MIPS I6400 Introduces 64-bit to the Midrange
“Bifurcate” is a word you don’t get to use very often. Yet it’s a familiar concept in our industry. Mobile operating systems have bifurcated into the choice between Android and iOS. On the desktop, it’s Windows or MacOS. Verizon or AT&T. Home Depot or Lowes. ARM or x86.
In all of these cases, the big pie chart is pretty much equally divided between two major players, with a thin sliver of “other.” In the desktop environment, the “other” slice of the pie includes Linux: it’s there, but it’s not really used by normal people and doesn’t really compete on the same footing as Windows or MacOS. The mobile OS market includes BlackBerry and Windows Phone, among others, but in the big banquet of life they’re relegated to the kids’ table.
Hey, There’s LUT Fabric in my SoC!
The idea of processors and FPGAs working together is exactly as old as the idea of FPGAs. Perhaps older, in fact, because even the prehistoric pre-FPGA PLDs often showed up on CPU boards - palling up with the hot processors of the day (which boasted 8 full bits of bone-crushing capability - at speeds of over a megahertz!) Of course, those programmable devices were mostly doing “glue logic” work - connecting up things that weren’t easy to connect otherwise.
Since those early days, processors and programmable logic have enjoyed a long and romantic partnership - spending long lazy days gazing lovingly into each other’s IO ports, exchanging data (and some control signals as well), and enriching each other’s lives through mutual cooperation. The partnership was never equal, though. Processors got all the glamour and recognition. Debutante CPUs would burst onto the red carpet with wider words and faster clocks, and they’d barely give a nod to their loyal FPGA companions who worked silently in the shadows, doing all the dirty work.
Mentor’s RealTime Designer Rises to RTL
There are a lot of reasons why we can create so much circuitry on a single piece of silicon. Obvious ones include hard work developing processes that make it theoretically doable. But someone still has to do the design. So if I had to pick one word to describe why we can do this, it would be “abstraction.” And that’s all about the tools.
In fact, my first job out of college came courtesy of abstraction. Prior to that, using programmable logic involved figuring out the behavior you wanted, establishing (and re-establishing) Boolean equations that described the desired behavior, optimizing and minimizing those equations manually, and then figuring out which individual fuses needed to be blown in order to implement those equations. From that fuse map, a programmer (the hardware kind) could configure a device, which you could then use to figure out… that it’s not working quite like you wanted, allowing you to throw the one-time-programmable device away and try again.
TI’s FRAM MCUs and ADI’s X-fest Demos
In this week’s Fish Fry, we take a fast tour of the world, with interesting stops in FRAM, high-speed ADCs, and remote RF transceivers. Don’t know what FRAM is? Fear not. Will Cooper from Texas Instruments tells us all about this amazing not-so-new non-volatile memory technology, which is really cool - even if I don’t quite agree with his basketball loyalties. Then we’re off to analog land with Robin Getz from Analog Devices where we chat about remote RF transceivers, high-speed ADCs, motor control demos, and a whole lot more. Check it out!
The Truth About Engineering Talent
People who are sports fans often watch in amazement when a superstar athlete gets a contract worth tens of millions of dollars. “Why,” they ask, “is kicking or throwing a ball worth that kind of money? And with millions of talented people who spend their entire lives practicing this sport, why is this particular one deserving of that kind of compensation?”
We all wonder this.
Then, we realize that, in many cases, most of the crowd gathers primarily to watch the performance of that one superstar. Take him or her away and it’s just another game. To prove that, watch what happens in the US when a professional sports league goes on strike and the teams bring in temporary “replacement” players. The audience leaves in droves. People don’t watch on TV - except perhaps from schadenfreude. Even though the replacement players are top-notch professionals in their own right, they don’t bring the superstar magic to the performance. The result is simply ordinary excellence, with all too many tell-tale signs that even skilled professionals are just human after all.
ASICs for the Rest of Us
We all know the story: ASIC starts are falling as the costs of the design tools, the mask sets and the manufacturing process are all going through the roof. Don't even think about starting an ASIC design unless your budget is measured in millions of dollars. The development process is going to require a large team of engineers. The only way you can make money with an ASIC is to sell many hundreds of thousands of devices, and that normally implies consumer markets. But ASICs take months to years of development – a development cycle that can be longer than the product life of a consumer product, which is typically measured only in months.
But over the last few weeks, I have been talking to people who will happily talk about ASICs that cost only tens of thousands of dollars to design and begin to manufacture, and have a return on investment measured in months. How come there is such a huge difference?