May 04, 2015

Intel/Altera Agreement (Partially) Tells the Tale

posted by Kevin Morris

We did a lot of speculation in our recent articles about the rumored Intel bid to buy Altera. One of the areas of most intense speculation was the 2013 agreement the two companies signed - for Intel to manufacture 14nm FPGAs for Altera.

More than two years after that deal was signed, Intel is rumored to be making an offer to buy Altera for upwards (maybe far upwards) of $10B. But, is the existing 2013 agreement potentially weakening Intel’s bargaining position?

The key parts of the agreement that we thought could be troublesome for Intel were related to non-competition. Had Intel agreed that they would not develop FPGA technology themselves or try to buy any other FPGA company? If so, that appeared to indicate that Intel had no way to get FPGA/PLD technology (which might be crucial to defending their data center business) other than by buying it from Altera (or by buying Altera).

And, if they had agreed to that, how long were they banned from developing or acquiring FPGA technology elsewhere?

In the recent earnings conference call, Altera CEO John Daane said "...we do not want to compete with our foundry and we agreed that Intel would not invest in, develop their own product line or buy a PLD company or buy another PLD company." That made it sound like Intel could have boxed themselves in a bit.

Now, EE Journal has obtained a (heavily redacted) copy of the 2013 agreement (which was made public by Altera). We examined this 86-page document ourselves, and we had a lawyer take a look at it as well. What we found led us to believe that Intel had not backed themselves as far into the corner as many had speculated. Here is a link to that agreement:

http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/768251/000076825113000023/altera_2013q1x10qxex102.htm

It’s important to point out that the redacting makes analysis of this contract a bit dicey. And, there are parts that are comically heavy on the redacting. For example: “If an [*****] is [*****] by a company, then, during the term of the Agreement, Intel will [*****] accept for [*****] any [*****] for such [*****] or the [*****] company other than those specific [*****] as to which Intel is [*****] to [*****] as of the date of the [*****].”

Yep, there could be a lotta bodies buried in them there asterisks. In fact, it kinda makes us want to play Mad Libs - “If an [ELEPHANT] is [RIDDEN] by a company, then…

But, anyway, there’s a lot we can learn from the less-redacted portions.

First, does the agreement prevent Intel from developing their own FPGA technology?

Daane’s comments in the earnings call would make it seem so, but the agreement makes a point of specifying “standalone FPGAs” as the thing Intel cannot develop. But, if Intel needs FPGA fabric to build accelerators inside data center processors, or if it needs to develop FPGAs specifically to be packaged with, or used specifically with its processors, it appears that the agreement gives them a pretty big “green light” on that one.

Intel agrees that it will not produce or sell Intel­-branded Standalone PLDs (as defined below), nor invest in or acquire any companies whose principal business is the sale of programmable logic devices (“PLD Companies”), for a [*****] of the Agreement or until [*****], whichever is earlier. For clarity, this paragraph 1 of this Exhibit F is not intended to prohibit Intel from investing in investment vehicles (e.g., mutual funds, exchange traded funds) that own securities in PLD Companies solely for purposes of financial investing where such investment vehicles do not participate in any way in the management or operation of such PLD Companies. As used in this exhibit, “PLD” or “programmable logic device” means an integrated circuit that derives its value primarily due to its field programmability and contains field programmable functions such as digital logic, an interconnect fabric, IOs, and other complex IP blocks. As used in this paragraph, "Standalone PLD" is a PLD which is neither bonded with one or more other die performing material and substantial complex logic functions, nor specifically designed to be sold or to work in conjunction with another specific die performing material and substantial logic functions.

Notice the definition of “Standalone PLD”:  “an integrated circuit that derives its value primarily due to its field programmability and contains field programmable functions such as digital logic, an interconnect fabric, IOs, and other complex IP blocks.”

We don’t think a device that contained an Intel Xeon processor (or several Xeon processor cores) along with FPGA fabric would “derive its value primarily due to its field programmability.” So, it would appear that the agreement does not prevent Intel from developing and placing FPGA fabric inside an Intel processor.

As a side note - we don’t even think devices like Altera’s SoC FPGAs derive their value primarily due to field-programmability. By the time you put some 64-bit ARM cores, a bunch of memory and peripherals, other hardened IP, and a passel of multi-gigabit SerDes on a chip - there’s a BUNCH of value in there that isn’t from field-programmability.

But, what about the thing Intel announced last June - a Xeon processor bonded with an FPGA in the same package? The agreement appears to green-light that as well: “Standalone PLD" is a PLD which is neither bonded with one or more other die performing material and substantial complex logic functions, nor specifically designed to be sold or to work in conjunction with another specific die performing material and substantial logic functions.”

So, our read of that part of the document says that Intel could very well decide to accelerate their data center processors (as they have already announced) with FPGA fabric of their own - without violating the 2013 agreement.

But, can Intel buy another FPGA company if things with Altera don’t work out?

That one is much tricker. The section above does say “...nor invest in or acquire any companies whose principal business is the sale of programmable logic devices (“PLD Companies”),...” But - for how long? That information is redacted. “for a [*****] of the Agreement or until [*****], whichever is earlier.”

We could play redacted contract Mad Libs with that one - “for a [DECADE AFTER THE EXPIRATION OF THIS] Agreement, or until [2099], whichever is earlier. Or, “for a [FULL HOUR AFTER THE SIGNING OF THIS] Agreement, or until [March 2013], whichever is earlier.

The devil is in the redacted details.

But, in either case, speculation that Intel had possibly shot themselves in the foot with the 2013 agreement appears to be overblown. Intel probably could make their own FPGA fabric to use in data center processors without violating the agreement. (Although it is completely unclear how Intel would get or build the tool and support infrastructure required for any significant portion of their customer base to actually make use of that FPGA fabric.) But, Intel does appear to be prohibited from buying another FPGA company (sorry, Xilinx) at least until the passing of the redacted dates above.



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Apr 30, 2015

Vertically Integrated BLE Module

posted by Bryon Moyer

Cypress_EZ-BLE_PRoC_Module.jpgSo you want to get into the wireless gadget business, eh? And you want to go with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)? You’re in good company – lots of folks are doing it. But how exactly are you going to go about it?

If you’re a big company with dedicated RF resources and lots of cash targeting high-volume applications (say, over 150,000 units a year), then you’ll probably do your own chip.

If not, well, you might want to think twice about tackling such a project on your own, according to Cypress. For one, RF design is tricky business – not a lot of small companies have RF experts in-house. And they say that it’s hard to find low-volume offshore assembly facilities (OSATs) that can handle RF.

But, perhaps even more importantly, even if you have the RF capabilities, you still have to get certified. Cypress says that, if you know what you’re doing, that can cost $200,000 and take 15 weeks. (Presumably, all bets are off if you don’t know what you’re doing…) That’s, like, over a dollar per device.

Instead, you could use one of many modules already out there. But Cypress says that numerous customers have experienced support challenges using that approach, since the module makers don’t make the ICs or write the stack software. Getting answers to questions can be maddening.

Then, in frustration, the engineers using the module dig into the open-source software to deal with things on their own – without realizing that, by changing the software, they’re nullifying the original certification of the module.

This is an area that Cypress is targeting with their own BLE module – a “programmable radio-on-chip” (PRoC – if you pronounce it –P-Rock, it magically becomes one of the more testosterone-infused names I’ve seen in a while… must utter in a grrrowl). The difference is that they also make the chip and wrote the software – and the design environment. The idea is that, because they own the entire thing, there’s only one place to go for support. No finger-pointing.

Cypress_EZ-BLE_PRoC_Module_block_diagram.jpg

The module has already been tested and certified, so manufacturers incorporating the module get the benefit of that work. (In order to be able to use the BLE logo, manufacturer would still need to pay for a “Declaration ID,” but that’s more of a quick, inexpensive paperwork thing – there’s no actual testing involved.)

You can read more about the details in their announcement.

 

(Images courtesy Cypress)

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Apr 28, 2015

Wireless Phone Charging Without the Extra Antennas

posted by Bryon Moyer

Antenna_pic.jpgAbout a year ago, when we were in the wake of numerous wireless power announcements, we discussed a technology called “Cota” from a company called Ossia. The idea was of using very high frequency charging – 2.4 GHz – at low power to keep a constant trickle charge going at distances up to around 30 feet (10 meters) or so.  Effectively, the charger sends out RF signals and the phone harvests them. Meaning that your phone could charge unbeknownst to you while still in your pocket – no need to take it out and put it on some pad.

But of course, there’s always a “but.” And, in this case, it was the antenna: as in, you needed one for this. Actually, you needed more than one, since they use a phased approach. In addition to the antennas that are already in your phone. A clear real-estate challenge.

Well, this year, they just announced that they can now leverage the existing WiFi and Bluetooth antennas that are already in the phone. There are some required circuit and firmware changes, but they claim no additional components. In fact, they say that this approach can actually save space: in a world with lots of Cota chargers, you could make do with a smaller battery, since it would be frequently topped up as you moved around town.

You can learn more in their announcement.

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