20 March 2009
Taking the platform
FPGA design has become complex enough to demand a platform based approach.
There was a time when programmable logic was a relatively humble technology. The approach was generally used as a way of fixing board layout errors and became widely regarded as 'glue logic'.
But times change. As process technology has careered towards ever smaller feature sizes, programmable logic developers have produced increasingly capable devices. Where once the asic was king of the electronics system jungle, the programmable logic device – known more broadly as an fpga – is ruling the roost.
Brent Przybus, director of product marketing for Xilinx, noted the change. "FPGAs have moved from being a peripheral component to being the centre of a design."
It's a trend that has been in process for a decade. Since the late 1990s, companies such as Altera and Xilinx have recognised that asics were their target. The reasoning included the fact that asics were becoming increasingly more complex and expensive. Implemented on today's leading edge processes, it might cost some $100million to take an asic to market – not something for the faint hearted.
What works against the asic is the high cost of making a mistake. Respinning an asic design not only costs a lot, it also means the product which it enables gets to market later – and that could have serious financial implications.
While the asic has climbed higher up the complexity curve so too has the fpga. In many respects, today's fpgas could be likened to the asics of a decade ago. But there's one crucial difference – programmability.
In fact, Xilinx believes the industry has reached what it calls a programmable imperative. In other words, Xilinx believes the fpga has become the 'defining integrated circuit' for electronics design.
Responding to this increase in complexity, Xilinx has launched the latest development of its Virtex family. According to the company, Virtex-6 has been developed to meet what it sees as 'insatiable demand' for higher bandwidth and for lower power systems.
At the same time, it has added another 'buzz phrase' to the electronics industry's argot – the targeted design platform. Przybus explained the concept. "We have realised that, while we're having success providing fpga solutions, a recurring theme is that we can't provide everything in silicon. We can't harden many features – because that would make our products assps – so that means we need to provide IP cores."