Tom Hart took physics in school and was a Bombardier-Navigator in the U.S. Navy. He knows that with proper focus you can take advantage of an exponential ratio to deliver many times more energy to a target than even a much larger unfocused source. As Chairman, President, and CEO of QuickLogic, he applies that same principle in leading his company to success. In a programmable logic industry that is blasting its light in all directions, trying to illuminate every square inch of the digital design landscape, Hart’s QuickLogic is a spotlight, concentrating its resources on solving specific, high value problems better than anyone else.
In the design-specific semiconductor world, there are highly specialized custom devices such as cell-based ASICs, more general solutions like ASSPs, and extremely general solutions like FPGAs. QuickLogic reasons that there is lots of room to work in the gap between the latter two, ASSPs and FPGAs. Where ASSPs solve one specific problem in one specific way, and general-purpose FPGAs are a blank canvas for creating a complete solution on your own, QuickLogic’s embedded standard product (ESP) devices merge these two worlds by locking the known, stable parts of an application in optimized hardware blocks, while providing a high-performance programmable fabric for adding your own custom components to the design. In today’s world of rapidly evolving standards, increased time-to-market pressure, and high demands on silicon performance, price, and power, this is often exactly what the doctor ordered.
Hart is a passionate believer in QuickLogic and in QuickLogic’s strategy, and its prospects for success in the dynamic, fiercely competitive semiconductor market. As we have lunch during the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco, he is animated in his description of the market, the technology, and QuickLogic’s role. The food and service are excellent, but Hart, a self-proclaimed wine and food enthusiast, barely seems to notice. His mind is in the conversation, and on this topic he has home-field advantage. “QuickLogic’s patented ViaLink technology has several advantages over SRAM-based FPGA fabric, and we look for opportunities where we can leverage those advantages in combination with well-designed cores to create unique solutions which can be designed into high-volume systems,” Hart explains.
Tom Hart was captivated by electronics at an early age. “From age seven or eight I knew I wanted to work in electronics,” Hart recalls. “I got my first class radio telephone license at age 15. Out of high school, I went into the Navy and got involved with avionics systems. I was either regular or active in the naval reserves for the next thirty-seven years, so the Navy played an important part in my life and career.” Hart retired from the Navy in 1997 as a Captain in Naval Intelligence.
After his first active stint with the Navy, Hart attended University of Washington, where he got his EE degree in 1967. After UW, he went to work for Motorola in the linear IC group. “As much as I enjoyed the technology, I was also very interested in the business side of things,” Hart continues. “I ended up running Motorola’s linear IC unit until 1972 when I left to go to Silicon General.” Hart stayed at Silicon General until 1975, when he left to do a communications startup. He spent the next fifteen years in various entrepreneurial ventures and in technology investment banking, and then went on to run National Semiconductor’s ASIC and Advanced Networks business in 1992. In 1994 he joined QuickLogic, where he has held the reins ever since.
QuickLogic was founded in 1988 and shipped their first silicon in 1991, but by 1998 the company found itself at a crossroads. At about the same time, the company set a new course in the direction that defines their identity today – Embedded Standard Products. “We wanted to look beyond being just another programmable logic company,” says Hart. “By focusing on embedded standard products, we were able to take advantage of our programmable logic heritage and our unique architecture to create a new category of semiconductor solution.” Hart took on additional responsibility as Chairman of the Board of QuickLogic in 2001.
The company wanted to differentiate itself by offering compelling solutions to its customers that could not be found elsewhere in the market. On one side were application-specific standard products (ASSPs) that offered very high-performance, low-cost solutions to established problems. On the other side were ASIC and programmable logic devices that offered maximum flexibility for solving new, emerging problems, but at a significant cost in either design time or silicon area. Hart’s strategy with QuickLogic was to select applications where standards were still emerging and evolving and thus ASSPs had not yet commoditized the market, but where significant parts of the solution were known and fixed so there was economy of scale in creating tightly crafted solutions.
QuickLogic’s one-time-programmable ViaLink technology creates metal-to-metal connections for device personalization. Compared with SRAM FPGA fabric (where customization is volatile and depends on SRAM cells), the technology offers faster interconnect, lower static and dynamic power consumption, higher interconnect density, and non-volatility. The tradeoff for these benefits is a lack of in-system (or even out-of-system) reprogrammability. These characteristics make the technology well suited for applications that need the benefits of an ASSP where none yet exists. Low unit cost, high operating frequency, very low power consumption, and single-chip, non-volatile operation combined with customizability to produce devices with ASSP-like cost and performance, but FPGA-like flexibility.
With a spotlight, you get excellent results only when you aim it intelligently. Hart is quick to acknowledge that the success or failure of QuickLogic depends heavily on what types of applications they choose to target. “We want to find high-volume, rapid-growth areas where standards are in flux and time-to-market is critical,” Hart explains. In some cases, such as the company’s Eclipse FPGA lines, that is a simple matter of identifying classes of problems that other suppliers don’t readily solve. Eclipse’s extremely low static power consumption makes it a viable FPGA option for many types of power-limited applications where traditional SRAM FPGAs cannot compete.
QuickLogic categorizes their solutions as low-power, programmable logic solutions consisting of microwatt FPGAs, QuickMIPS programmable SoCs, and microwatt programmable bridges. Eclipse II, which the company claims is the industry’s lowest power FPGA family, includes both standard and military-grade FPGAs.
The QuickMIPS family combines a MIPS 32-bit processor, peripherals, memory, and PCI and Ethernet interfaces with customizable FPGA fabric. The embedded system-on-chip is ready to run, and the FPGA fabric can be used for hardware acceleration of performance-critical algorithms such as video compression/decompression, or like a traditional stand-alone FPGA for bridging non-standard interfaces with the on-chip embedded system.
In the bridging solutions department, the QuickPCI product line offers solutions for PCI, MiniPCI and CardBus applications, and new QuickIDE and QuickSDIO families are set for introduction in Q2 & Q3 of this year. QuickPCI is based on the same idea as QuickMIPS, but with a leaner combination of an optimized PCI core with programmable fabric. This creates a broadly applicable PCI-to-anything device with the low-power, low-cost benefits of a microwatt FPGA built in.
Recently, QuickLogic has signaled their intention to push into the ubiquitous Wi-Fi market by announcing a partnership with Renesas to develop chipsets for VoIP and battery-powered 802.11.ag applications. QuickLogic and Atheros, a leader in the single chip WiFi market, also recently announced their partnership, which is aimed at expanding Atheros’ ability to service the embedded systems markets with their single chip, PCI based Wi-Fi solution.
While these initiatives haven’t yet put QuickLogic in the lead in the FPGA race, Hart isn’t worried. “In this business, change happens quickly,” Hart observes. “All the industry giants started as energetic small companies.” Hart is right. Fifteen years ago it would have been difficult to predict today’s dominant electronics companies. Fifteen years from now, who knows? Tom Hart’s horse is in the race.