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FPGA design complexity drives Altera engineering expansion

Growth in the complexity of designing fpga based systems is pushing Altera Europe to expand the systems solution engineering group at its High Wycombe office.

Mark Dickinson, director of the design centre, explained systems solution engineering was 'everything on top of the device'. "It's development tools and reference designs, all the way to complete solutions. We're developing the technology to help system designers."

But Dickinson said: "We are not a design services company. We will engage in system development because we need to understand the constraints. Ultimately, our job is to drive silicon sales, but we will not do complete systems designs free of charge."

The High Wycombe group was established in 1998 and has experienced mixed fortunes since then. Growing to around 70 people on the back of the booming semiconductor industry in the early 2000s, the group has since shrunk back to around 50 people. Now, Dickinson wants to add another 17 people.

"Customers face a number of challenges when implementing fpgas," he noted. "Our silicon platforms, such as Stratix V, (pictured) need to be turned into a solution – and the bigger the company, the less design they want to do. Our emphasis is on making it easier for them to develop complete systems on fpgas."

He said there is nothing geographical about the work being done at High Wycombe. "But it is easier to get, for example, wireless expertise in Europe." The new recruits are likely to come from the markets being targeted by Altera, although some newly graduated PhDs may be taken on.

While mainly focused on communications and image processing applications, the group is also developing tools to help industrial designers. "For motor control," Dickinson continued, "designers would traditionally use a dsp, but they need flexibility and that doesn't come from dsps."

Asked whether Altera was 'pushing' into new markets or being 'pulled' by existing ones, Dickinson said it was a bit of both. "We are certainly pushing in video. We saw an emerging market and a gap in the design methodology. We felt we could address this market and we have been successful. But we are also being pulled by existing users, particularly in the communications sector, who are asking 'what's next?'."

An example of the systems solutions being developed is a traffic manager for 40Gbit communications applications. The design was delivered to a customer – one of only a dozen or so companies active in the sector – on a Strativ IV fpga.

The design can support up to 60million 64byte packets/s and features a multilayer scheduler capable of handling 'hundreds of thousands' of queues. It also offers a scheduler/shaper and congestion control.
He noted the ideal solution was for Altera to provide the platform, while customers provide the final design. "But the competition is not always from an fpga," he continued. "It could be a platform that does the same thing: a network processor, for example. But that's inflexible and we can provide an fpga as a blank piece of silicon."

Author
Chris Shaw

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