Designing Low-Power Systems with FPGAs, Part 2

Literally within an hour of posting my last blog entry on designing low-power systems with FPGAs, Altera’s marketing engine issued a related email and dropped it into my inbox. Altera’s email pre-announces the company’s upcoming FPGAs based on 28nm lithography. The email included the following marketing graph (with no scale) to explain the advantages of the smaller geometries for FPGA manufacture.

Altera 28nm devices

The first set of bars in the graph set the baseline using Altera’s 40nm devices as a reference. The next set of bars show that the feature shrink alone improves FPGA gate density by 25% and power consumption by about 12.5%. (Note: That’s my eyeball talking, not Altera’s official numbers.)

The next set of bars shows what happens incrementally when Altera takes some major logic blocks and hard-codes them. Suddenly, gate density doubles and power consumption drops by 40% compared to 40nm FPGA.

The last set of bars shows what happens when you combine the lithography shrink and hard-coded IP. Suddenly you’re getting 4x the gate density at a mere 25% of the power consumption compared to 40nm devices. (Note: I’m not sure what suddenly happened to the transceiver count, that third bar in the group, which had been constant until everything got combined in the last set. My guess is that the marketing artist who drew the graph got overzealous, cut everything 75% for visual consistency, and the proofreaders missed it. I think the number of transceivers is supposed to stay constant, based on the first three sets of bars in the graph.)

Two things to note here. First, you get a lot of bang out of hard-coded IP. Coincidentally, MIPS announced that Altera had licensed the MIPS32 architecture back in October, 2008 but Altera was mum on the subject back then. RISC processor cores make lousy targets for programmable FPGA fabrics, largely because of the routing congestion around their large register files, so processor core IP is one of the IP types that really should be hard-coded onto an FPGA. Although both Altera and Xilinx did not have much success with their first-generation FPGAs that incorporated hard-coded processor cores, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try again and the MIPS announcement late last year telegraphed that move.

Want more proof? Last week at the Real Time Embedded Computing Conference held in Santa Clara, California, Xilinx’s Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing and Business Development Vin Ratford did more than telegraph his company’s intent to put processor cores back into FPGAs. He announced and elaborated on that intent. Xilinx will be adopting the ARM architecture and an FPGA-friendly version of ARM’s AMBA interconnect in future FPGA generations.

Make no mistake. Processors are coming to FPGAs for several reasons. First, a RISC processor core consumes between 25,000 and 50,000 gates. You can drop one of those puppies into an FPGA fabric and never see it. In essence, those transistors are “free.” That’s the nature of an FPGA’s programmable interconnect. Logic just sort of disappears.

Second, you can’t build a system without at least one processor these days. Which immediately leads to the third reason. If Xilinx and Altera truly wish to convert their “We’re taking over everything” or “All your chips are belong to us” attitudes, then the processor will just have to live on the FPGA silicon. Otherwise, the FPGA companies don’t get all of the chips. It’s as simple as that.

However, as both Altera and Xilinx discovered last time they tried this, dropping a processor core into an FPGA and making it usable is not just a matter of burying some gates into the FPGA fabric. Effective ways of connecting the processor to the programmable FPGA fabric must also exist and the software developers—who represent more than 90% of modern embedded development teams—must also be happy with the integration. You only make them happy with good development, profiling, and debugging tools.

And there’s the rub.

(It’s possible that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was indeed an embedded systems developer.)

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One Response to Designing Low-Power Systems with FPGAs, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Steve Leibson » Xilinx redefines the high-end microcontroller with its ARM-based Extensible Processing Platform – Part 1

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