Born to be a tool for increasing the efficiency and scalability of electronic design, the microprocessor ultimately rewrote the rules of what could be required of an electronic component. It is no longer enough for it to be cheap, reliable and efficient. Today, electronic components have to be ‘smart’. Hard-wired ‘dumb’ electronic components are no longer successful!
At What Level Are FPGAs Involved?
When one is interested in the history and the potential of FPGAs, one cannot help but be struck by the resemblance that links them to microprocessors. With FPGA system on module, the shift from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ design, started with the microprocessor revolution, can now take the next step.
FPGAs first started to gain traction in the mid-1980s when they replaced discrete logic, reduced the number of chips, and raised our power-to-cost ratio in digital hardware design. Now, thanks to the inescapable Moore’s Law, these components have the potential to rewrite, once again, the rules of electronic design.
The microprocessors made it possible to describe the component’s behaviour and the algorithms in ‘soft’ form, to then ‘compile’ them in the hardware. Now FPGAs allow us to take all digital hardware and describe it in a ‘soft’ way (including the actual microprocessors), then compile it into the design.
These components cross a critical threshold in that they provide a platform of sufficient scale at a sufficiently affordable cost. So there is no need for an oracle to guess where all this should lead us.
What Is Soft Realm Of FPGA?
Large portions of system design hardware will inevitably ‘slip’ into the ‘soft’ realm of FPGAs and join the software in processors to be part of the ‘buried intelligence’ of the product rather than part of the platform.
The PCBs will be the physical platform for connecting the ‘real’ design platform, the FPGA and the outside world through analogue interfaces. The current movement of much of the world from ‘analogue processing’ to the digital realm will simplify this effect.
In the evolution towards a ‘soft’ design, the PCB entirely simply becomes the physical platform allowing the connection between the buried intelligence contained in the FPGA and the outside world.
Arm Ourselves for the Battle
It is now possible to describe such a large portion of the ‘real’ design in a ‘soft’ way and then compile it into physical hardware forces us to rethink our entire approach to the design process. The traditional struggle between hardware design and software design will no longer meet the challenge of harnessing the full power of the emerging paradigm.
The designer can now choose how to divide his system between software and ‘soft’ hardware after manufacturing his component or even after it has been introduced in the field. For the real benefits of moving the entire system to the soft domain to be realized, design tools must allow convergence between software design and hardware design within the transmutable environment of the FPGA. They must, therefore, accept a much more holistic approach to the entire design process. Without this, it is impossible to take advantage of all the advantages of an exclusively ‘soft’ environment.
Even for us to effectively use large-scale FPGAs in the ‘old-fashioned way’ as powerful yet affordable digital electronics implementations, PCB and FPGA design must reach new heights in technology. Integration of communication is what we see across the entire design industry.a