By Rob Evans, Altium
Programmable Logic DesignLine (10/31/07, 10:38:00 AM EDT)
As the market-defining properties of today's electronic products continue to move into the software domain, a design's intellectual property (IP) increasingly is characterized by the unique 'intelligence' that is programmed into the product. In turn, the underlying physical hardware that supports this intelligence is playing a reduced role in defining a product's IP. This has changed the fundamental landscape of electronics design, allowing product developers who work in the software space to become the prime movers in defining the function and behavior of today's electronic products.
The explosion of programmable hardware components such as FPGAs over the last few years has allowed an even greater part of the design to move into the soft domain. Not only are these components becoming more capable, higher in capacity, and more feature-rich, they are becoming significantly cheaper. The availability of high-capacity, high-performance FPGAs at relatively low cost has opened up the possibility of using this technology to change the way designers interact with hardware and software by extending the concept of programmed device intelligence from just software to encompass both software and hardware.
With this approach, the system hardware itself can be defined in the soft realm – from mass logic through to high-performance microprocessors and matching system memory – allowing developers to create whole systems within the reprogrammable fabric of an FPGA. A much greater portion of the design process is performed in a soft domain, meaning that the defining value of that product has moved away from the unique properties of the physical platform. This hardware platform nevertheless supports the soft elements and forms the interface to the outside world, and therefore remains a large and crucial part of the electronic development process – and in the process, takes a proportionally large share of the product development time and cost.
Despite all of the revolutionary advances in electronics devices and how electronic products are designed, the process we use to develop and complete those products has generally failed to progress at the same pace. We still treat the design of the board-level hardware separately from the development of the software that runs on it, and programmable hardware design ends at the pins of the device – a separate discipline in its own right.
As more of a design is moved into a soft platform, the lines between the traditional design disciplines such as hardware, software, and FPGA design begin to blur. Dealing with these design elements independently and with separate tools becomes increasingly difficult and inefficient as design complexity increases and time-to-market cycles shrink.
The move to higher levels of abstraction within individual processes helps to cope with specific complexities, but at the same time increases the specialization required within each domain. Ultimately, of course, these individual elements of the design must be brought together to create a final product, but the increased specialization of each piece is making the final puzzle much harder to assemble. This blows out design times and limits product innovation.