Altera has decided to buy fabless power-management specialist Enpirion in an expansion intended to support its core business of programmable-logic devices. The company aims to reduce the space needed by support components for its FPGAs and to take advantage of the trend towards supplier consolidation by systems houses.
Jeff Waters, general manager of the military, industrial and computing division of Altera, explained on a conference call with analysts: “The need for Altera to get more directly into power management can best be explained by a meeting we had with a European customer last year. We were reviewing a design and they were excited about the integration they could achieve. They could integrate a DSP chip, a few microcontrollers as well as an interface ASSP. The director for the group then drew a large square around the periphery of our product that and told us it represented the area taken up by the 20-plus chips and passive components that made up the power supply.
“Helping to simplify that would be the next challenge that we could solve. It seemed like a clear opportunity for Altera to do more for its customers in an area of critical need,” Waters added.
Part of the problem for FPGA makers such as Altera is the rate at which they have integrated logic and analog interfaces, such as serial interfaces, onchip. “Over the life of the Stratix family, we have achieved a 20-times gain in logic density. With this extra capacity, the number of power supplies needed has grown from nine to twenty four,” Waters said, adding that Enpirion has been able to use integration to produce much smaller power-supply devices that are able to power complex FPGAs.
Waters said one advantage of the Enpirion technology lies in its approach to providing power to sensitive analog subsystems, such as the transceivers used on the Arria and Stratix parts. “Traditionally, those are made using old technology LDOs [low dropout regulators]. It’s necessary to do that because of their noise performance. Enpirion claimed they could achieve similar noise performance using a switching regulator, with which you get much better power efficiency. You get about 50 per cent greater power savings but it was not something you could achieve traditionally because of the noise performance. We found Enpirion could get very clean behavior from their design.”
Although Altera expects to continue working with other power-management suppliers on discrete designs, Waters said: “In the future, you will see a lot more dynamic power management, where you will see us differentiate and provide much greater levels of power reduction.”
The acquisition reflects the uphill struggle that independent startups face when trying to gain a foothold in the market. During a dinner with the customer from a tier-one enterprise hardware maker, Waters found out that the preferred power-management supplier for one design was Enpirion. “His team were unable to meet key specifications using traditonal suppliers. They came across Enpirion and convinced corporate procurement to specify them despite the [small] size of the company. He was convinced they would be scooped up by a larger company.”
As Altera and Enpirion sell into similar markets, such as telecom infrastructure, industrial and enterprise systems, the acquisition provides the opportunity for buyers to reduce the number of suppliers. Waters said among its customers, Altera is often in the top group of suppliers measured by spend. “They would like to consolidate spending among their top suppliers.”