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New Design Opportunities as Semiconductor Device Type Boundaries Blur

In a May 2, 2011 presentation at the Semico Summit, Mr. Danny Biran, Senior VP of Marketing at Altera, discussed new opportunities as the boundaries between semiconductor logic device types become blurred. According to Mr. Biran, the boundary between FPGAs, ASICS, ASSPS and CPUs (MPUs, MCUs and DSPs has until recently been extremely well defined. 

FPGAs were customer programmable standard products.  Programming was developed for and owned by the customer.  ASICs used a standard cell design methodology.  The design was owned by the customer.  ASSPs were a standard high-volume product developed by the semiconductor vendor for sale to multiple customers.  MPUs, MCUs and DSPs were standard products, but the software needed to implement an application was developed by the customer.  Now, the boundaries between those categories are becoming blurred. Various semiconductor vendors are offering FPGAs with an on-board MPU, ASICs that include an FPGA block or ASSPs with multiple processing cores.  

Altera’s Stratix V FPGA is an example of this trend.  It combines high speed transceivers, hard IP, soft IP, logic blocks, memory arrays and advanced DSP blocks on one IC. There are several factors driving this trend, including increasing levels of integration, the high cost of developing leading edge ASICs and the availability of IP (Intellectual Property).   Another factor is the availability of integration tools, such as Altera’s Qsys system integration tool. There is more to the blurring of boundaries between device types than just the availability of advanced ICs. 

There are a wide variety of system integration tools, intellectual property blocks, floating point IP libraries and other tools available to today’s design engineer.  This requires a fundamental change in the way that system engineers approach their tasks. Mr. Biran made the point that system companies should not be trapped into thinking about design solutions in terms of IC categories:  FPGAs, ASICs, ASSPs or processors.  Instead, they should think about the combination of technologies that provides the best solution.  This may require reorganization or the acquisition of new skills. 

For example, the emphasis might shift from standard cell design skills to programming skills. The optimum solution for a part of the design might be an FPGA.  The optimum solution for another part of the design might be an MPU or a DSP.  The significant change is that both of these, the FPGA and the processor, or other device types, can now be integrated onto one IC. This requires another change in thinking.  In the past, a system company might begin coordinating with vendors relatively late in the design cycle.  Now, with the boundaries blurring, a system company can achieve a better solution by consulting with a vendor from the very beginning of the design cycle.

As we all know, the number of transistors per IC is increasing, in accordance with Moore’s law.  This is making it possible to combine several functionalities on one IC.  In fact, according to Mr. Biran, the record for the number of transistors on an IC is held by an FPGA, not a microprocessor.  This can lead to better design solutions, but only if system companies recognize the trend and alter their design concepts to take advantage of the possibilities. 

Morry Marshall VP Strategic Technologies

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