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The M&A Way to Achieve 400G Goals

Carolyn Mathas
News Analysis
Carolyn Mathas

It was clear at OFC 2014 that service providers want flexible provisioning and seamless upgradeability for 100G and 400G.

While there were several products and capabilities discussed and introduced at the show, a couple of vendors stood out in terms of the depth of their portfolios, and both have a rich history of strategic acquisitions that have helped them get where they are today.

The companies are Altera Corp. (Nasdaq: ALTR) and Xilinx Inc. (Nasdaq: XLNX): In some ways, you could say they "bought their way" to achieving their initial 400G roadmap goals.

Altera's 400G story
At this year's OFC, Altera introduced OTN solutions for 400G that offered a defined path to 1 Tbit/s. New products included the TP0516 Altera SoftSilicon 400G Transponder/Muxponder and the TPOC226 SoftSilicon single-chip 20-channel any-rate mapper with segmentation and reassembly (SAR). The TPOC226 addresses advanced optical demultiplexer unit (ODU) cross-connect systems for OTN-based transport networks. These products represent what Altera claims are the first fully integrated 200G and 400G OTN solutions. (See Altera Introduces OTN Solutions for 400G and Beyond at OFC 2014.

Because Altera's SoftSilicon devices are available, and are built and validated on reference platforms that closely resemble target applications, system provider development risks are minimized. And, naturally, FPGA platforms also mitigate the risk, as requirements from both standards bodies and customers continue to morph.

"We believe our SoftSilicon technology, and the industry's first fully-integrated 200G and 400G OTN solutions, the TPOC226 and TPO516, will bring customers leading-edge process technology and superior power and performance advancements that will address their systems design challenges in optical transmission," said Scott Bibaud, senior vice president of Altera's Communications and Broadcast business.

So, how did Altera arrive at these products? Looking at the company's acquisition history gives a good indication. From its inception through its first 16 years, Altera went it alone. Then, in 1999 it bought a small Santa Cruz, Calif. company, Boulder Creek Engineering, for an undisclosed amount. What it got at the time was a technology called "Signal Tap," a logic analysis tool (not related to this). But what it ended up with was a new Santa Cruz division, up to its eyeballs in the development and launch of Altera's now-famous Nios. (See Altera Enhances Processor from 2001!)

Shopping spree begins
It wasn't until 2010 that Altera went shopping again, and this time the road would clearly move down the communications path. The eventual industry upgrade to 100G and 400G levels was inevitable, and optical protocol standards demanded unprecedented flexibility that application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and application-specific standard products (ASSPs) could not provide.

Altera recognized that the programmability at the heart of FPGAs would be the logical solution.

With the December 2010 acquisition of Avalon Microelectronics, a small but recognized provider of silicon-proven customized IP for optical transport network (OTN), SONET/SDH and Ethernet, Altera expanded its portfolio of customizable IP solutions. (See 100G Watch: Chips Get Merger Fever.)

Avalon -- go ahead, sing along, you know you want to! -- not only was the sole IP supplier for the 100G OTN solutions implemented in Altera FPGAs, it also provided solutions to optical equipment manufacturers, test and measurement companies, and military contractors.

With its strong system expertise in transmission applications and detailed Altera FPGA knowledge, Avalon made sense as a buy. With the purchase, Altera promised relevant products, reduced solution costs, and a goal of market leadership in 400G/1Tbit/s OTN IP application development.

Over to OTN
There was a relatively short wait until the next acquisition. On April 30, 2013, Altera purchased T-Pack, a wholly owned subsidiary of Applied Micro Circuits, and its portfolio of FPGA-based optical transport network (OTN) products. T-Pack's SoftSilicon OTN solutions provide mapping, multiplexing and cross-connection of packets over OTN. The company pioneered standard chipset solutions that target FPGAs but are similar to ASSPs. As a result, T-Pack has displaced ASSPs for 10G, 40G, and 100G OEM designs. (See Altera Buys T-Pack From AppliedMicro.)

With the purchase, Altera also gained cost-optimized 10Gbit/s OTN mappers for metro applications and 10 x 10 Gbit/s OTN cross-connects using partial reconfiguration for Packet-Optical Transport Systems. The acquisition, combined with Avalon's capabilities, enabled Altera to accelerate and expand its OTN solutions roadmap and support.

Hot on the heels of T-Pack, in May 2013 Altera announced the acquisition of Enpirion, the developer of integrated power conversion products known as PowerSoCs, and integrated power management solutions for enterprise, telecom, industrial and storage segments. The company was recognized for its high efficiency, low noise characteristics, exceptional thermal performance, high reliability and ease-of-use. (See Altera to Deliver Breakthrough Power Solutions for FPGAs with Acquisition of Power Technology Innovator Enpirion.)

This deal, valued at about $141 million, gave Altera the key power technologies it needed, enabling it to develop the high-frequency switching, low-power, small footprint technology it needed.

"We are pleased with the quick results of our strategic acquisitions which enabled us to integrate IP, software APIs, and FPGAs creating what are very much like ASSPs, but which still provide the programmability to allow our customers to differentiate their systems," said Bibaud.

Sometimes, it's recognizing what you don't know, or don't have time to develop in-house, that is key to being a leader. Altera's strategic acquisitions clearly moved the company rapidly to the forefront in the OTN space.

In a separate article, I will look at how Xilinx has advanced its cause through M&A activities.

— Carolyn Mathas, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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User Rank: Blogger
3/27/2014 | 9:16:24 PM
Re: Consolidation
Good one - we'll see consolidation as well as more interesting forms of financing, stay "tuned."

User Rank: Blogger
3/27/2014 | 9:13:20 PM
I guess I think of the optical components sector being ripe for consolidation, but it sounds likes it has already been happening.

I'd say more, but just decided it was a good time to listen to the entire "Avalon" album again...
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