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Building strength amid the storm

Posted: 17 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:FPGA? Gavrielov Moshe? Spartan Virtex?

Gavrielov: It's going to get worse before it gets better but I think we're doing better than most.

Moshe Gavrielov, the relatively new CEO of Xilinx Inc., came to London to launch Xilinx's Spartan-6 and Virtex-6 ranges of FPGAs and to spread a little celebration around the worldcelebration of Xilinx's 25th birthday. In a difficult environment Gavrielov reckons that FPGA makers are sitting in some of the better seats.

Could you comment on the current economic situation and whether price deflation could take hold in the semiconductor sector?
Gavrielov: Well, our Q4 sales were down 5 percent from Q3. But that is better than most other semiconductor companies. The consumer sector is getting hit hardest and soonest. We don't have an enormous amount of exposure to the consumer sector. We have high hopes for Spartan-6 but consumer is not a high level of application for us. We are mainly used in military and communications, some industrial. We are projecting calendar Q1 to be 15 to 25 percent down. I don't think anyone is seeing improvement until 2H 09. It's going to get worse before it gets better but I think we're doing better than most.

Who is making your Spartan-6 and Virtex-6 silicon; Samsung and UMC?
We have the ability to make both at multiple suppliers. The Spartan-6 is being made at a more consumer-oriented fab and UMC has been our partner for many generations of technology. We have a long-term relationship with our suppliers. We make sure they are available. A weak supply chain is the last thing we need.

Are you prepared to allow your customers to brand the silicon like as ASIC customer of a foundry would? You talk about FPGAs moving up to take over more ASIC and ASSP slots at higher volumes. Surely this would help?
With Spartan-6 we have a viable platform to do that. That's where you will start to see the trend starting. You could even start to handle the stacked margins. With ensuing generations it will capture more of the market. Private labeling is something we actually do already in certain security applications. We are very open to all options but there has to be a volume there to justify taking the chips out of the conventional flow. It is a distraction to us. Some customers are able to remove the logo without damage.

You have spoken about FPGAs moving up into higher volumes and more consumer-oriented applications, but many of those applications have a critical analog content, something for which FPGAs are not well known. Field-programmable analog arrays have largely been rejected by the market. Surely this is an Achilles heel for Xilinx?
FPGAs are a standard product. We cannot do all of the analog functions to enable a consumer product. There is analog circuitry inside our FPGAs but it is application-specific, function-specific not generic.

By the same token surely FPGAs have, in general, been notoriously power-hungry making them unsuitable for mobile or battery-operated applications?
They have become a lot more power-conservative. With each generation of technology the amount of power consumed is reducing. The customers are demanding it. We've made a lot of technical innovations and can add things like hard cores. At 40 to 45-nm on an ASIC versus an FPGA the absolute power differential is decreasing. For most applications FPGA is becoming available. If you use an older ASIC technology, that will mean using higher voltages and wasted power consumption elsewhere. Power consumption was a key target of this [Spartan-6, Virtex-6] generation and it's the number one target of a future generation. We do have a CPLD family that is suitable for use in portable equipment like handsets although they are relatively small capacity.

In the 1990s Xilinx touted the idea of 'downloadable hardware' for an FPGA in a system connected to the internet. It didn't seem to catch on; at least for consumer applications. Are times changing in that regard?
We call it partial configuration and there are two sets of applications that definitely use it; communications infrastructure and the military. In both cases there is a possibility that a box cannot be easily accessed, or there is a strong business reason to minimize maintenance. Those two applications are becoming broader and being joined by others. In the consumer world there is interest in the idea for things like video games so that hardware could be upgraded to help sell more software; that could be an attraction. But it is clear that in any situation there needs to be a business case that supports it.

With Spartan-6 and Virtex-6 you've announced moves to 45- and 40-nm process technologies, respectively. But with shrinking geometries, all things being equal, comes increased susceptibility to radiation-induced single-event upset. What have you done about that in these devices?
We have a special SRAM that has been checked with external testing. The research was paid for by our military customers and it [the SRAM cell] passed with flying colors.

- Peter Clarke
EE Times Europe

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