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The Future of Embedded FPGAs — eFPGA: The Proof is in the Tape Out

Written by Andy Jaros
  • What’s the futre of eFPGAs?

  • How is the eFPGA growing?

  • What are the key applications for eFPGAs?

  • What is the scope of eFPGA adoption?

  • Embedded FPGAs (eFPGAs)

  • Storage, AI, MCUs, IoT

  • Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communications

  • Consumer electronics

  • Defense electronics

  • SoCs

Embedded FPGA (eFPGA) is the next big market for semiconductor IP. It can be used on almost every kind of digital chip and has a significant software value add as well—much like the market for embedded processors. When it comes to chip design, eFPGA provides competitive advantages that can add up to millions of dollars in savings and flexibility that wasn’t possible until now. Because eFPGA enables designers to make changes after RTL is frozen, chip designers have the flexibility to make changes at any point in the chip’s life span, even in the customers’ systems. This eliminates many expensive chip spins and enables chip designers to start addressing many customers and applications with the same chips. It also extends the life of chips and systems because designers are now able to update their chips as protocols and standards change.

According to Gartner, the market share of semiconductors with eFPGA is expected to approach $10 billion in 2023 with greater than 50% compounded annual growth. However, like any high growth market, achieving such rapid market adoption is not just about having amazingly innovative technology. It also needs to be very easy to implement or integrate into existing projects and design teams. That’s where eFPGA shines. In fact, citing one of our recent customer tape-outs, the whole process took only two and a half months from IP delivery on a FinFET process—and the silicon worked the first time!

CUSTOMER ADOPTION

One of the reasons that eFPGA is taking off so quickly is because it’s applicable to such a wide range of markets and applications. In the defense market, DARPA [1] is using it for their chip development and recently expanded the availability of eFPGA to its research teams. Networking companies are using it so that their accelerators can now reside in the eFPGA on the same chip as the data processing unit (DPU), which reduces BOM costs, system power and improves performance. Wireless communications companies are leveraging eFPGA to make their base stations more flexible in order to allow for customization and real-time updating of protocols and algorithms. Aerospace companies such as Boeing [2] are even using it to enable their aerospace systems to be smaller, lighter and consume less power. The list of applications goes on and on—and also includes applications in storage, AI and MCU-IoT. All of these use cases—and more I’ve not mentioned—are all benefiting from the flexibility, power savings and reduced cost that eFPGA provides.

With the eFPGA market expanding, so too are customer engagements. Below are a few real-life examples of companies that Flex Logix has worked with or are working with now to implement eFPGA:

Company involved in wireless car-to-car communications—This customer is leveraging eFPGA for wireless car-to-car communication systems in the automotive market. eFPGA is perfect for this market because it provides the flexibility to modify the communications algorithm as needed to always ensure they have the highest level of security. Rather than have a closed system waiting to be hacked, this customer can constantly adapt and update their algorithms to always stay one step ahead of any potential threats or hacking. The other advantage is that they are able to program the eFPGA themselves. Yes, it’s that easy.

Consumer company—This customer has discovered that a small amount of eFPGA gives them incredible flexibility. Systems companies can perform modifications at the system level such as fixing errors that may have occurred in in their ASIC. This capability allows them to future-proof their designs and allows them to design an ASIC that can support a wide variety of applications. They can add in features later in the design cycle—something that was never possible—or they can fix errors and bugs on the fly.

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Defense company—This customer is leveraging eFPGA for design obfuscation where it can put its secret circuits and code into the eFPGA. This is highly advantageous to customers such as set-top box providers who sell to carriers such as Comcast or Dish. The set top box manufacturer gets one chip to service both markets, which can save millions of dollars in new chip development costs alone. In addition, the customers they sell to, such as the carriers, can personalize their end systems without having to share their trade secrets with the MCU manufacturer. In today’s highly competitive and global marketplace, a company’s “secret sauce” is of the utmost importance for their long-term success, making eFPGA a clear choice for those reasons.

5G platform—One of Flex Logix’s customers, Socionext [3], is leveraging eFPGA in a 7nm ASIC being developed for a major communication company’s 5G platform. By leveraging eFPGA, Socionext can deliver a reprogrammable ASIC that can be reconfigured after tape-out to adapt to new requirements and changing standards and protocols as needed. By integrating the FPGA, Socionext’s customer can improve performance and reduce power by eliminating one chip in their system. This also delivers personalization benefits to carriers who no longer need to share their proprietary design with the ASIC provider in order to have it added to the FPGA.

eFPGA EVERYWHERE

As discussed earlier, eFPGA has matured to the point that it is being widely used in the industry. Its flexibility, ability to support more compute parallelism and end-user customization post-silicon is becoming a mainstream requirement for systems companies. As we head into 2022, the need for reconfigurability in SoCs will continue to increase along with the rapidly rising cost of developing SoCs especially at advanced process nodes. To be economical, SoC providers need to generate a lot of revenue and designers can achieve this if they have reconfigurability that allows the SoC to be used in a wider range of applications.

Because eFPGAs are scalable from 100s to 1Ms of LUTs, SoC designers can select exactly how much reconfigurability they need, and in many cases can distribute multiple eFPGAs throughout the chip, locating them where needed rather than in a single large block. In addition, some customers that use power-hungry FPGAs in their systems can now integrate them into SoCs for lower cost, lower power and higher speed.

Flex Logix’s EFLX eFPGAs, for example, are designed with standard cells and competitive in terms of logic density with traditional FPGAs, but offer lower cost and fast time to market. These are significant advantages in today’s competitive chip design market where costs have skyrocketed and chips have become extremely complex.

Flex Logix | www.flex-logix.com

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • FEBRUARY 2022 #379 – Get a PDF of the issue

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Andy Jaros is responsible for Flex Logix’s EFLX and nnMAX IP. He has over 20 years of sales and sales management experience starting as Account Sales Manager at Motorola Semiconductor then Director Strategic Accounts at Arm. Moved to ARC as VP Sales, North America and continued ARC sales responsibilities when ARC was acquired by Virage and then Synopsys.

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The Future of Embedded FPGAs — eFPGA: The Proof is in the Tape …

by Andy Jaros time to read: 5 min