Intel plans hybrid CPU-FPGA chips


Two years ago, Intel spent $16.7 billion to acquire FPGA chip vendor Altera. So, what’s it going to do with that big purchase? The company is finally ready to say. 

A field-programmable gate array, or FPGA, is an integrated circuit that can be customized to perform specific functions. Whereas the x86 executes only the x86 instruction sets, an FPGA can be reprogrammed on the fly to perform specified tasks. That’s why x86s are considered general compute processors and FPGAs are viewed as customizable. 

The company’s strategy is interesting in that it effectively puts Intel in competition with itself. If you want to do massive floating-point computation, Intel has the Xeon Phi line of add-in cards that compete with Nvidia and AMD GPUs. Now the FPGAs are also targeting those use cases. 

Like the GPU, FPGAs will be used in one of two ways: inline and offload. Inline means the data coming in first goes through the CPU before being moved to the FPGA for processing. Offload, also called look aside, means the CPU stays out of the way and data goes directly in and out of the FPGA for processing. 

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