Achronix’s Success Reflect Shift Toward FPGA Accelerators

Achronix Semiconductors revealed that its revenue had grown sevenfold over the last year and will surpass $100 million this year. And there are lessons in those figures.

The privately-held company is not required to report revenues. But on Wednesday it trotted out financial successes, which also reflect the growing market for FPGAs and other chips that act like accelerators for tricky tasks like classifying images to autonomous driving.

As improvements in normal CPUs have slowed, Nvidia has been at the center of gravity for accelerators. Nvidia’s chief Jensen Huang has been an evangelist for its graphics chips, which accelerate machine learning tasks in servers and autonomous cars when paired with CPUs. Nvidia’s stock price has tripled to $150 in the last year.

Achronix’s recent success shows that FPGAs remain in the conversation. Though difficult to program precisely, the chips do that same parallel processing that lets graphics chips find patterns in large amounts of data. Major suppliers like Intel and Xilinx already compete for the business of cloud giants using FPGAs like Microsoft, Baidu, and Amazon.

“[We] are entering a new high growth era where our customized core FPGA technology can accelerate a broad range of complex compute tasks in machine learning, artificial intelligence, software defined networks and 5G base stations,” said Robert Blake, Achronix’s chief executive, in a statement.

Its products include Speedster 22i FPGAs, which contain large amounts of SerDes and I/O to interface with a central processor using PCIe interconnects. The 22nm chips come with 86 megabits of embedded memory and support up to a million look-up tables, also known as LUTs, which are central to an FPGA’s processing power.

Achronix’s revenue largely comes from its Speedster products, which first went into production in 2015 and will be refreshed in 2018. But the fabless supplier has increasingly split its business into new directions: Last year, it started licensing the intellectual property behind Speedster.

The blueprints, sold under the brand Speedcore, let engineers integrate 16nm FPGAs into custom system-on-chips, also known as SoCs. These embedded FPGAs are faster and more power efficient than standalone chips because they share the same silicon as computer processors and other circuitry.

With Speedcore chip designers can change the number of LUTs as well as embedded memory and DSP blocks to suit specific applications. Before the end of the year, Achronix will allow customers to work with the next generation of Speedcore based on TSMC’s 7nm production process.

The moneymaking opportunity in embedded FPGAs is not a well-guarded secret. Flex Logix, a newcomer run by the former chief executive of Rambus, has raised almost $14 million to sell its eFPGAs for networking hardware and data centers, and has recently won contracts with DARPA and Harvard. Last year, QuickLogic began licensing FPGAs to be used in wearables and sensors.

Achronix’s victory lap came after years of promise. The company had been running off $132 million in venture funding since its 2004 founding, defying investor apathy for the semiconductor industry. But it finally hit profitability this year and plans to expand its 75-person staff by a third over the next six months.

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