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  Date: 02/06/2013

FPGA race: Xilinx'16nm vs Altera'14nm turns into TSMC vs Intel foundry

In the hot FPGA market, the chain of technology achievements and design-support are the key parameters of success.Technology lead in the form of IP and patents and customer-support strength in the form worldwide n/w of talented design support team, and the powerful design software, help shield the well established FPGA vendors from new emerging players entering this market. The top 2 FPGA vendors Xilinx and Altera have these strengths to dominate the market so that the new players like Achronix and Tabula have uphill task in creating any impact in the market. The new players who want play the game on the cost factor are also restricted by low cost FPGA vendor Lattice Semiconductor. It's the support-IP and design-software and established relation with customer is the hard to break thing for new players. The Vivado FPGA design software from Xilinx which is nearly offered for free is as good as best EDA software in the world for FPGA related chip design tasks. The cache of IP offered by Xilinx is tough to match by any other FPGA players in the market. Altera, the closest competitor to Xilinx has some of the similar strengths to Xilinx but still lags.

The only area very recently Altera try to beat Xilinx is in the node race, where it got access to Intel's 14nm FinFET technology. Infact the new player Achronix also got access to Intel fab for its FPGAs. Xilinx has announced 16nm FPGA chips to be built on TSMC’s 16-nanometer FinFET (16FinFET) process, a program Xilinx calls ‘FinFast.’ Xilinx and TSMC are providing dedicated resources as part of a ‘one-team’ approach, and to work together to co-optimize the FinFET process with Xilinx’s UltraScale architecture. The program to deliver 16FinFET test chips later in 2013 and first product in 2014.

The 14nm FPGAs are only better by 2nm compared to Xilinx 16nm, still they pack more logic elements. The real winner is not the node but the speed at which they deliver the FPGA to customer. Xilinx was ahead of Altera in delivering 28nm chips in mass scale.

The winner of these two "14nm Altera" and "16nm Xilinx" chips is going to be the one who reaches the customer hand faster both by samples and production volumes. By end of this year, we might get better picture of the winner.

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