FPGA stands for field-programmable gate array technology. As it keeps growing in its momentum, FPGA technology is enjoying global growth as a market. In fact, it’s already measured in the multiple billions of dollars every year! Xilinx invented FPGAs back in 1984. Since then, these pieces of technology have grown up from being basic glue logic chips to actually outright replacing customized application-specific integrated circuits (or ASICs) and processors for use in signal processing and control applications. Do you wonder just why this technology has proven so successful? There are multiple reasons why FPGA technology is so popular. In fact, there are five specific ones this article covers. Keep reading for an introduction to the world of FPGAs and highlights about their prominent benefits that make them so distinct.
Before you can learn the benefits of FPGAs that make them so popular, you need to first understand what an FPGA is in the first place. In short, FPGAs serve as reprogrammable silicone chips. Using programmable routing resources combined with prebuilt logic blocks, users, owners, and operators are able to configure the chips in ways that implement customized hardware functionality, all without any need to pick up a soldering iron or breadboard. You can develop specific digital computing tasks in your software before compiling them into a bitstream or configuration file which has the necessary information on how each component should be wired to each other. Additionally, FPGAs are totally reconfigurable, so they can immediately take on any new function or role if you recompile them into a changed circuitry configuration. There was a time in the past when only engineers who had a robust understanding of the concept of digital hardware design could use FPGA technology. However, the rules that govern the world of FPGA programming are changing. That’s in large part due to the development of high-caliber design tools, as newer technologies can convert things like C code and graphical block diagrams into digital hardware circuitry.
Many industries have started adopting FPGA chip technology, often because FPGAs represent a combination of the best aspects of both processor-based systems and ASICs. FPGAs offer users reliability and speed, both of which are time by hardware. However, they don’t need high volumes in order to justify the massive upfront costs that many customized ASIC designs require. Also, reprogrammable silicone features just as much flexibility as software that would run on a processor-style system. On the other hand, it’s not restricted to how many processing cores are in place. Unlike processors, FPGA technology is very parallel in its nature, so various processing operations don’t need to compete for attention or use of the same set of resources. Every independent processing task gets assigned to its own dedicated chip section, functioning independently, free of influence from any of the other logic blocks. As such, adding more processing in the future won’t affect the performance of any pre-existing part of your applications.
Performance is the first of the five advantages of FPGA technology that fuels its growth and popularity. By taking advantage of the inherent hardware parallelism in its design, FPGA technology surpasses the computing power that digital signal processors, or DSPs, have by destroying the previous paradigm of sequential execution. In short, every clock cycle just sees more accomplished. BDTI is a benchmarking and analyst firm respected throughout the industry. They’ve released numerous benchmarks illustrating how FPGAs deliver far more processing power bang for the buck than DSP solutions can in many applications, though not all. When inputs and outputs are controlled at a hardware level, the response times are much faster, allowing for customized functionality that can be tailored to fit specific application requirements.
A second big benefit that makes FPGA technology beloved by many is the time to market. This kind of technology offers tremendous flexibility, as the rapid prototyping capacity is advantageous when turnaround time is paramount. Previously, custom ASIC designs had a long process of fabrication, where it would take weeks or months for a concept to be tested and then verified on actual hardware. An FPGA design can be used to implement changes and iterations at an incremental level within days, if not hours. Commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, hardware can also be had featuring many various kinds of inputs and outputs that already have connections to an FPGA chip you can program. High-caliber software utilities are also increasingly available to you in order to shorten the learning curve. Prebuilt functions in IP cores can also offer you advanced levels of control over signal processing.
Cost is one area where FPGA-centric hardware systems are far superior to ASICs. To be fair, ASICs might still work out well for any OEM shipping thousands of their chips every year, as the volume will handle the larger initial investment. However, an end-user that needs customized functionality in their hardware for just dozens or a few hundred systems is going to save a lot of money using FPGA technology. The programmable nature of the silicon avoids long lead times and fabrication costs ahead of assembly.
Reliability is another winning reason users love FPGA circuitry because while the programming environment might start in software tools, it’s actually a ‘hard physical’ implementation of the actual program execution. FPGAs use parallel execution with deterministic hardware to make sure something is physically dedicated to each task needed, bypassing the risk of some tasks preempting others that can happen in processor-based systems.
One last benefit of FPGA chips fueling their growth in popularity but still an important advantage is that of their long-term maintenance. FPGA chips are usually upgradable, even in the field, without the necessary time and cost that an ASIC redesign would mean. If you work with digital communication protocols, for instance, then you know there are specs that will likely change over time. That can be challenging if you have ASIC-based interfaces. Since FPGA chips are reconfigurable, forward-compatibility is possible using future modifications. As a system or product goes through its maturation process, you can add functional enhancements of either incremental or sweeping nature without having to modify physical board layouts or redesign all the hardware.
Now that you have read this article from Directics, you should have a basic idea of what FPGA technology is and five reasons why it is booming in popularity across many industries.