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FPGA, DSP combo meets demanding tasks

Posted: 18 Jul 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:dsp? xilinx? fpga?

One of the goals Omid Tahernia outlined following his appointment as VP and general manager of Xilinx's new DSP division late last year was customer education. He believes that in any technology, the lack of usage equates to lack of awareness. In recent months, Tahernia has engaged in a number of meetings with customers about evolving FPGA platforms that perform DSP functions and asked Asian engineers what they really want in their FPGA designs.

According to Tahernia, the evolution of technologies and applications like 3G and 4G is "driving an insatiable appetite for performance." He noted that the challenge for silicon vendors, as technologies continue to consolidate and increase in functionality and signal-processing requirements reach unprecedented levels, is to establish a platform that "really works" without taking cost, power, size and time-to-market for granted.

Heart of digital revolution

Tahernia emphasized that DSPs are at the heart of the digital revolution and that the technology is fundamental to the two fastest growing marketswireless and multimedia.

"Wireless and DSP are almost synonymous. You cannot implement wireless, whether it is a handset or a base station, without having a DSP," he said. "In almost every wireless base station, there's an FPGA performing strong DSP functions."

Over the years, traditional DSP processors have answered the signal-processing needs of various applications, but their fixed architectures simply limit algorithm complexity and efficiency, Tahernia said. As algorithm complexity rapidly increases with the proliferation of multimedia devices that demand strong image- or video-processing capabilities, the gap between the performance needs of algorithms and fixed processors continues to widen.

"FPGAs that are optimized for DSP functions can fill that performance gap," Tahernia said. "DSP is a mature technology. It's strong in some areas, but weak in others. We will not compete with DSPs head on," he said, adding that Xilinx brings the strengths of both DSPs and FPGAs in one platform.

The key, Tahernia said, is that Xilinx FPGAs use parallel architectures rather than serial architectures of traditional DSPs. "This results in an increase in performance."

FPGAs can be programmed to handle the same sequential instruction set by processing instructions in parallel and then combining the data to achieve the same result much more efficiently. Although the internal clock rate may be slower in an FPGAe.g. 500MHz for an FPGA vs. 1GHz for a DSPthe final throughput will be higher by an order of magnitude.

"Our FPGA platforms take advantage of parallelism," he said. "You can run it at half the speed, but essentially get the job done with the same functionality in one clock cycle."

Flexibility is power

Another key, Tahernia said, is FPGA's inherent programmability. Since FPGAs are hardware-configurable, designers can leverage the flexibility to use only the necessary resources that the algorithm demands.

Tahernia described one base-station implementation that gave their customer KDDI significant cost-savings by upgrading remotely using Xilinx solutions. Developers can change the FPGA configuration in the field using software, as opposed to replacing hardware or motherboards in fixed architecture solutions.

"One thing I've validated in the industry is that hard implementation of things is difficult. It prevents customers from getting to market faster and puts them in a place where the evolution of their products becomes a major challenge," Tahernia said.

The dedicated DSP division was created in September last year to broaden Xilinx's reach into the $2 billion signal-processing market currently served by ASIC and ASSP technologies. "We see an order of magnitude opportunity in this segment. We anticipate growth in the next five to seven years," he said. "The words don't describe the complexity that has been created around signal processing, and that's where Xilinx will explore and focus on."

Digital communications, Tahernia said, is their focus market, followed by video and imaging, military and defense, test and measurement, as well as medical applications.

- Jerico Abila

Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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