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Actel at the forefront in the dawn of a new era for FPGAs

18 May 2005 News

Dataweek recently had the opportunity to interview Patrizio Piasentin of Actel and Tony Dal Maso of ASIC Design Services (ASIC). Piasentin is the country manager (France, Belgium and South Africa) for Actel, a California-based company, while Dal Maso is the CEO of ASIC.

Piasentin was in the country to help launch his company's new range of third-generation flash-based programmable logic solutions devices, the ProASIC3 and ProASIC3/E families, which include the world's lowest cost field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). ASIC has been the sole representative of Actel in South Africa since 1991 and a very good rapport has been established between the two companies.

Background to the local industry

Piasentin, although only on his second visit to this country, has an incisive insight into the history, capabilities and opportunities of the local electronics industry, and I personally agreed with his overall description. As he pointed out, South Africa used to be a closed market and economy of scale was difficult with the major emphasis at that time being the defence and security industries. The country's major advantage was its abundance of highly qualified and innovative engineers who were often tasked to do the virtually impossible on a shoestring budget. The lack of economy of scale has, however, provided us with certain major advantages of which the need to be creative and low-cost driven, are but two. Another major one was the limited use of ASICs as a result of the high mask cost of these devices for limited production runs, and this has resulted in higher use of, and better understanding of, the FPGA which is now coming into its own in a big way.

The other lasting advantages which we possess in a highly competitive global market is the much lower cost of engineers (many of whom gained their expertise in the demanding defence and avionics industries) compared to Europe or North America, while we have the advantage of having virtually the same time zone as Europe and similar culture.

Although the local electronics industry has many strengths and opportunities Piasentin pointed out that we still face threats similar to those experienced by the long-time open markets. In terms of this, we need to protect locally-developed products from cloning (a direct copy), reverse engineering and overbuilding (where an unscrupulous contract manufacturer sells extra production for profit on the open market) if we are to beat our global competition.

Costly patents are not the right way to go to protect electronic systems as first of all, patent rights are hard to defend, while at the same time, one has to effectively give away much of one's intellectual property (IP) to establish a watertight patent in the first place.

Another growing trend is the desirability of being able to remotely update products through what is currently the unsafe use of the Internet.

Both of these are ideal and Actel is now in the position of being able to offer a total solution, driven by the use of single chip FPGA technology and solid standards such as ARM. Obviously, Actel also realises that the product developer will want to re-use their IP and software in other devices and they see a need for a good mix between hardware and software partitioning and the use of high level design methodology such as VHDL/Matlab.

The role of Actel in the electronics industry, today and in the future

Actel as a company, shipped its first product in 1988 and had a turnover of some $165 million in the 2004 financial year. Actel has had 57 consecutive quarters that returned profits, has no debt, and has enough cash in the bank to operate normally for more than 12 months without any income. It is a fabless operation, employing some 500 people with some 26% of turnover being expended in research and development. In terms of its core FPGA business it is the world's number one supplier of both flash and antifuse devices.

Actel believes that the local industry needs to keep certain things uppermost in its mind. These include:

* The need to manage and anticipate obsolescence of parts. Companies can feel secure with Actel as it services a diversified market ranging from consumer goods and automotive right up to avionics and the defence sector. This means that there are very low levels of obsolescence for its devices and there is also ready availability of outdated components.

* There should be continued drive towards lower power usage and less thermal heating.

* Products need to have high reliability.

* EMI needs to be strongly addressed as this was once (and is still to a limited extent) used as an effective barrier to trade for electronic goods entering the European market.

* Companies should be aware of the increased attention being given to single-event upsets (SEUs) and the likelihood that this could become a new non-tariff barrier to trade. New standards to address the SEU are being developed and will in the future become mandatory in some applications. An SEU is the situation (first observed in the space programmes) where naturally occurring radiation (such as neutrons) can corrupt memory in a single event. Avionics is particularly susceptible and new generation aircraft such as the Airbus 380 make extensive use of Actel's FPGA technology to eliminate this problem.

Actel and the FPGA

Technology in regard to ASICs has been developing rapidly and the spacing has reduced from 0,35 microns to 65 nm today. As the technology improves so does the cost of the die and this has risen virtually exponentially over the last few years, making the ASIC unaffordable for low volume production runs. Over the same time frame the costs of FPGAs has decreased dramatically and the FPGA is now the device of choice for emerging market countries with low risk and no high barrier to entry.

As regards the market for FPGAs, this amounted to $2,3 billion in 2004 and is expected to rise to $6,3 billion by 2008. Current growth markets include consumer, automotive, industrial and defence with telecommunications to a lesser extent. While FPGAs are available with more than one million gates and can operate at more than 350 MHz, the real statistics are as follows:

1. 80% of designs use less than one million gates.

2. 40% of designs use less than 100 000 gates.

3. 75% of designs operate at less than 140 MHz.

4. 94% of designs need less than 512 Kbits.

Obviously, the major focus of Actel is to service the needs of the 80% market share and while it does offer premium products, the main drive is towards lower cost devices with less demanding specifications.

Whereas Actel began production with antifuse FPGAs, this technology has now almost been overtaken by flash, and the latter will soon dominate the high growth market where less than 1 million gates are required. Flash technology offers the best of both worlds. While SRAM is programmable and antifuse devices are nonvolatile, flash now offers both of these essential features in a single chip.

As regards flash FPGA devices, they have a number of advantages over other traditional components. These include:

* The total cost of the device.

* The fact that the flash FPGA is live at power-up.

* Flash devices offer total security and today the ASIC in these secure devices has disappeared and the FPGA is the 'heart of the system'.

* This security means that cloning and reverse engineering are not possible and the single chip secure solution offers a mechanism to eliminate overbuilding. Actel closely protects user-specific FPGAs and has mechanisms in place where these will not be sold to third parties without prior approval. Today, ASICs are relatively easy to reverse engineer through sequential stripping of layers.

* The security also means that devices can be re-programmed remotely over a non-secure Internet connection with security being based on a user supplied key. The device incorporates FlashLock security measures on the chip.

* The flash-based FPGA is a particularly low power device.

* In terms of SEUs, both antifuse and flash FPGAs are immune and allow manufacturers to develop devices for applications where such resistance will become mandatory in the future. While flight computers is an obvious example where SEUs cannot be tolerated, another one is the millions of air bags fitted to current and future generation automobiles. SRAM-based FPGAs are prone to SEUs.

* In terms of the Actel FPGAs, the security offered in the device has led to another breakthrough in terms of a partnership with ARM, the undisputed leader (more than 75% market share) in embedded processors. Rather than paying an expensive licence fee, the two companies have collaborated to optimise ARM for FPGA devices and these are now offered with the licence-free soft core ARM7. Obviously, just as the flash-based FPGA protects the manufacturers' software, so it protects the intellectual property of ARM while offering access of this high level product to the masses.

Into the future with the ProASIC3 families

At the end of January this year Actel announced the launch of its ProASIC3 and ProASIC3/E families, the company's third generation of flash-based programmable logic solutions.

Using a 130 nm flash and CMOS-based chip, the ProASIC3 offers up to 350 MHz external system performance, with anywhere between 30 000 and 1 million gates. These new single chip devices deliver 64-bit 66 MHz PCI performance and are the industry's first FPGAs with an on-chip user flash ROM memory of 1 Kbit while offering between 18 and 108 Kbits of true dual-port SRAM. Actel emphasises that this is the lowest cost FPGA solution on the market with seven out of the 10 devices currently available costing less than $10 in quantities of 250 000, and with the entry-level 30 000 gate device at an incredibly low cost of $1,50. These new flash-based FPGAs now offer time-to-market advantages at costs that mitigate the need for ASIC migration at higher volumes. In terms of the ProASIC3 devices Actel is promoting these with a low-cost starter kit for end users that will allow engineers to evaluate the product for their specific application.

Do you choose an ASIC or an Actel FPGA?

In summary, Actel's FPGAs offer all the advantages of ASICs, including low unit cost in volume production without the high NRE associated with the manufacture of an ASIC. The other advantages of the FPGA are that they are immune to SEUs, are live at power-up, prototyping is rapid and re-programming is totally secure. In the eyes of Actel, the future for the electronic designer will see increased usage of single-chip FPGA technology. Note that Actel is currently the sole supplier of these flash-based secure FPGAs and is believed to have a multiyear head start over its competition.

ASIC Design Services

The company was started in 1989 with the focus being a design house for application specific integrated circuits (ASICs), and today it offers a broad range of design services while at the same time being a distributor for technically complex electronic components and EDA software. Products and design services offered include FPGAs and ASICs, PCB layout, system design and integration, with training courses for VHDL, PCB and FPGA design.

For more information contact Tony Dal Maso, ASIC Design Services, +27 (0)11 315 8316, tony@asic.co.za, www.asic.co.za



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