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PLDs find bright spots in downturn

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:PLD? programmable logic? ASIC? FPGA?

Daane: PLD is much more attractive than was the case even a few years ago.

Over the past year, the semiconductor industry as a whole has gone through a significant downturn. However, this downturn has actually created a good opportunity for the programmable logic device (PLD) industry. While the competition between PLD companies remains strong, ASICs still are the main competition. Yet the nature of that competition is quickly evolving in ways that strongly favor a programmable solution.

Today, the cost to implement an ASIC design at the leading edge has nearly tripled compared to earlier this decade. Faced with these sharply rising development costs, many ASIC designers are forced to rely instead on economically rational but lagging process technology. This reliance on older technology has performance disadvantages, such as limiting ASIC designers' ability to support the new high-speed memory and serial interfaces critical for advanced designs. In contrasts, PLD vendors sell standard devices across many markets, and our economics support rapid adoption of advanced process nodes.

In the early part of this decade, most PLD- and ASIC-based design starts were on the same process node. Today, advanced PLDs are often three to four process nodes ahead of most new ASIC designs, reflecting the economic barriers that limit the use of advanced technology in ASICs. When choosing between a lagging-node ASIC and an advanced node PLD, the PLD is much more attractive than was the case even a few years ago.

This advantage becomes quite potent when the PLD product uses 40nm technology. We strongly believe that 40nm is a game-changing node for Altera. Since introducing our Stratix IV devices, the first 40nm FPGAs, in May 2008 and shipping those devices in December 2008, we have seen the fastest ramp in the history of Stratix devices and possibly for the FPGA industry.

However, just being on the latest process node will not win the game. In this time of shrinking design teams and increased time-to-market pressures, our customers are looking for software tools that allow them to get their jobs done faster and with better results. Altera understands the critical role software plays in a design and continues to make investments and advances in this area.

ASIC replacement
The growing use of serial interfaces is fueling the need for high-speed transceivers in design. Leveraging our strength in transceiver design, earlier this year Altera announced and shipped FPGAs with integrated transceivers up to 11.3Gbit/s. This is a major proof point for FPGAs ability to replace ASICs. To implement 10Gbit/s or above transceivers, an ASIC must be at 65nm or below. Due to the economic realities mentioned earlier, the majority of ASIC starts are at 90nm or above, which means in many cases the FPGA represents the best and most cost-effective solution for equipment manufacturers looking to design and deliver 40- and 100Gbit/s systems today to meet the growing market need for high-speed bandwidth.

Additionally, a good example of how FPGAs are now being used at the heart of a system and replacing ASICs is the industrial networking space. Many industrial companies are automating their processes with industrial Ethernet-based networks. The challenge is that there are many different flavors of Industrial Ethernet. This has forced industrial networking board vendors to offer several different boards requiring different ASICs to support the various standards. This is a costly proposition for board vendors. Now through an FPGA-based system, board vendors can create just one board and, via simple software upgrades, support multiple protocols without the cost of a board re-spin.

While the semiconductor industry continues to face a challenging economy in 2H 09, we are very excited about our current product offering and our ability to continue gaining market share in the PLD industry and accelerating the replacement of ASICs.

- John Daane
Chairman, President and CEO
Altera Corp

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