Intel Pivots FPGAs Toward Cryptocurrency With New Agilex M-Series

Intel's schematic for Agilex-M
(Image credit: Intel)

Intel announced its new Agilex M-Series of FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) products, and at the same time gave some very interesting positioning toward cryptocurrency mining. Intel is claiming several "world-firsts" with the Agilex M-series, including usage of the Intel 7 (previously Intel 10 nm) manufacturing process, support for up to 32 GB HBM2e DRAM (via twin memory stacks), and a 60% performance increase compared to previous-generation Stratix FPGAs. No claims on cryptocurrency mining performance were made by Intel, however.

Designed by Intel's Programmable Solutions Group (PSG), which incorporated the talent and design IP from Intel's $16.7 billion Altera acquisition back in 2015, the new Agilex M-Series promise to offer the highest memory bandwidth in the industry. This is thanks to a pair of HBM2e stacks configurable up to 32 GB, which provide up to 820 GBps in memory bandwidth (410 GBps per stack). That could prove particularly useful for Dagger Hashimoto / Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) workloads frequently associated with cryptocurrency mining, e.g. Ethereum.

Additionally, intel says its new Agilex M-Series are the first FPGAs supporting cache and memory coherency with Intel's Xeon CPUs via the Compute Express Link interconnect standard. Agilex-M FPGAs are also the world's only solutions capable of operating with three types of memory: HBM2e, DDR5, and Intel Optane — though to be fair, Intel has locked other vendors out of Optane implementations in the past.

The new Agilex M-Series FPGAs offer the industry's highest memory bandwidth for an FPGA, thanks to the inclusion of HBM2e memory and an external DDR5/LPDDR5 memory bank, all controlled via Agilex M's hardened memory controllers. Intel also claims the industry's highest Digital Signal Processing (DSP) compute capabilities in an HBM-enabled FPGA, though note that Intel doesn't claim the highest compute density in non-HBM-enabled FPGAs.

The same is true regarding Intel's efficiency claims. The company says its Agilex M products offer over twice the fabric performance per watt vs competitive 7nm FPGAs (read, Xilinx's Versal). The devil, as always, is in the details: Intel isn't claiming twice the performance per watt of its competitor's offerings, only fabric efficiency, likely boosted by the company's usage of its EMIB technology.

This is the first time an Intel FPGA product is being marketed toward cryptocurrency-related workloads, and it's the second Intel product in a single month looking to enter the blockchain space, after Intel's Bonanza Mine ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) was made public. Intel seems to be adopting a broader strategy when it comes to blockchain workloads, and the company will be offering at least three distinct product segments that serve this space. While the Bonanza Mine ASIC and its subsequent iterations are a given, the new Agilex M-Series FPGAs are also joined by Intel's upcoming Arc Alchemist, which, as the company pointed out, will offer full performance in cryptocurrency mining workloads.

That Intel is marketing FPGAs for mining workloads doesn't detract from the more conventional use-cases for these chips, which include compute, cloud-to-edge infrastructure, pervasive connectivity, and AI. FPGAs are particularly desired due to their high flexibility, which allows for businesses to quickly iterate on semiconductor designs on the same piece of silicon, instead of spending the resources in multiple tape-outs of different approaches, solutions, and stages of a given chip's design.

It is interesting that Intel is broadening the appeal of its FGPAs toward markets they previously weren't in. This is happening against the backdrop of the apparently diminishing competitiveness of its Altera-based products compared to those made by Xilinx, which was recently acquired by AMD, turning it into a bigger company (by market capitalization) than even Intel.

By itself, Xilinx showcased an extremely impressive 2021, raking in $3.15 billion in revenue for a cool 20% increase YoY. Intel's PSG group, in contrast, brought in $1.9 billion in revenue, with only a 4% revenue increase YoY, signaling that the market found Xilinx's offerings to be preferable over Intel's solutions. However, Intel claimed that its PSG group could have brought in an additional $500 million in revenue were it not for the supply constraints felt throughout the semiconductor market at large — supply constraints that interestingly weren't mentioned in Xilinx's own earnings report.

It remains to be seen if Intel's "new" FPGA market, blockchain, will account for anything more than a product release marketing move, or if the company's solutions can indeed bring added value to a market dominated by ASICs.

Francisco Pires
Freelance News Writer

Francisco Pires is a freelance news writer for Tom's Hardware with a soft side for quantum computing.

  • JayNor
    Which Xilinx FPGA is comparable? ddr5/pcie5/ HBM2E/ CXL / 400Gbe / hardened memory controllers?

    Did the Intel-7 processing contribute anything to the speed-up? The Alder Lake parts certainly improved performance vs the 10sf Tiger Lake parts.