FPGA David throws another rock at Goliaths

First it was the fight between ASICs and FPGAS. The current market for FPGAs showcases who won that war. These days, as Actel CEO John East told me, it's FPGA vs FPGA. The market for high-end FPGAs (of the sort produced by the industry's traditional goliaths) has suffered, much the same way it made the ASIC market suffer in the late 1990s. Low-cost, feature-rich FPGAs of the sort made by Actel are chipping away at the market and tightening what the big companies can charge for a certain type of FPGA.

In this case, it's the low-cost, feature-rich chips Actel offers that are upsetting the apple cart. Today Actel, an industry David among Goliaths Xilinx and Altera, announced another generation (PDF) of its popular IGLOO and ProASIC3 FPGA families. Both cost 99 cents.

But East says he's not looking at market domination in the low-cost market; he's going after low-power.

Why is that important? East said once in an interview that you have to be able to see around corners, and already be there when history catches up. Right now that corner involves global climate change and the increasing volatility of the energy supply most people still rely on.

The solution starts with the architecture itself. The reason Actel's IGLOO AGL015 drains about 200x less power from a device when it is off, is that they are flash-based instead of SRAM-based. SRAM-based chip designs are prone to subject leakage current issues, so the new flash-based chips explicitly conserve static current leakage.

In Actel's power-saving mode, the chip conserves power while maintaining FPGA content. Why would you care? Say you're fedex and you put a tracking device on your shipping containers that has to self- power up and power down every so often to beam its location to a satellite. There's no one to turn it on and off, but also no extra battery so it can't just be on all the time. Actel's chips are in the mars rovers for the same reason.

Also, powering such a chip could theoretically be done with renewable energy. If a chip gets low enough in power consumption (like Actel's 5 microwatt chip) , it might be powered to run your chips on solar power. The most obvious and immediate beneficiaries of such chips are portable emergency devices like defibrillators, which have to be reliable all the time.

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