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Fusion tech marks new era in programmable system chips

Posted: 26 Jul 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:programmable system chip? psc? actel? fusion technology?

Steering a new age in programmable system chip (PSC), Actel Corp. rolls out the Fusion technology which brings together flash memory, analog peripherals and FPGA fabric in a monolithic PSC. The Fusion technology enables programmability to mixed-signal solutions and presents new capabilities for system development by allowing designers to use the same silicon for a variety of applications and quickly adapt to rapidly changing standards.

"We certainly see that there is a race in the market in providing a programmable system chip solution, a highly-integrated solution," said Dennis Kish, VP for marketing at Actel. "We feel that Actel is in a unique position to bring the different types of silicon solution all in one die. By combining many functions on a die, we can eliminate the need for them to be place separately on the board which saves cost and board area, increases reliability and saves power consumption," Kish said.

Fusion technology harnesses the advantage of programmable logic to application areas are traditionally serviced by discrete analog component and mixed-signal ASIC suppliers. Fusion technology is ideal as a soft processor platform when used in conjunction with Actel's ARM7 and 8051-based soft MCU cores. This new technology benefits from the unique properties of Actel's flash-based FPGAs, including a high-isolation, triple-well process and the ability to support high-voltage transistors to meet the mixed-signal system design requirements.

"We recently announced a partnership agreement with ARM that will bring us soft IP required for microcontroller integration," said Kish. "They were leveraging the fact that we have a very secure technology to protect ARM's intellectual property. The real basis for being able to integrate so many different types of functions is this embedded flash process which gives a very broad range of capabilities," he added.

Architecture, tools to solve complexity
Kish conveyed that Actel put a major investment in the tools that go along with the PSC solution on Fusion. This begins with an architecture defined to be flexible and expandable to any number of different peripherals, and continues to a toolset that allows the user to graphically compete designs in many cases and speed the time-to-market.

Actel fusion diagram

Fusion peripherals comprise of configurable, hardwired analog and flash blocks, with optional peripherals in soft (FPGA) gates. All of these peripherals have standardized interface embedded on them.

Fusion Backbone is a flexible bus and control logic of the architecture. The built-in control configures peripherals based on the information stored in the flash memory, while the bus ensures sound communication between peripherals.

Fusion Applets are application building blocks implementing specific functions. "Fusion Applets are functional building blocks that we envision that Actel or its partners will provide to the marketplace and would allow the end customer to get to market faster," said Kish.

Kish explained that the system application level of the architecture is a large user application which combines applets, a venue where customers pull everything together. Inside the application is an option for an ARM or an 8051 MCU to be added. ARM and 8051 MCU cores are designed to that it interfaces seamlessly to the Fusion backbone and be part of the control of the device.

"The optional MCU that can be added can actually span all of the levels down to the peripherals itself. What we provide in the toolset is the ability to either design in the HDL domain or in the software domain," said Kish. Kish asserts that a customer could implement the Fusion backbone in FPGA gates, but at their option, they could instead run a kernel of software on the ARM microprocessor. That would give them the ability to decide whether they would like to optimize for performance or for minimum gate count in the final implementation.

The Fusion architecture stack offers advantages such as the peripherals being treated equally regardless of them being hard-wired or soft IP and the backbone being scalable to any peripherals or applets. Additionally, applets can be quickly combined to create large applications.

As the complexity increases due to integration, tools need to keep up with high-level design productivity, hardware and software co-verification and debug capability, bus-based communication and system modeling. Fusion technology resolves it by offering a line of toolset that would aid the user in essential functions such as system parameter tracking, importation and exportation of library elements to the design database and automatic management of the system interfaces, as well as simulation and debug.

"The toolset that we put in place to go along with its technology is really an important piece of the technology announcement. It will allow the user to design at a very high level of abstraction at the system application level if they would so desire," said Kish.

Instead of having to work through development of HDLs, users could import an entire reference design and just adapt it to the system that they have in place, giving them the ability to quickly combine the functional building blocks or to import tool reference designs and automatically generate the lower levels of abstraction inside the design without having to manage that themselves, Kish clarified.

Strong FPGA market
Kish expressed that Actel targets three core marketsvalue-based FPGAs, critical systems and the programmable system chip segments. "We expect the programmable system chip will become an important part of Actel's future. We have a unique position versus our competition in the market by bringing together analog flash memory and soft microcontroller technology along with an FPGA fabric," asserted Kish.

"If you look back 10 years at the ASIC market, you can see some parallels for what is next for the FPGA supply base. The ASIC market grew in terms of capability to the point where users no longer needed more gates," Kish explained. He said that users voiced out the need for different types of functions on the same die, a pioneering step for the SoC era, which they executed later.

"We are getting to that same position with the general-purpose FPGA market that we have lots of gates available for a reasonable price," Kish said. "We have a fairly aggressive base logic technology that is available from the industry today and the next stage of adding value for customers will be to integrate different kinds of components."

Kish disclosed that they saw excitement from the customer base during the product pre-development for having different types of functions integrated on the same die. "It is the thing that people have been expecting for a while now and are happy that it is here," said Kish.

The Fusion portfolio sees opportunities in diverse applications such as automotive instrument clusters, industrial automation sensors, battery charging management and glucose monitors. Furthermore, it extends its application to the power monitoring requirements of the avionics segment.

"In total, the growth from the Asia-Pacific market has been phenomenal for FPGAs over the last several years. The Asia market is poised to be the leading market in a relatively short amount of time. And that is already the case for some of the suppliers in the FPGA space. So we think that growth trend will continue to be strong and we really believe that integration capabilities will give us an advantage in continuing the growth that has been existent in the last few years," Kish asserted.

- Reden Mateo
Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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