FPGA Industry On The Wrong Tack
Instead of narrowing the market applicability of its products by focussing on specific customer needs, the programmable logic industry would do better to address its fundamental problems : FPGAs use too much power and are too expensive.
The beauty of FPGA is that it plays to the economic strength of the semiconductor manufacturing process i.e. you can turn out a standard part in high volume and therefore low cost.
But now, companies like Xilinx and Altera are asking customers what they want, then pre-programming chips with those functions. That’s an SOC company function. It limits the market applicability of FPGAs.
A better way to go than eroding the fundamental premise of the programmable logic industry – that it produces the economic Holy Grail of the standard programmable part – might be to re-engineer the FPGA to minimise its drawbacks.
A product based on a six transistor SRAM cell which, additionally, requires a lot of on-board transistors for programming, is intrinsically expensive and power-hungry.
The SRAM-based technology, invented by Ross Freeman when working for Zilog (while moonlighting at LSI Logic) was established as the basic FPGA technology back in 1984 when Freeman and Bernie Vonderschmitt founded Xilinx.
Surely, nearly a quarter of a century later, there must be a better way to do it?
New memory technologies have emerged since then. Things like: MRAM, RRAM, trapped charge, phase change, even flash. After all Actel has built a $60 million a year business out of flash-based FPGA.
Asked if a more energy efficient base technology for FPGA could be found than SRAM-based cells, Altera’s CEO, John Daane, replies: “The reason SRAM dominates the industry, accounting for 99 per cent of the revenues, is that it’s the lowest cost. Basic SRAM cells are the most efficient and the lowest cost.”
It would be a pity if this were to continue to be the case. With the programmable logic companies pushing their product further and further into the realms of the ASIC and the SOC, and further and further away from its genesis as a generic standard programmable product, FPGA growth is bound to slow, and its margins erode.