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Actel steps up to battle PLD giants

Posted: 26 Aug 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:PLD? FPGA? ProASIC TCA ASIC?

East: Actel is the leader in low-power FPGA, but the problem is that nobody knows it.

In the cut-throat programmable logic device (PLD) business, market leaders Altera Corp. and Xilinx Inc. tend to dominate the headlines.

The two FPGA giants tend to drown out their smaller rivals. But now, seeking to elbow its way into the spotlight and re-energize its bottom line, Actel Corp. recently acquired Pigeon Point Systems Inc.!a move that propels the FPGA house into the telecommunications computing architecture (TCA) components sector.

The world's fourth largest PLD/FPGA vendor also outlined its process roadmap. In fact, seeking to play catch-up in process technology, it is quietly skipping the 90nm node and devising a new line of 65nm PLDs and FPGAs.

Actel is also looking to turn up the volume in the noisy public relations wars in FPGAs, a slight departure from its relatively quiet nature. In other words, Actel hopes to avoid becoming a minor niche player destined for obscurity.

"In the area of static power FPGAs, we're killing the competition," said John East, president and CEO of Actel. "Actel is the leader in low-power FPGAs, but the problem is that nobody knows it."

Although Actel has some advantages, the company also has some "smart competitors," East told EE Times. "I like them. And they like me. But they want to kick my butt. Instead of kicking my butt, I want to kick their butts."

Road less travelled
Formed in 1985, Actel has taken a somewhat different road than its rivals. Initially, the company made its name by developing and selling FPGAs based on antifuse switching elements.

Later, it bucked the trend and developed products based on flash technology. In contrast, its main rivals sell FPGAs based on SRAM technology.

"Actel is well positioned for revenue growth with its current product offering," said Bryan Lewis, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "Actel has been attacking the low-power/low-cost portion of the FPGA market and this is where we are expecting most of the growth over the next three to five years. Actel gained market share in 2007 and we expect them to gain market share in 2008."

The PLD business includes several different product sectors, such as simple PLDs (SPLD), complex PLDs (CPLDs) and FPGAs. In total, the PLD/FPGA sector is expected to reach $3.8 billion in 2008, up 7.7 percent over 2007, according to Gartner.

In the PLD/FPGA sector, Xilinx was the leader in terms of market share in 2007, followed in order by Altera, Lattice and Actel. Last year, Actel was the only major vendor that grew in the arena. It had sales of $196 million in the PLD/FPGA sector, up 2.6 percent over 2006, according to Gartner.

Going forward, Actel hopes that trend will continue, as it seeks to remain a survivor in the competitive PLD business. At one time, there were 43 PLD vendors in the market, many of which are no longer around. Today, there are four main PLD players: Actel, Altera, Lattice and Xilinx. Another vendor, QuickLogic, has recently exited the mainstream FPGA market to focus on its ASSP products.

Now, there are several startups looking to turn the market upside down. Achronix, SiliconBlue and others claim to provide new and different approaches in the market.

But the PLD shakeout may not be over. One startup, MathStar Inc., recently moved to wind down its operations. As it seeks a buyer, MathStar said it plans to discontinue its field programmable object array (FPOA) chip development and its board-level systems development businesses.

Meanwhile, Altera and Xilinx appear to be in decent financial shape, but the two rivals continue to slug it out in a plethora of markets. Just which vendor will emerge stronger amid the current slowdown is unclear. Another PLD vendor, Lattice Semiconductor Inc., continues to spill red ink and its fate is unclear.

Moving forward
Actel appears to have bounced back, following a loss in 2007 and an ugly stock-option fiasco in 2006. But going forward, even Actel must find new markets! or niches!to remain relevant.

As for the new FPGA startups, these vendors face an uphill battle. Besides dealing with soaring design costs, the startups must find new customers who are willing to take a chance on a new architecture. "The probability for success (among the startups) is zero," East said. "It's too late for them."

Others wonder about the fate of FPGAs. PLDs compete for sockets against ASICs, and, to some degree, ASSPs. In general, FPGAs are limited in terms of their overall architecture, while ASSPs have some limitations in their customization, said Ronnie Vasishta, CEO of eASIC Corp., a supplier of structured ASICs, in a recent interview.

Not surprisingly, East disagreed that the party is over for FPGAs. ASICs, he argued, are falling by the wayside and remain too expensive. The ASIC market "is a sad place to be these days," he added.

ASICs are the least of Actel's worries. Perhaps the real challenge for the company is to find new markets, which are not dominated by industry heavyweights Altera and Xilinx. "FPGAs are a large business, but it's a dogfight," he said.

In simple terms, Actel is focusing on two sectors: low-power and systems management. Ranging in density from 3,000 to 4 million gates, Actel's FPGAs are aimed for automotive, commercial, industrial, and military applications.

Celestial success
One of its claims to fame is the satellite business. Over the last decade, Actel claims its FPGAs have been used in over 300 satellites and spacecraft, including GPS-2RM, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Explorer Rovers 1 and 2 (Spirit and Opportunity), Echostar, and Globalstar.

Citing the aerospace and other segments, Actel recently said revenues were $57.6 million for Q2 08, a 5 percent increase from Q1 08 and an 18 percent increase from Q2 07.

Actel has a net income of $1.964 million in the quarter, compared to $176,000 in the previous period and a loss of $2.645 million a year ago. For Q3, sales are expected to grow 1-3 percent sequentially. Wall Street is expecting a profit of $0.03 a share on sales of $57.05 million.

In Q1 08, Actel had record bookings. The company experienced shortages in the second quarter, but product demand "tailed off as the summer approached" and order rates were "subdued" heading into the third period, East said in a recent conference call with analysts.

East said visibility remains weak going forward, but he predicts a relatively "flattish" year in the overall semiconductor industry. What worries the semiconductor veteran is the current economic climate and oil prices, which, he said, could go as high as $1,000 a barrel in the distant future.

On the product front, fabless Actel is expected to make more introductions at or around the 130nm node. Its products are made on a foundry basis by Chartered, Infineon, Matsushita, UMC and Winbond.

Earlier this year, it rolled out two new members to its Igloo and ProASIC3 FPGA families starting at a record price of just 99 cents. The new 15,000-gate devices offer power consumption as low as 5 microwatts, 10 times less static power than more expensive CPLDs. Igloo is Actel's low-power FPGA solutions. The ProASIC line are low-power, flash-based FPGAs, which are nonvolatile and reprogrammable.

This month, it rolled out new ProASIC FPGAs to its military-qualified product offerings. Ranging in density from 600,000 to 3-million gates, the new low-power devices are immune to neutron-induced configuration upsets, according to Actel.

Sprint to 65nm
In process technology, however, Actel is behind by a wide margin. For example, Altera has recently taken the lead position in the process race, by recently rolling out a 40nm FPGA line. Rival Xilinx is competing with 65nm FPGAs.

To play catch-up in the process race, Actel has decided to skip the 90nm node and move to 65nm technology. Initial 65nm product tape outs are due early next year, according to East.

East insists the name of the FPGA game is low power!and not leading-edge processes. In fact, he claims that Actel's 130nm devices consume less power than Altera's 65nm products. "The days of smaller linewidths are over," he said. "Shrinks are not friendly in terms of power."

There are tradeoffs between flash- and SRAM-based FPGAs. The SRAM-based FPGA parts are generally suited for traditional and leading-edge consumer, military and wireless applications.

But SRAM-based products "have inherently high static power consumption," according to Actel. "Even 'low-power' SRAM-based FPGAs draw on the order of ten times more power than specified for typical battery-operated applications. SRAM-based FPGAs also experience power surges at start-up that drain batteries and can cause system-initialization failures. Compounding the problem, each process node 'shrink' increases the static power consumption of transistor-heavy SRAM-based FPGAs."

Besides its ongoing push in low power, Actel is moving into the systems management front by acquiring Pigeon Point Systems, a supplier of TCA components. Many OEMS devise their own TCA devices and boards. Pigeon Point's TCA products, which include controllers and reference design boards, are geared to replace proprietary architectures, especially in the telecommunications market.

Earlier this year, Actel and Pigeon Point announced a partnership to develop and market solutions based on the Actel's Fusion mixed-signal FPGAs, which would speed up the design of AdvancedTCA blade and AdvancedMC carrier blade management controllers. Fusion incorporates analog functions, embedded flash, and an FPGA fabric in a single chip, making it ideal for system management and intelligent power management.

"Pigeon Point is the de facto standard in the TCA arena," East said at the time of the acquisition. "As TCA experiences rapid deployment across the increasingly power-sensitive telecommunications, military and industrial markets, the merger of their market and technology leadership with Actel's power and system management solutions gives us [an] opportunity to capture a significant portion of the TCA system market."

Others had a slightly different viewpoint. "For either ATCA or MicroTCA, there is a real role for FPGAs in the shelf-control and power-control functions in the advanced mezzanine card," said Loring Wirbel, director of the EE Times' Market Intelligence Unit. " In fact, Altera has a big ATCA program. They think there will be more FPGAs used in those architectures than ASSPs. So Actel's probably just trying to bring some of that ATCA/MicroTCA expertise in-house. If they get into board-level evaluation systems, however, it could be a distraction."

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times





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