PARK RIDGE, Ill. In a move that could presage a trend for the embedded design community, Xilinx Inc. announced Monday (Jan. 28) that it is teaming with Wind River Systems Inc. in an effort to create a programmable platform that would include a an FPGA, an embedded tool chain and a microcontroller.
The move, which is expected to be closely followed by other makers of field-programmable gate arrays, teams two industry giants. Wind River Systems dominates the embedded operating system market, while Xilinx, fulfills more than half of the world's demand for the devices. Xilinx is also expected to announce in the next two months that it will incorporate a 32-bit PowerPC-based microcontroller as the third leg of its programmable platform.
By building a programmable platform, the two companies hope to create an environment that would simplify the partitioning decisions f acing embedded designers and systems architects.
"This is a new era in design," said Babak Hedayati, senior director of product solutions marketing and partnerships for Xilinx. "Now, designers have the logic and the processor available, and both are programmable, so they can do some pretty powerful things."
Industry analysts said last week that the trend toward integration of processors, FPGAs and real-time operating system (RTOS) tools could also have a profound effect on the microcontroller market. "You're going to see a lot of FPGA makers attacking the microcontroller market over the next six weeks," said Gary Smith, chief analyst for Gartner Dataquest (San Jose). "The feeling is that the microcontroller will be replaced by a chip that includes a microprocessor, flash memory and some logic."
The joint announcement is also part of a major strategic move for Xilinx, which has been trying to recast itself, shedding its old mold as an FPGA vendor in favor of a new role as a systems solution provider. "It has taken us several years to get to this level," Hedayati said. "And in order to get there, we knew we would have to embed a PowerPC processor into the FPGA fabric."
By doing so, and by providing designers with design tools, Xilinx executives hope to enable embedded designers to deal with design issues at the outset of a project. Specifically, they expect their integrated platform to help system architects deal with the dilemma of deciding which portions of a design belong in logic, and which portions should go to the processor side.
"In large, complex designs, such as telecommunications switches and networking applications, we've seen that the designer's first partition is not always the most optimal," said Jay Gould, product marketing manager for Xilinx. "And it gets harder to do the partitioning when you've gone further down the design path and you've got several design teams. That's why we want to move the entire programmable platform onto one chip."
By team ing with Wind River, Xilinx will be able to distribute versions of Wind River's Diab C/C++ compiler suite, Single Step with Vision software debugger and visionProbe II on-chip hardware-assisted debugger. Wind River and Xilinx will also continue a two-year collaboration on the creation of a complete run-time solution for embedded FPGA developers.
Wind River said that the new platform should also help designers find a way to accelerate communication speeds in the design of such systems as network stacks. "A lot of the bottlenecks in those systems lie within the bus transfers between discrete CPUs and FPGAs, or DSPs and FPGAs," said Stuart Newton, market development manager for Wind River Systems. "With this technology, there's more flexibility in how you design your system. It opens up a lot of new doors for designers."
Industry analysts said that the programmable platform phenomenon is likely to spread throughout the industry, with more RTOS vendors ultimately playing a role. "For Xilinx, the key is that they have software tools," said Daya Nadamuni, a senior analyst for Gartner Dataquest. "But Wind River is not the only one they can partner with. It could be Wind River today and a Linux vendor tomorrow."
Still, analysts see the role of the RTOS and tools as the key to the programmable platform's success in the embedded industry. "The competitive advantage in the embedded world, which is where most of the microcontrollers go, is in the software," said Smith of Gartner Dataquest. "That's why Xilinx made the deal with Wind River."
Industry engineers and analysts disagreed over the programmable platform's effect on the microcontroller market, however. "There's an incredible number of microcontrollers in the world," Smith said. "It's a huge, huge market. That's why the FPGA makers are going there. They need to move there in order to keep growing, and right now they seem to be getting a jump on that market."
Other FPGA makers, including Atme l Corp. and Altera Corp. are already headed in that direction, albeit with some significant technology distinctions. Atmel, for example, has focused on 8-bit microcontrollers and consumer electronics applications, while Xilinx is concentrating on 32-bit systems for applications such as switches and networks.
Companies such as Atmel, however, don't see the programmable platform makers as head-to-head competitors with microcontroller manufacturers. "This opens up a whole new market for us," said Joel Rosenberg, Atmel's product line manager for programmable system-level integration. "But it's not going to take anything away from the microcontroller makers."