This year, 2009, will mark the 25th anniversary of Xilinx. Altera will turn 26, and Actel 24. (Lattice Semiconductor, also an FPGA maker, has a longer industry history than any of these but didn’t have FPGA devices until the early 1990s.)
David Manners of Electronics Weekly asks this week, Does the FPGA need a re-design?
Instead of narrowing the market applicability of its products by focusing on specific customer needs, the programmable logic industry would do better to address its fundamental problems: FPGAs use too much power and are too expensive.
It is certainly true that FPGAs are not optimal for any specific application. Lack of application optimization means there is going to be overhead – the cost of providing flexibility in the device. Overhead in size/cost, and overhead in power.
There have been quite a few alternative programmable architectures proposed and funded that would, in theory, reduce this overhead through clever interconnect strategies and through dynamic, run-time reconfiguration. And there have been an almost equal number of casualties along the way. Companies that have entered and exited this space include MorphICs, Chameleon, IP Flex, PACT, Quicksilver, Mathstar… the list goes on.
Do we need a fundamentally different kind of FPGA? Probably. But the lesson of the somewhat battered reconfigurable computing industry seems to be, take it slowly and don’t change too many things at the same time.
For example, you can change the device architecture and its mix of internal resources to reduce its power consumption, without fundamentally changing how it’s programmed. Or you can change the programming method to increase design productivity, but don’t try at the same time to dramatically change the underlying architecture.
The reason? Design teams considering FPGAs (or FPGA-like reconfigurable devices) are risk-averse. The most appealing platform for these teams will have well-proven methods of programming and the safety of a broader market – the economies of scale.
Even in their adult years, FPGAs as we know them continue to provide a competitive level of performance (relative to, say, a DSP device), with reasonably low risk to the average design team. And so they will be with us for quite a while, even with their drawbacks.