08-11-2020 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, AMD and Xilinx announced that an agreement has been made for AMD to purchase Xilinx for $35 billion. Who is AMD and Xilinx, what products do they produce, and what does this deal show about the move towards configurable hardware?
Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD for short, is a large American semiconductor company based in Santa Clara, California, and is mostly known for their processors. In direct competition with Intel, their processors target a wide range of applications including desktop PCs, laptops, and servers, but their development of GPUs also sees them in competition with NVIDIA. The early operations of AMD saw them as manufacturers of their own devices, but as technology improved, AMD decided to switch to a fabless model in 2009. The result of this decision is that AMD no longer relies on improvements in node technology to produce the latest devices. With a revenue of $6.48 billion (as of 2019), the company operates worldwide and employs over 11,000 people.
Xilinx is an American technology company that specialises in flexible design systems that generally allow for a high degree of customisability. For example, their most famous products are FPGAs and CPLDs that are semiconductor devices which contain a large logic array, gates, and flip-flops that can be configured in software to perform any digital logic function. Xilinx products can be found in a wide range of different applications including datacentres, AI, industrial, aerospace, and defence and Xilinx customers make up 51% of the overall market share of programmable logic devices. Like AMD, Xilinx is a fabless company and do not produce their own devices, but Xilinx where the first semiconductor company to do this.
While programmable logic devices have been around for the better parts of three decades, their use until recently has been to act as highly specialised logic devices for niche or complex applications. For example, FPGAs are particularly useful in digital signal processing applications whereby off-the-shelf components do not exist, or the use of glue logic is far too complex. FPGAs are also useful for prototyping designs whereby hardware can be simulated and configured until it is proven. Afterwards, the same design can be put into an ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit), produced in mass, and reduce the price of the final design to improve its commercial viability.
However, a new type of hardware design is starting to gain popularity called Software-Defined Hardware (SDH). The concept behind SDH is that the underlying hardware of a system is defined in software, and major logical operations and connections are not hardwired (i.e. unchangeable). The use of software to define how hardware works and interconnects allows for the advantages of software to be brought to hardware. For example, hardware-defined by software allows for updates, changes, and debugging without the need to replace or change hardware. A prime example of how SDH is becoming important is in 5G; the underlying infrastructure for 5G is very expensive, and any changes to the 5G protocol could require largescale hardware changes. A 5G network defined using SDH would instead be able to roll out updates to the hardware with no hardware changes, and the changes could be anywhere from small bug fixes to an entire changing of the protocol.
AMD to purchase Xilinx for $35 billion
Recently, AMD and Xilinx have announced an agreement for AMD to purchase Xilinx for $35 billion. While the deal has not been done officially yet (awaiting approval etc.), the deal would see AMD have access to the Xilinx customer base while Xilinx would be able to integrate their products into AMD designs. The deal would combine the value of both business for a total of $135 billion, and this would dwarf other major businesses including Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. The move to combine AMD and Xilinx technology has many incentives including the desire to target the next generation of 5G equipment, advanced AI systems, and the rise of software-defined systems.
What makes the AMD purchase of Xilinx particularly interesting is how its product range will fall in the same market areas that Intel currently operates in. While both Intel and AMD produce processors, Intel also produces FPGAs and CPLDs as a result of its purchase of Altera in 2015. The acquisition of Xilinx by AMD will see AMD be able to target the programmable hardware market while also producing devices for the emerging adaptive computing market. This may see computers of the future contain undefined logic arrays that can be configured in real-time to provide optimised computing platforms. The same hardware may also become crucial in the development of fast neural nets that can adapt as they operate to improve their performance over time.
“Our acquisition of Xilinx marks the next leg in our journey to establish AMD as the industry’s high-performance computing leader and partner of choice for the largest and most important technology companies in the world. This is truly a compelling combination that will create significant value. By combining our efforts, we are bringing together two world-class engineering teams with the technology capability and scale to build even stronger products and solutions” -Lisa Su, chief executive and president of AMD.