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FPGA vs ASIC

February 7, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Xilinx Research Labs open day in Dublin, where, as CTVR we presented a demo and a few posters both on wireless and optical networing.. http://ledoyle.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/xilinx-research-labs-open-day/

One of the points I was making in one of the posters was that we envisage the Long-Reach PON fiber to the home solution would ideally use FPGAs rather than ASICs for the commercial implementation.

What I heard from Xilinx CTO was quite in line with our view. Although it is recognised that ASIC circuits are more efficient than FPGA, in average it takes about 30 times the number of logic gates to implement a function in FPGA than in ASIC, there’s a number of advantages that I believe will make FPGAs win the battle. This is what I learned about advantages from a commercial perspective:

  • FPGAs tend to be a couple of generations ahead of ASIC, so basically the factor 30 I just discussed is in practice lower than that
  • ASICs require very high volumes to be economically feasible (hundred of thousands units), and the design process is extremely slow and inflexible. This means that products developed in ASIC are already old when they get to the market. More and more consumer products (e.g., LCD TV) adopt FPGAs to be able to embed the latest developments (e.g., algorithms). So FPGA can give a competitive advantage by giving added value to the product
  • Last but definitely not least Xilinx is developing high-level language tools to make FPGA programming available to anyone… this is I believe the true biggest advantage… Just remember of the revolution that object-oriented languages brought to software development…

This has also great implications from a green-planet perspective.. Rather than selling you products (e.g. again your LCD TV) they could sell you upgrades, thus reducing the energy consumption at production and the waste due to continuous product replacement.

What are the implications for the telecoms world?

If (..actually …when) FPGAs will replace ASICs in telecoms, I can see huge changes in the way telecoms standards operate. Standardizations could evolve much faster as the standards would be decoupled from the inflexibility and long development times of ASICs.  On the other side, telecoms vendor would be able to adopt such new standards very quickly.. This will give a competitive advantage to them and a make better world for us.

By the way we’ve just started implementing the LR-PON protocol (https://mruffini.wordpress.com/research/long-reach-passive-optical-networks/) in FPGA, using the 10G NetFPGA board (http://www.netfpga.org/)

 

 

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