Innovation in FPGAs via Power Management
By Landa Culbertson, Mouser Electronics
The Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) market is projected to reach almost $9B by 2019, up from about $5.1B in 2012.[i] The growth in FPGA demand is due in part to changing preferences for FPGAs in lieu of ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Chips.) ASICs are made-to-order semiconductor chips, whereas FPGAs (also semiconductor devices) are essentially blank slates that can be re-programmed even after finished product has sold. FPGAs are widely used in telecommunications, industrial, automotive, and consumer products. FPGAs are replacing ASICs as a primary choice in designs since the price point for many FPGAs is now competitive with ASICs, yet the added value of an FPGA is extreme flexibility. The down side is that FPGAs are perceived as complex to design with. Surrounding logic and support is not always available off-the-shelf. Let me explain.
A decade ago, back when Xilinx’s Virtex®-4 and Spartan™-3, and Altera’s Stratix®-II were new products, I was at Texas Instruments (TI), partnering with the leading FPGA manufacturers to produce power management solutions that benefited our joint customers. Multiple power rails, power-up sequencing, tight tolerances, transient response, system reliability, total solution cost, and size – these were all things we were concerned with even then. Our highly-engaged teams managed to churn out the industry’s first reference design guides, or “cookbooks,” for FPGA power solutions, as well as large numbers of TI evaluation modules based on the reference designs. TI was favorably integrated onto the actual FPGA eval boards. Joint application notes were written. And TI went as far as to develop a triple-supply power IC, theTPS75003, specifically with FPGA power management requirements in mind. Even so, sometimes we just could not align goals with reality between the companies, and the optimal solution for the customer did not materialize. Consider, for example, the mismatch in sales volume of a $10,000 FPGA versus the much higher volume needed to justify the development of a $10-$100 specialty chip/module to manage the power.
And so it went until last May when Altera, recognizing that power management is increasingly becoming a strategic differentiator for FPGA users, acquired Enpirion Inc., the 80-employees-strong innovator of power management ICs for $141M. The immediate result was the announcement of four new power-optimized Altera FPGA reference designs based on Enpirion DC-DC converters. Intended as turnkey power solutions, the reference designs increase power efficiency by up to 35 percent, save board space by up to 50 percent, and cut overall bulk capacitance costs by up to 50 percent versus competing power solutions. The reference design for Cyclone® V SoCs is available now for download from Altera, and the DK-DEV-5CSXC6N development kit that demonstrates the hardware is available from Mouser. Power reference designs targeting the Stratix® V, Arria® V and Cyclone® V FPGAs are to follow. Going forward though, if Altera can leverage Enpirion’s technical expertise to optimize the power management requirements of the FPGA itself (by reducing the number of power rails for example) in addition to optimizing at the system level, the results could truly be disruptive.
Landa writes from Dallas, TX. She holds a BSEE, and has 18 years experience in the electronics industry, from tech startups to Fortune 500 companies.