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The hottest trends in programmable logic

01 Jan 2012  | Clive Maxfield

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Well, what a year it's been. In a nutshell I think it's fair to say that the trends in programmable logic have been heading to all points of the compass. We have new chips that are bigger than anything we've ever seen before in terms of capacity and performance—and we also have components that are smaller than we've ever seen before in terms of capacity and packaging.

Actually, there have been so many incredible developments and amazing product announcements this year that the best we can do is to briefly skim through some of the more notable items...

So as not to be accused of favoritism, let's take the various companies in alphabetical order.

Altera: In January 2011, Altera announced their forthcoming portfolio of 28nm FPGAs, which are to be presented in three families: the Cyclone V, Arria V, and Stratix V. These families are highly differentiated, with almost every aspect of each family targeted at specific market segments. This includes the process itself (a low-power process used for one family versus a high-performance process for another), different transceivers, different DSP cores, different memory block sizes, and so forth.

In August, Altera announced that it was shipping Stratix V GT devices, which are the world's first FPGA featuring 28-Gbit/s transceivers. In September, they followed with the world's first 28nm FPGA development kit. In October they announced two new families of ARM-based SoC FPGAs implemented at the 28nm node—and also an associated virtual prototyping environment that is binary and register-compatible with the physical FPGA, which allows the software developers to immediately start performing their magic.

Lattice Semiconductor: The folks at Lattice are always working on something interesting. In March 2011 they announced the volume shipping of their mixed-signal programmable Platform Manager devices. Modern circuit boards use devices such as CPUs, FPGAs and ASICs to perform the primary processing functions. These primary function devices require multiple board-mounted power supplies that need to be turned on and off in a specific sequence, monitored for faults and trimmed for voltage accuracy. Lattice's Platform Manager provides a single-chip solution that integrates all of these power and digital management functions.

A month later, Lattice announced volume shipments of their 65nm flash-based MachXO2 PLD family. Built on a low-power 65-nm process featuring embedded Flash technology, the MachXO2 family delivers a 3X increase in logic density, a 10X increase in embedded memory, more than a 100X reduction in static power and up to 30% lower cost compared to the MachXO PLD family. In addition, several popular functions used in low-density PLD applications, such as User Flash Memory (UFM), I2C, SPI and timer/counter, have been hardened into the MachXO2 devices, providing designers a "Do-it-All-PLD" for high volume, cost sensitive designs.

Silego: This is a company that completely took me by surprise, not the least that they were recently recognized as being the second fastest growing semiconductor company in North America with 1127% growth. Silego's current claim-to-fame is its GreenPAK device families, which are best described as super-small mixed-signal FPGAs that you can design and program in just a few minutes and that cost only a few cents.

In September 2011, Silego announced their GreenPAK 2 devices. With only 12-pins in a 2.5mm x 2.5mm package, these tiny chips can be used to gather up and replace the functionality of a bunch of other simple analog and digital parts on the board, thereby saving cost, power, and board real estate. In a typical usage scenario, a GreenPAK chip will replace 10 to 15 regular components, but one of Silego's customers actually managed to replace 36 components, which is pretty significant whichever way you look at it.

SiliconBlue: The folks at SiliconBlue Technologies are specialists in creating custom mobile device solutions for handheld applications. Their ultra-low-power CMOS SRAM-based FPGAs are designed from the ground up to satisfy the stringent power requirements of mobile devices. These single-chip components feature patented non-volatile configuration memory, which means they don't require an external configuration memory chip and also that they provide "instant on" capabilities.

In July 2011, SiliconBlue announced the availability, including fully functioning samples, of their new iCE40 "Los Angeles" mobileFPGA family. Fabricated on TSMCs 40-nm low-power standard CMOS process, the LP-Series (low-power) and the HX-Series (high-speed) families are targeted toward devices like smartphones and tablets, respectively.

Xilinx: As usual, Xilinx has announced so many things that it's difficult to pick and choose between them. Of course we are all eagerly awaiting the release of their Zynq-7000 Extensible Processing Platform, which should happen in the not-so-distant future. The Zynq-7000 is a new class of product that combines an industry-standard ARM dual-core Cortex-A9 MPCore processing system with Xilinx 28nm programmable FPGA fabric. In October 2011, Xilinx launched a general open source Linux support and developer community for developing embedded software applications targeting the Zynq-7000.

But the really hot news as far as I am concerned was when Xilinx announced the first shipments of its Virtex-7 2000T FPGA. This is the first component to use Xilinx's Stacked Silicon Interconnect technology—also referred to as 2.5D ICs. In this first incarnation of the technology, four FPGA die are attached to a silicon interposer, which—in addition to connecting the FPGAs to each other with as many as 10,000 connections between adjacent die—also provides connections to the package substrate. The result is the world's highest-capacity programmable logic device containing 6.8 billion transistors. This provides two million logic cells—equivalent to 20 million ASIC gates—which makes these devices ideal for system integration, ASIC replacement, and ASIC prototyping and emulation.

Xilinx's Virtex-7 2000T device showing (from bottom to top) the packaging substrate, silicon interposer, and four FPGA die.

And what's in store for 2012? The way things are leaping around in all directions at the moment, I would be loath to offer any predictions except to say "expect the unexpected."

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