Intel Adds Structured ASICs to Product Lineup With eASIC Acquisition

The company’s acquisition of longtime partner eASIC will add another chip option in Intel’s lineup that now includes CPUs, FPGAs and ASICs, among others.

Intel Acquire eASIC

Intel over the past several years has adapted to an increasingly data-centric world by diversifying its product lines beyond CPUs for PCs and servers to offer a broader range of computing systems including programmable chips, ASICs and, soon discrete GPUs.

The giant chip maker is now adding to that lineup through the acquisition of long-time partner eASIC, which makes structured ASICs, which are chips that combines the performance and power efficiency found in standard-cell ASICs with the cost efficiency and faster design time of a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), according to company officials.

Intel didn’t disclose how much it’s paying to acquire eASIC because the cost won’t have a material effect on it financial results.

The move comes at a time when the massive amounts of data being generated—and the need to process, store and analyze that data—have become the driving force behind many of the changes that have roiled the tech industry in recent years. Having chips like FPGAs and ASICs along with standard CPUs give Intel more options to offer OEMs and end users looking for more systems to help them manage the data.

Structured ASICs silicon further expands that capability, according to Dan McNamara, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel’s Programmable Solutions Group.

“Customers designing for high-performance, power-constrained applications in market segments like wireless, networking and the internet of things (IoT) sometimes begin deployments with FPGAs for fast time-to-market and flexibility,” McNamara wrote in a post on the company blog.

“They then migrate to devices called structured ASICs, which can be used to optimize performance and power-efficiency. A structured ASIC is an intermediary technology between FPGAs and ASICs. … The addition of eASIC will help us meet customers’ diverse needs of time-to-market, features, performance, cost, power and product life cycles.”

The 19-year-old eASIC will become part of Intel’s Programmable Solutions Group after the deal closes, which is expected in the third quarter. No financial details of the deal were announced.

Intel officials over the past several years have aggressively worked to broaden the types of silicon products it can offer in an industry that is adapting to the rise of cloud computing, greater mobility and the IoT and new workloads ranging from artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, data analytics and virtual and augmented reality.

Along with expanding the number of chips in its various general-purpose CPU families, Intel in 2015 bought FPGA maker Altera for $7.9 billion. FPGAs include built-in logic, memory and digital signal processing capabilities that enable them to be reprogrammed as needed.

The vendor has made other moves to broaden its offerings, including buying Nervana Systems and Movidius in 2016 for AI systems, drones and virtual reality devices. In addition, officials confirmed last month that Intel will begin rolling out its own discrete GPUs by 2020 to compete with chips from Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices.

Intel’s efforts also come as competition in the chip market continues to grow. The company has been the dominant player in the PC and server markets, though companies including a reinvigorated AMD, IBM and Arm—through chip-making partners such as Cavium and Qualcomm—are trying to gain greater traction in those systems. At the same time, the rise of the cloud, IoT and emerging workloads has created a land rush of sorts for Intel and other chip makers looking to get an upper hand in these growth areas.

Bringing eASIC into the fold will give Intel one more tool in its box, McNamara wrote.

“This combination brings together the best-in-class technologies from both companies to provide customers with more choice, faster time-to-market and lower development costs,” he wrote.

“Specifically, having a structured ASICs offering will help us better address high-performance and power-constrained applications that we see many of our customers challenged with in market segments like 4G and 5G wireless, networking and IoT. We can also provide a low-cost, automated conversion process from FPGAs (including competing FPGAs) to structured ASICs.”

Down the road, Intel officials envision combining FPGAs with structured ASICs by using the company’s Embedded Multi-Die Interconnect Bridge (EMIB) technology to create a new class of programmable chips, according to McNamara.

According to Intel officials, the Programmable Solutions Group is seeing strong growth. In the first three months this year, the unit saw 17 percent growth, to $498 million in revenue, and $97 million in profits, with strength in the data center and the embedded market segments. Sales of FPGA products grew more than 40 percent and the number of customer design wins was higher than in any other quarter.

“What we're seeing is an unrelenting demand for compute performance, driven by the continuing growth of data and the need to process, analyze, store, and share that data,” former CEO Brian Krzanich said during a conference call in April to discuss first-quarter financial numbers, according to Seeking Alpha. “That dynamic benefits our traditional CPU business, and it reinforces the big bets we've made in memory, modems, FPGAs, and autonomous vehicles.”