Comms chips

Need for Flexibility Helps FPGAs Forge Ahead

The rapidly growing use of field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in networking and telecom systems is driven by shorter time to market, the introduction of very large devices using the latest silicon technology and the growing span of devices with a mix of integrated functions, including digital signal processor (DSP) blocks, memory blocks, security, external memory controllers, ARM processors and networking interfaces. FPGAs are extensively used to complement application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and merchant silicon devices and to implement complete silicon on chip (SoC) designs that replace ASICs and merchant silicon.

Telecom and networking systems require many functions including PHYs, switching and routing, packet processing, digital signal processing, security and control plane processing. For some applications, semiconductor vendors have developed application-specific standard products (ASSP) that are available as merchant silicon. For many applications, system manufacturers use proprietary ASICs that implement the functions they require for a particular system. Programmable devices, such as FPGAs, have been widely used to provide interfaces between merchant silicon or ASIC devices and to allow changes to some of the functionality when systems are deployed in the field.

For many applications, systems need to be more flexible than ever before and manufacturers need to bring out new systems with additional capabilities more quickly than previous generations. These requirements have led many manufacturers away from merchant silicon and ASICs toward FPGAs for core system functionality. The FPGAs used in these new systems need to be very programmable but not significantly less efficient than the merchant silicon and ASICs they are replacing. FPGA manufacturers are, therefore, developing devices that not only integrate several million programmable logic elements but also hard IP for common interfaces and functions that are relatively inefficient when implemented using programmable logic elements.

At this critical time the latest Heavy Reading report, "FPGAs & ASICs for Telecom," analyzes FPGA and ASIC solutions for networking and telecom applications. The report details and analyzes FPGA and ASIC solution from ten vendors. The report profiles the vendors, reviews platform architectures and analyzes important devices for networking and telecom applications, identifying key features and highlighting the advantages they hold for system developers and service providers.

Xilinx and Altera have led the FPGA market for many years and continue to develop new generations of FPGA using the latest silicon technology. The newest devices from these companies integrate up to 5 million programmable logic elements and high-speed SerDes up to 32 Gbit/s. Both companies have also developed FPGAs with integrated network interfaces and other functions, including quad core 64-bit ARM processors and subsystems. Intel's acquisition of Altera also opens the possibility of standard x86 processors with integrated FPGA functionality, giving additional flexibility. Achronix Semiconductor has also developed FPGAs with 28Gbit/s SerDes and integrated network interfaces.

Lattice and Microsemi have focused on smaller FPGAs with integrated security features or increased immunity to single event errors. These FPGAs are particularly suitable for small systems or interfacing between merchant silicon and ASICs. Xilinx and Altera also have smaller products for these applications. Flex Logix has taken a different approach developing FPGA IP that companies can integrate into their own ASIC and merchant silicon designs.

There is still significant use of ASICs in telecom systems, and both Avago and Socionext have solutions that support networking applications. These ASIC solutions provide access to the latest silicon technology, design support and strong IP portfolios, including 28Gbit/s SerDes, networking interfaces and embedded processors. GigOptix supplies standard cell and structured ASICs. The structured ASIC requires significantly lower NRE costs and delivers faster time to market. eASIC takes this one step further by providing a limited number of ASIC implementations that can be customized using a single via.

The market for FPGAs, ASICs and merchant silicon in telecom and networking applications continues to develop. Equipment developers now have an extensive range of solutions to choose from, with multiple FPGA families from the leading vendors and competitive solutions from smaller vendors focused on specific market segments. ASICs from the leading vendors are still the most suitable approach for many applications. System designers and service providers using these systems need to understand the different solutions available and the likely implications on their businesses in terms of cost, flexibility and performance.

— Simon Stanley, Analyst at Large, Heavy Reading

GAllmendinger 10/13/2015 | 9:04:40 AM
Flexibility and toolchains The point of view of the author is interesting and highligh several trends and needs for future products & markets. The missing point though is the problem with the toolchains and SDKs. FPGAs will never be mainstrean as long as engineers will have to use HDL languages and SDKs provided by hardware engineers. I am an old school Hardware Engineer with experiance going back to 74 series logic. I was horrified to find that the old Xilinx ISE was still in use not long ago and not yet particularly impressed with it's replacement. And I feel the same for Altera, Lattice, and other providers SDKs. Low prices of development boards and "hobbist" level boards are now available but FPGAs will be used by the masses (i.e. software engineers and makers) when modern SDKs created by software people will make them easy to use and flexible. Initiatives such as Synflow might be the best solution for making FPGA popular. 
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