Actel Fuses Together Digital And AnalogNew SmartFusion device integrates incompatible worlds, creates separate development environments on single chip.
Actel has redesigned the FPGA - to the point where it may be difficult to even call the new SmartFusion an FPGA.
The hybrid device combines an FPGA, programmable analog blocks and a microcontroller subsystem that combines the ARM Cortex M3 processor with embedded flash memory. The result is an integrated platform, adding programmability in distinct blocks that have traditionally not worked smoothly together - most notably analog and digital - while doing the difficult work of integrating those pieces. That allows engineers who don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye to continue to working in their respective domains without impeding progress on a single chip. And in cases where companies have split those functions into multiple chips, it allows them to combine everything onto a single chip.
The new device is aimed at a slew of markets, including defense, industrial, medical and aerospace, where these analog and digital pieces are essential. Applications range from system and power management to motor control, industrial automation and communications. The timing is interesting because at advanced nodes, the uneasiness of the relationship between analog and digital and the rising cost of SoCs has forced many companies to shift from SoCs to FPGAs. There simply is not enough volume for many chips to warrant investment in SoCs at those advanced nodes.
But putting more devices on a single chip also can create problems. One of the biggest challenges is effectively sharing on-chip resources, most notably memory, and then integrating all the pieces. Developers of multicore SoCs encountered this issue several years ago. Rich Kapusta, Actel’s vice president of marketing and business development, said Actel’s solution is to allow the ARM processor to use its own embedded flash memory, basically creating an independent subsystem, while providing on-chip non-volatile FPGA configurations.
"We’ve been investing in flash for a decade," Kapusta said. "What we’ve done here is provide 512 KB of embedded flash with the ARM processor, as well as an on-chip non-volatile FPGA configuration. We’ve also allowed high-voltage analog to co-exist with digital circuits."
Rajiv Nema, senior product marketing manager at Actel, said that one of the great advantages to this approach is it reduces the number of components on a board, which typically have been in separate devices. For customers, that means fewer vendors and fewer parts to buy. A single SmartFusion device can include everything from the user interface and power management to clock management, diagnostics, hot plugging, errors and alarms, protocol management and data logging.
Actel also allows customers to protect their IP with Advanced Encryption Standard technology, known as FlashLock.