By Rob Irwin, Altium Limited
August 09, 2007 -- edadesignline.com
As new technology matures and becomes affordable, it often leads to changes in the way products are designed and new design techniques. For example, the large scale adoption of affordable microprocessors opened the door to a revolutionary software-based approach to electronic product design. Today embedded software developers are the prime movers in defining the function and behavior of electronic products and ultimately make hardware come to life. A driving factor in the success of this approach is the resulting reduction in hardware complexity and the open-ended flexibility that comes from transferring the controlling elements of a design into programmable space.
Today, the advent of high-capacity, cost-effective programmable devices holds the promise of a similar advance in the approach to electronic product design through the opportunity to define the system hardware itself in the soft realm. Large scale devices such as high-capacity FPGAs are ideally suited to meet this need and are commonly used to encompass large parts of a system's peripheral logic blocks, including bus interfaces, I/O blocks and even memory. Moving mass logic into the FPGA realm in this way has a profound effect on how hardware is developed and has opened the door to a new era of 'soft' design " one that offers unprecedented levels of flexibility, combined with the potential for large reductions in board real estate and complexity.
While this has the potential to revolutionize the electronic product development process, most embedded software developers still tend to work just as before " selecting a discrete hardware processor at the beginning of the design cycle, creating the physical platform then writing the software to make use of this platform. This lack of exploitation of 'soft' hardware in embedded systems development can largely be attributed to the lack of tools to allow C programmers to use their skills at the programmable hardware level. Indeed most current FPGA design flows are largely derived from those used in the chip design realm and require a very specialized skill-set.
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