Intel wins 5G RAN eASIC deal with ZTE, adds second FPGA acquisition

Intel gave up, some time ago, arguing that general purpose Xeon processors, however powerful, would be sufficient to support all the complex and demanding workloads of a virtualized 5G RAN. That market will be driven by custom logic, and the company is assembling a broad portfolio of options to surround Xeon.

It can now offer FPGA (field programmable gate array), structure ASIC and full custom ASIC, with the 5G vRAN one of its top three targets. It has made several acquisitions to support the strategy, including FPGA major Altera, structured ASIC provider eASIC, and now, a second FPGA company, Omnitek.

These options will support different use cases and workloads, allowing demand tasks like artificial intelligence or virtualized RAN to be offloaded from the CPU to coprocessors, optimized for particular tasks. They will also allow Intel to support companies at different stages of 5G product development, from the earliest days, when specifications and requirements are fluid and FPGA programmability is needed to adjust the product easily; through to a transition to more ASICs or processors as the platforms stabilize.

Intel dipped a toe in ASIC waters, when it acquired eASIC last year. The company has defined a proprietary approach for creating a ‘structured ASIC’, which is far cheaper than a full ASIC (though less programmable). It involves taking a wafer with pre-defined logic and memory, then customizing it with interconnects in just one or two mask layers. Structured ASICs provide a midway option between full ASICs and FPGAs and will be increasingly relevant in power-constrained, but also high performance applications including IoT and 5G use cases.

One early win for eASIC under Intel’s win is with ZTE, whose 5G RAN will include the chips.

“Intel eASIC devices provide good power and cost benefits for our 5G wireless products and were essential to make a fast transition to meet our low cost and power requirement,” Duan Xiang Yang, general manager of wireless system architecture at ZTE, said in a statement.

“Once you open the hood of what’s really underneath the infrastructure to support 5G, there’s a lot of complexity under that hood,” said Ronnie Vasishta, general manager of Intel’s communications business and eASIC group. He said companies like ZTE are looking to migrate from FPGA to eASIC as the network specifications stabilize. “In the ramp-up phase of initial deployments a lot of flexibility is required and that’s where you use an FPGA,” he said. But as 5G reaches volume, vendors need to reduce cost and power consumption. Yet a general purpose processor will not support all the functions of a complex virtualized RAN, so eASICs provide a middle path.

Vasishta said ZTE had not revealed the exact products in which eASIC chips would be used but they would ship next year. He added that the deal was “symptomatic of what many other companies are going to go through,” and that “the opportunity set presented by 5G is vast”.

Now Intel has added Omnitek. Based in the UK, and founded in 1998, the company has developed more than 220 FPGA IP cores and supporting software. It also offers services to help customers design the customized applications for which FPGAs are a lower cost solution than ASICs, and it also has AI-based inferencing offerings.

“From data centers to devices, compute-intensive applications like 8K video and artificial intelligence require a multitude of innovative compute engines. FPGA devices play an increasingly critical role, often complementing other processing architectures, and Intel is at the center of this revolution,” said Roger Fawcett, CEO of Omnitek. “Omnitek is excited and extremely proud to bring our intellectual property and engineers to join the talented team in Intel’s Programmable Solutions Group.”