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FPGAs with optical interfaces closer to market

Five years ago, Altera announced plans to integrate optical interfaces into its FPGAs. The move was seen as a way to cope with increasing communications bandwidth and to reduce system complexity.

Bob Blake, who was Altera’s European marketing manager at the time, pointed to the growing challenge of routing faster signals across boards and between systems. “This means more complex routing and increased cost.”

However, he noted: “One communication option is optical. By including optical interfaces within FPGAs, we can help to overcome these layout challenges.”

Despite Altera demonstrating the concept later in 2011, the idea remained on the shelf. Jordan Inkeles, director of product marketing for high end FPGAs with Altera – now Intel’s Programmable Systems Group (PSG) – said: “While we have continued to evolve the technology, we haven’t gone public with the developments.”

But it may not be too long before FPGAs from Intel PSG feature optical interfaces. Inkeles noted: “Although PAM4 offers a way for communications to stay electrical, we will, at some point, run out of capability and we’ve been preparing for that transition.”

Optical functionality is likely to first appear in Intel PSG’s Stratix 10 parts, enabled via the Embedded Multi Interconnect Bridge (EMIB) technology that underpins 3D heterogeneous integration. EMIB allow ‘tiles’ with various functions to sit alongside the FPGA die in the one package. “We’ve been working behind the scenes,” Inkeles said, “but [when we] put a product into the market will depend on the economics.”

Altera’s recent acquisition also gives the FPGA company access to Intel’s silicon photonics technology. “We have exciting capabilities,” Inkeles concluded.

Graham Pitcher

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