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Is TI bringing down the curtain on FPGA?

Posted: 11 May 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Texas Instruments? FPGA? ARM? processor? DSP?

Texas Instruments (TI) has unveiled a portfolio of special-purpose processors that incorporates multicore ARM processors with multicore digital signal processors (DSPs) and multiple programmable hardware accelerators. The company has made it clear that by bringing to market these devices, it is ready to challenge the field programmable gate array (FPGA) community that includes the likes of Altera and Xilinx.

FPGA-killer sol'n combines ARM processor, DSPs, accelerators
TI released a multi-processor solution that brings new meaning to downsizing, targeting massive avionic, military, T&M and medical instruments, from backpack radars to portable MRIs. The Keystone-II (66AK2L06) claims to allow devices using it to be 66 per cent smaller, use 60 per cent less power, cost 50 per cent less and are three times faster to market than using an FPGA solution.

The question now is this. Can TI pull it off? An FPGA is like a blank-slate that can solve any high-speed computational problem, but at a high-price, difficult programming and a waste of resources (not every gate is used in the vast majority of FPGA designs).

On the other hand, TI will have to create an expanding family of special-purpose chips to address all the niche markets that FPGAs address. Can it be done? We asked TI, Altera and a bevy of analysts what their opinions were and summarised them below. (FPGA-maker Xilinx was contacted too but said "no comment.")

Stratix IV FPGA

Die shot of an Altera Stratix IV FPGA with integrated 11.3Gb/s transceivers. (Source: Altera)

"In my opinion, the TI product offers an interesting prospective, because it can target existing solutions on two fronts: on the FPGA side, the solution offers the lower cost and lower power consumption that underpins the SWaP-C (size, weight and power/cost) requirements for both military and industrial applications while offering comparable performance. In this respect, the solution can not only provide an avenue for more portable solutions, but also offered as an effective replacement for FPGAs in existing equipment," said Asif Anwar, director of Strategic Technologies Practice (known in the U.S. as Strategy Analytics Inc., Boston) "The second front could be the GGPU (general graphics processing unit) segment."

HardCopy II 230 ASIC

Altera HardCopy II 230 ASIC that is compatible with Altera's Stratix II FPGAs. (Source: Altera)

According to Anwar, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) offerings based around GGPUs have also been offered as alternatives to FPGAs and application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) especially for applications where there is a large amount of data that needs to processed in the same way, for example synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. The TI SoC, said Anwar, can also target this area while providing more powerful processing capabilities making it an ideal solution for customers that would prefer the performance attributes associated with FPGAs but are having to use GGPUs as a 'good enough' solution because of cost constraints.

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