Low-priced FPGAs gaining ground
10/06/2003 11:00 AM EST
Time-to-market pressures and rising ASIC development costs have helped make low-priced FPGAs an attractive alternative, and suppliers are happily seizing the opportunity.
While quick to note that it doesn't spell the end for glamorous and pricey multimillion-gate FPGAs, vendors are putting more resources into scaled-down chip architectures designed to rival ASICs in cost. The result is that FPGAs are shipping in higher volumes than at any time in the past.
"The next boom for the programmable logic market won't be the return of telecommunications. It'll be $5 to $10 FPGAs," said John East, chief executive of Actel Corp., Mountain View, Calif. To that end, Actel last week announced 10 ProASIC Plus FPGAs priced at $10 or less.
Xilinx Inc. today will announce it is sampling four Spartan 3 devices built using 90nm processing on 300mm wafers--a combination that will enable a $12 price point for 1 million system gates by next year, based on quantities of 250,000 units. The price is $8 lower than previously anticipated, according to the San Jose-based company.
The trend has ASIC suppliers scrambling to defend their turf by spinning all manner of embedded arrays and ASIC "slices" to reduce development time and cost.
"PLDs are coming down in cost at a pretty rapid rate," said Bryan Lewis, an analyst at Gartner Dataquest, San Jose. "While the high end is still important, the emergence of this lower-cost market proves there's lots of potential for PLDs in consumer and other price-sensitive markets, and this is where they're eating into the ASIC share."
FPGAs are turning up more frequently in price-sensitive applications like DSL modems, desktop conference phones, night-vision security cameras, handheld instrumentation, and DVD-RW players--and not just in prototypes.
In a soon-to-be-released report, Dataquest is forecasting that communications, the mainstay application for FPGAs, will de- cline from 57.4% of FPGA revenue in 2002 to 48.8% in 2007. At the same time, consumer applications, the primary target of low-cost FPGAs, will rise from 6.3% of revenue in 2002 to 18% in 2007--far from dominant but no less impressive, Lewis said.
A similar growth pattern is emerging in the automotive and industrial markets, though on a smaller scale, he said.
"The dollars of today's market still lie in the high-end products, but the high growth is coming out of the low cost," Lewis said.
Spartan devices represent just 17% of Xilinx's total revenue, but make up the bulk of unit shipments, according to vice president of marketing Sandeep Vij.
More than 60 million Spartan devices have shipped since 1997, Vij said. The sheer volume has emboldened Xilinx to push forward with 90nm processing, defying odds that low initial yields will undermine its aggressive pricing strategy.
"The $12 price point is indicative of the good cost structure we're getting on 300mm wafers at 90nm," he said.
Perennial rival Altera Corp. claims it has matched Xilinx's future price points without migrating to 90nm, a move the company said would put customers at risk of supply disruptions.
Xilinx's 1-million-gate Spartan 3 XC3S1000 has 17,280 logic cells. Altera's relatively similar-density Cyclone EP1C12 device has 12,060 logic elements and is already $12 and shipping in volume, according to the company. The EP1C20 with 20,060 logic elements is $20 in 250,000-unit quantities.
Altera maintains that to achieve the expected performance, power, and density benefits at 90nm will require a wholly new circuit design, rather than simply porting an existing architecture to the new process.
"We have managed to average a 30% per year aggregate cost reduction per logic element, and we are trying to accelerate that to 40% to 50% per year through designing chips uniquely for cost," said Erik Cleage, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Altera, San Jose.
Cyclone, built in 0.13-micron process technology, has shipped to about 1,500 customers since its introduction last December. Cyclone II will probably debut on 90nm in early 2005, according to Cleage.
Bent on ASIC encroachment from every angle, Altera also markets its HardCopy FPGA-to-ASIC conversion program as a cost-reduction path for high-priced Stratix parts.
At Actel, the emphasis is on cost per I/O. Claiming to offer 32% more I/O than competitors for parts in a TQ144 package, the company announced it has more than 10 ProASIC Plus devices shipping for under $10 in 100,000-unit quantities.
The underlying flash technology offers the additional advantages of code security, lower power consumption, and protection against firm errors, said Dennis Kish, vice president of marketing at Actel.
"For FPGA versus ASIC at the low end, the proposition looks really good for flash," Kish said. "That's where we can make hay with our cost per I/O."
While prices in the single digits create opportunities to play in previously unaddressable market segments, FPGA suppliers said that the high-end business won't take a back seat.
"Clearly the low-cost play is a great opportunity, but I can't say that it becomes dominant," Altera's Cleage said. "There are no implications for the high end of the market. I think the low-cost business is additive."
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