Here's the most amazing line said all day: last year they grew by 700% (remember that means 8X) to over $100M and are profitable. So roughly they were, say, $13M two years ago, and grew last year to $104M. You won't be surprised by what Robert said was driving their growth. The FPGA market used to be glue logic and ASIC prototyping, but now it is driven by the need for compute efficiency, to replace CPUs and GPUs with specialized implementations in datacenters.
Robert introduced the mayor of Santa Clara, Lisa Gillmor. She said that she was pleased Achronix had decided to remain in Santa Clara (their old building is actually just across the parking lot, they didn't move far). Santa Clara is not just a high-tech city. It has a new sports stadium. Despite their name, that is where the San Francisco 49ers play. It has a theme park, Great America, that will "soon be open 24/7". I was surprised by that, and I suspect she just meant year-round—even Disneyland isn't open 24/7. It is breaking ground on "the largest development West of the Mississippi" on the city-owned golf-course next to Levi's Stadium. She finished by describing Santa Clara as "the center of Silicon Valley". I think that was a dig at San Jose, which likes to call itself the capital of Silicon Valley, despite being at one end of it (and the "capital" in the other sense of the word has to be Sand Hill Road in Meno Park).
Then it was time to cut the ribbon. There was even another little Intel connection, in that the previous occupant of the office space had been Wind River. Intel acquired them, and recently spun them out again. Their main offies are on Alameda (on the island). They opened this office, did it up beautifully, and then quickly moved everyone to Alameda, leaving wonderful offices for Achronix that do not need any "major tenant improvements" (yes, the CFO showed me around, that's CFO-speak for remodeling).
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