Have you made a call on your mobile phone or used the internet today? If the answer is yes, you’ve relied on technology from Achronix (www.achronix.com), which opened its new Santa Clara headquarters last month. The company’s programmable logic provides the building blocks for today’s communications infrastructure.
Today, 14-year-old Achronix is the fastest growing semiconductor company in the industry. In 2017, the company experienced seven-fold growth and is still expanding rapidly. Its customers include some of the biggest names in technology, and companies that fabricate chips and companies that integrate chips into larger systems.
The company got its start in upstate New York when a group of Cornell graduates found a unique solution to the speed versus flexibility problem in integrated circuits (IC)—commonly known as chips.
“Semiconductors are expensive to build and new fab [fabrication] operations cost billions,” explained Achronix VP of Marketing Steve Mensor.
“It costs our customers tens of millions to set up production. They have to amortize that cost with sales. It’s getting to the point where some variants don’t make sense to manufacture because of the costs,” he said.
An application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC)—for example, a Bluetooth chip in headphones—can be engineered to be very power efficient, fast and small because the functionality is in the hardware. But if anything changes — communications standards, for example — that chip is useless.
General purpose chips, on the other hand, can be put to many uses—for example a computer CPU—because their operations are directed by software. However, programmable chips are larger, require more power and perform tasks more slowly than application-specific chips.
The solution is a device that “rewires” its internal operations whenever instructed, and then operates at hardware—as opposed to software—speeds until it’s rewired again. This capability is known as field programmability, and such chips are called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA).
They consist of many logic circuits, whose actions are directed by an indexed table, rather than software. To change the function, programmers simply change the table. Each of these circuits work independently, in parallel, instead of as a sequential series of steps.
But although faster than a general purpose chip, FPGAs are still slower, larger and require more power than application-specific chips.
Achronix’ breakthrough was a new architecture for their chips that allowed higher density, lower power consumption, and higher speeds — all at a lower cost than their competitors. They developed a design that allowed programmable circuits to be embedded in application-specific chips — embedded FPGAs, or eFPGAs.
Achronix introduced its first product in 2008, and in 2012 introduced the first chip that combined both application-specific technology with programmable components for communications. In 2016, the company introduced Speedcore, which can be embedded on systems-on-a-chip for specific uses.
Some functions make the most sense to hardwire, said Mensor. But with others, “it makes sense that what you can’t predict you make programmable. I believe companies that build their own ASICs will use embedded technology and companies selling semiconductors to end markets are going to offer that programmability as a feature.”
The explosion of artificial intelligence (AI) applications is an ideal market for Achronix’ programmable technology. AI requires a lot of computing power and executes a lot of processes in parallel that one-at-a-time sequential processes can’t, for example, driving a car.
“When people build AI chips they know the architecture, but not the algorithms,” Mensor explained. “So you focus on efficiency in building the fixed part and you program the algorithms.”
Although Achronix has operations in Bangalore and Shenzen, the 100-person company has made its home in Santa Clara since 2010. “It’s become part of our DNA,” said Mensor.
While most employees live within the immediate area of San José, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, “We bring talent from different locations [around the Bay Area] from as far away as San Francisco,” said Mensor. “The location is very convenient, the train stops are very convenient. One of our strategic objectives is to retain talent, and everyone likes the centrality.
“Companies are enterprises put in place to make money,” said Mensor. “But we also have a group of people who are amazingly talented, and we have a culture that’s a great place to work. People are having fun. People know about our growth, but they also know it’s a great place to work.
“Right now we have an environment where people are thrilled to work here, enjoy their peers and have a great time,” Mensor continued, adding that the company is hiring.