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Rolling the dice on programmable logic

Posted: 16 Jun 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ic? programmable logic? asic? fpga? hybrid?

System engineers today have the opportunity to test-drive a number of IC development platforms that defy traditional notions of customizable chips. Though their approaches differ vastly, all share a common goal: to beat programmable logic at its own game.

A sample of what's arrived recently or what's soon to come includes a new crop of mask-programmable structured ASICs, a hybrid FPGA/ASIC architecture, a reconfigurable computing architecture and a high-speed programmable fabric. Proponents of each approach promise to slash development costs, meet shorter time-to-market windows and deliver faster speeds and lower per-unit costs.

Many past competitors have tried and failed to take programmable logic head on, but today's rivals are being more realistic. Companies offering structured ASICs, for example, are mostly interested in providing alternatives to high-end FPGAs. Startups say they are trying to home in on a few key markets where their technology can shine.

The programmable logic companies are not going to make it easy for them. With their keen sense of competition, broad user base, access to leading-edge manufacturing and fat profit margins, companies like Xilinx and Altera are leaving no stone unturned as they rapidly churn out new programmable logic platforms.

The flurry of activity is all the more remarkable given that programmable logic vendors keep making new products using a technology that hasn't changed much for two decades. Critics may say it's in dire need of an overhaul, but that very consistency is what has allowed PLD vendors to build up such a strong user base.

One of the chief advantages programmable logic players enjoy is that so many engineers know how their software tools work. This is a hard-won benefit that goes back to the early days of programmable logic, when many of the major chip companies tried without much success to enter the market. Whether competitors can do so now is still an open question.

- Anthony Cataldo

EE Times




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