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90nm structured ASICs out to replace FPGAs

Posted: 08 Nov 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:eASIC? structured ASIC? Fujitsu? Magma Design? Nextreme?

FPGA vendors claim that they have conquered the ASIC for high-end designs.

Some, however, believe that the battle is far from over. Seeking to displace FPGAs and other chip technologies in the marketplace, eASIC Corp. this week came out of its shell with a bang by unveiling a new 90nm structured ASIC line. The company also disclosed a new foundry partnership with Fujitsu Ltd and an EDA arrangement with Magma Design Automation Inc.

eASIC's 90nm offering, dubbed Nextreme, is a family of six programmable structured ASICs, ranging in densities from 350,000 to 5 million gatesat performance levels up to 350MHz. The Nextreme parts are quick turnaround devices that provide higher speeds but lower power levels than competitive FPGAs and ASICs, according to Ronnie Vasishta, chief executive for eASIC.

The fabless ASIC house also disclosed that it will no longer use STMicroelectronics Inc. as its main foundry. With its older-generation, 130nm structured ASIC lines, eASIC had its parts built by STMicroelectronics on a foundry basis using a direct-write electron-beam manufacturing process.

While eASIC and STMicroelectronics still have an intellectual-property (IP) arrangement, the fabless ASIC house said that it will have its 90nm parts built on a foundry basis by Fujitsu. Last month, Fujitsu and Advantest Corp. formally established a joint venture to make chips using direct-write e-beam tools.

Reduced NRE, photomask costs
That venture will likely make eASIC's parts using Advantest's new e-beam tools. By using a direct-write e-beam manufacturing process, eASIC claims that it can reduce or eliminate the soaring NRE and photomask costs associated with ASICs.

eASIC's announcement represents what some would call a coming out party for the fabless ASIC house and its revived structured ASIC strategy. ''We've kept a low-profile,'' Vasishta said at a press event.

''People are also saying that the structured ASIC market is dead,'' he said, ''but the market is huge for these devices.''

The structured ASIC market is projected to grow from $400 million today to about $1.3 billion, or roughly 3.5 percent of the $31.4 billion total ASIC market, by 2010, according to Gartner Inc. Besides eASIC, Altera, AMI Semiconductor, Faraday, Fujitsu, NEC and others are also competing in the structured-ASIC business.

Many opportunities for structured ASICs are aimed for lower-volume applications in the communications, consumer and related segments. ''We're not looking at the cellphone,'' the eASIC CEO said. ''We're looking at volumes at the 1-million-unit level.''

Structured ASICs are directly competitive with FPGAs, which the eASIC CEO slammed and called ''very limiting.'' Compared to FPGAs, eASIC's use of masked-routing structure enables a much more efficient silicon implementation, according to the company. And, compared to competing structured ASICs, the Nextreme product family claims to have ''zero'' NRE costs.

The fabless company is already shipping its family of 90nm structured ASICs as part of its ''early access program.'' In general, the company claims that it can deliver a part from the design stage to a finished device in just three weeks.

Family members
The Nextreme device family has six members, ranging from the NX750LP with 350,000 gates to the high-capacity NX5000 with 5 million gates and 5.5Mbits of dedicated memory. The family can be configured with up to 790 configurable I/Os, a range of IP cores and BIST capabilities.

The main building block for the product is called eCell, which allows the configuration of logic and memory functions in a design. Nextreme is also based on a configurable fabric that combines look-up-table (LUT) cells with single via-layer customized interconnect.

''The logic cells configuration can be performed either by loading bitstreams to program the LUTs, or by using an additional via-layer mask,'' according to the company. ''The bit-stream programmable product is called Nextreme SL and the via programmable one is dubbed Nextreme VL.''

A key to the processing side of the equation is direct-write e-beam, a technology geared for low-volume production and not for mass manufacturing. ''The routing customization occurs through a single via layer while all metal layers are pre-fabricated and standard for all applications,'' according to the company. ''With just one via layer to customize, maskless direct-write e-beam processing becomes possible at 10x the normal pace, thereby enabling eASIC to offer NRE-free ASIC devices. A single via-mask is generated for high volume production, maintaining the no-NRE model.''

The Nextreme design flow uses EDA tools from Magma to create a netlist level design. The Magma design flow creates a fully placed design that is routed with eASIC's design tools suite, called eTools. The Nextreme design tools are supported under Windows, Linux and Solaris.

eASIC is currently shipping 90nm Nextreme devices. The firm will be introducing a 65nm structured ASIC product family in 2007. The 90nm devices can be housed in packages based on wirebonded or flip-chip technologies. Prices depend upon the configuration.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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