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Cracking the industrial nut

Programmable logic manufacturers have had their collective eyes on the industrial, or embedded systems, market for some time, but have yet to break through in any meaningful way. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from cost to suitability via all points in between.

For the longest time, programmable logic was an expensive tool, reserved for those with deep pockets. While that has changed, one persistent problem has been the relationship between programmable logic and the microcontroller or microprocessor. The major fpga players have tried to incorporate soft and hard processors in their devices – Altera developed Nios and Excalibur, Xilinx integrated PowerPCs and MicroBlaze, Actel, as it was, worked with ARM cores.

But it's a stretch to call those efforts successful and one of those companies would admit to 'mistakes being made'. Nevertheless, the industrial world remains an attractive target. Altera recently licensed the MIPS32 processor core and, as part of its Embedded Initiative, is looking to deploy ARM's Cortex-A9 core at some time. Actel (now Microsemi) has included a hard Cortex-M3 processor in SmartFusion.

Now comes Xilinx, implementing dual Cortex-A9 cores and a programmable fabric in what it claims to be a new class of device. In describing the Zynq family, Xilinx says it is 'more than a processor, more than an asic and more than an fpga'. And therein lies some of the difficulty in targeting programmable logic at industrial applications. So far, it has tried to be all things to all people and failed.

Motor control is one particular application crying out for technology to help companies use power more efficiently. But designers have tended to use multicomponent solutions – microcontroller plus dsp, for example – and developers are always looking for cost effective ways to build their products. Whether programmable logic vendors have cracked that particular nut remains to be seen.

Graham Pitcher

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