Infotech Consulting Services | Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA): An emerging trend snapshot by InfoTech Consulting Services
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Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA): An emerging trend snapshot by InfoTech Consulting Services

What is it?

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) are silicon chips that can be re-programmed. This is as opposed to a typical processor, RAM or ASIC chip that is programmed once for a specific function.

They achieve this via an architecture that uses a matrix of configurable logic blocks that are connected via programmable interconnects. This architecture allows FPGAs to be reprogrammed to desired application or functionality requirements after manufacturing. Any other chip you would need a soldering iron and tremendously sophisticated tools. With FPGA’s you just use a software development kit and a JTAG cable.

Why is this trend happening?

FPGA’s have been around since mid 1980’s. They are in the news again now because the price and power requirements have come down exponentially, while functionality has increased dramatically making them impossible to ignore. Because they are reprogrammable you can build exactly the hardware you need instead of relying on standardized chips everyone is using, and because they can be built specifically to task, the operational and energy efficiencies are unbeatable in the entire chip ecosystem.

FPGA’s flexibility that allows them to change functionality as the nature of the information system and applications change, makes them very attractive in this chaotic age of multiple disruptive technologies. Additionally as their throughput crosses 500 MHz they are one of the few chips capable of chewing up massive amounts of information before sending them onwards to the processing unit making them ideal for mass use in the Internet of things era.

What are the benefits?

Chip design is a very expensive proposition and the cost behind bringing a new chip to market is gargantuan. But FPGA’s offer hyper-prototyping capability and incremental change capability even after design. High-level design tools allow further functionality focus with minimal cost. Off the shelf kits allow you to continue programming in the field. Because the fabrication costs are out of the entire development process and changes can be made postproduction the entire chip design to production and optimization lifecycle is incredibly cheap compared to traditional chips. Bottom line: FPGA’s allow a quick cheap go to market which is ever critical in today’s digital age.

FPGA’s use hardware parallelism and can be programmed to specific applications they are incredibly high performing chips and very energy inefficient providing up to 70%+ improvement per watt. Because software tools provide the intelligence in the chip they are more reliable and less susceptible to hardware faults that cause programming performance hurdles. They are good long term investments because you can upgrade performance often by factor of 2 or 3 by simply replacing the chip with no modification needed for boards; meaning you can go further with any product without changing hardware.

When you combine all of these benefits with their new high throughput capability FPGA’s will be key chips in the analytics and data driven age. Immediately for telecoms in the existing 4G and coming 5G era they are the most attractive chips for performing multiple functions at the base station especially digital signal processing, and in finance they are growing in importance with high frequency traders around the world. In the future expect them to be the bridge between deep learning and hardware. This means use cases around driverless cars, intelligent manufacturing etc and anything involving analytics will have FPGA’s at their heart. Analysts think FPGA driven products and services will have a go to market that is up to 50% faster!

What are the challenges?

With Moore’s law now seemingly applicable to FPGA’s not many challenges remain in letting FPGA’s become mainstream. But continually investing in low latency for FPGA’s will be a priority for manufacturers. To make the go to market even faster perennial challenges around FPGA design and debug will need to be solved. FPGA for specific industries and use cases like 5G in telecom, high frequency trading in finance and industrial automation and 3D design in manufacturing will require close industry technology co-ordination which is something the industry will need to incorporate into its hardware focused culture. Additionally Intel’s purchase of one of the largest FPGA companies means FPGA in proprietary ecosystems could become a negative for the whole industry.

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