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The First FPGAs of Spring

An Ode to Progress

The wild winds of winter have ravaged the technology plains with bitter cold, their icy breath wearing thin the layer of protective press releases lovingly laid down to protect the crops during the dormant days of digital design.   Groggy-headed marketers return from Maui and the extra-worldly environment of their sales kickoff events to face the bleak reality of product releases awaiting their magic touch.  The frozen pond of high-tech public relations may look barren today, but a barrage of activity blossoms just beneath the surface.  The technology universe, too, is tilted on its axis, and the inevitable swing of the seasons will bring the bounty of Moore’s Law to all the land.

 The silence of the still-frozen water is barely broken by stealthy whispers of embargoed news releases – audible to only a few.  Beneath the surface, however, the dance of the datasheets has begun.  Early access customers fiddle with fledgling technology, hoping to gain some modicum of technical advantage – and in return, sell their professional souls to quotecrafters who will express opinions they haven’t yet formed with far greater eloquence than they themselves will ever possess. 

Design tools are cleverly updated with faux features destined only for demonstration use – their flowery blossoms still far too fragile to stand up to real production work.  Software engineers struggle with marketing requirements non sequitur, making compromises they do not understand and despoiling carefully crafted code modules with ad hoc additions fated only to spawn future generations of problem reports for paying customers in exchange for the momentary “wow” factor on the trade show floor.

Point and click. Point and click. Point and click.  Real engineering is no longer necessary.  During the euphoria of engineering in the spring, your mouse will do the work.  Plug in your iPod, download the free software, fire up the wizard, and your work is almost done.  Through the magic of re-usable IP, your new product is practically on store shelves before you start.  Drag and drop your USB.  Click and place your PCI Express.  Pop in a processor core and an open-source operating system.  Bind them all together on a switch fabric or bus.  Drop in an on-chip debugging tool.  Your development board is suddenly singing and dancing with almost all the capabilities you need.  Swag in a few lines of application software on top of untested drivers, and you’re ready to show the boss.

Absorb the white paper today.  Download the design tools on Monday.  Unwrap your specially-priced development board next week.  You can enjoy the benefits of tomorrow’s technology today if you’re willing to close your eyes, believe, and roll the dice.  Your design may work, or your epic struggles may become fodder for some future footnote in the design guide – “frequency attainable only with fanout of three or less.”  Oops, sorry about that.  Thanks for catching it for us.  Here’s a free pass to our next technical seminar.

Meanwhile, the silicon sun moves higher in the sky and the rays shrink the gates even more – 130, 90, 65, 45…  High-technology’s two-year cicadas emerge from the ground and test their tymbals by singing loudly the praises of their process node.  Faster Fmax, higher density, lower cost, permissible leakage current, fantastic new features never before imagined.  The cacophony is almost deafening.  How did we ever manage to design anything before?

The earliest sprouts are visible now — precariously positioned press releases sparring for superlative supremacy.  The ecosystem comes to life with predators and prey each testing their competitive mettle.  World’s fastest this.  World’s lowest-power that.  World’s first everything.  Qualifier upon qualifier are compressed into the fine print, appeasing nervous lawyers and slipping past the weary eyes of jaded designers.  Expectations are set and smashed.  Claims are made and superseded.  Designers diligently digest information and delay decisions until a clearer truth emerges.  This isn’t their first spring.

In the distance, a rumbling herd of field application engineers stampedes across the prairie, offering hope to the hapless victims of early adopter euphoria.  Project schedules click firmly into place with only a little time allotted for figuring out the FPGA.  Wise teams will follow the proven path.  Like the grapes of fine wine, this season’s FPGA harvest will hit its peak only after aging for a while.  As exciting as the new vintage may seem at first, we can enjoy its true potential only after waiting for it settle into maturity.

Go forth and enjoy this season of rebirth.  Attend the trade shows.  Gather the swag.  Register for the seminars.  Download the demos.  Do all this, but retain the protective goggles of skepticism, for much that appears beautiful in the spring will soon fade – leaving us to ponder the wilted petals of overblown claims and unbridled optimism.  The winter is ended.

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