Reconfigurable computing, for years dismissed as having no practical application, is enjoying a revival thanks to the Internet.
If it catches on, enthusiasts say it could shake up the traditional supply chain.
Joining venerable semiconductor vendors like NEC Corp. and Xilinx Inc. in the effort, a handful of start-ups have attracted substantial investment from corporate and private partners. Among them, Embedded Solutions Ltd. (ESL) and QuickSilver Technology Inc. are expected this week to separately announce completion of first venture-financing rounds.
Both companies claim to offer a unique approach that will make instantaneous reconfigurability a viable replacement for microprocessors and DSPs as the brains of certain high-volume applications. However, market watchers aren't holding their breath.
In digital wireless, where many standards coexist, "instantaneous reconfigurability is the Holy Grail," said analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz. "It's what everyone wants but nobody's got."
One-time reconfigurability, the most common form in use today, exists mainly as PLDs and IP cores. It's a feature OEMs like to have, but seldom take advantage of, Strauss said.
Nevertheless, backers believe reconfigurable computing (some prefer the term adaptive computing) will fundamentally change the way consumers buy electronic products. And now that the Federal Communications Commission is formally studying the commercial deployment of Software-Defined Radio technology, reconfigurable computing is getting a closer look.
By enabling a chip's circuitry to be altered while operating-and in a manner transparent to the user-new generations of cable set-top boxes, TVs, PDAs, and other appliances can be created via the Internet or the airwaves. For example, a cell phone might instantly be transformed into an MP3 player.
As a result, service providers can sell functionality directly to users over the public network, altering and, in some cases, eliminating the OEM's role in the electronics supply chain, asserted Ian Page, senior technical consultant at ESL, a developer of reconfigurable computing tools.
"Now, the box is only a carrier for the technology," Page said. "Anyone who ships boxes to consumers will see their industry change dramatically. It won't happen overnight, but eventually everyone that produces hardware could be displaced from the supply chain."
At the very least, adaptive hardware techniques may make it easier for small OEMs to compete with the entrenched electronics giants.
BellSouth Cellular Inc. is adopting the technology to spark supply-base competition and bring higher profits to its cellular business. Working with QuickSilver Technology, a developer of a silicon-based adaptive-computing engine, the company next year will offer a universal handset that automatically adjusts to different cellular standards. This will allow BellSouth, Atlanta, to purchase a single handset platform in extremely high volume and solve customers' roaming problems, said Becky Jackson, director of strategic product planning.
Longer term, the technology will extend the handset's shelf life to years instead of months by allowing new features to be added on the fly.
BellSouth has been pursuing this capability for about five years, but its traditional suppliers have not warmed to the concept, for obvious reasons.
"Their business is selling handsets," Jackson said. "We're looking to work with some new vendors that are not necessarily in the U.S. market right now."
People have been trying for years to commercialize reconfigurable computing technology to allow complex hardware problems to be solved in minutes by software engineers. By using silicon that adapts to whatever algorithm is running vs. code running on top of fixed transistors, computing speed and power consumption can be greatly improved, observers said.
A host of approaches are meeting with varying degrees of acceptance. FPGA supplier Xilinx has invoked the concept in its Xilinx Online initiative, which includes silicon, tools, and a design methodology to enable system designers to update embedded code over the public network. The company is working with ESL and Marconi Communications Ltd. to develop next-generation reconfigurable platforms.
ESL, a spinoff from Oxford University, has partnered with British Aerospace, Ericsson, and Infineon, among others, to advance its software and methodology for enabling reconfigurable computing.
ESL recently set up a design center in Campbell, Calif., to be closer to a key, unnamed partner, and is looking to expand its staff next year. The four-year-old company is raising $20 million in venture capital, and is already "vastly oversubscribed," according to Page.
QuickSilver, San Jose, having just completed its first round of venture financing, is expected this week to disclose details of its funding and adaptive silicon technology.
Today, the 20-person company is working with a select group of strategic customers likely to drive high-volume production. BellSouth is the only customer named so far, and it has taken an undisclosed equity stake in QuickSilver.
Other start-ups like Chameleon Systems Inc. and Morphics Inc. have also recently fielded dynamically reconfigurable silicon architectures, and a variety of reconfigurable processors is coming to market.
The problem to date is that all approaches have been based on ASIC or FPGA silicon, which are inefficient platforms for complex computing problems, according to John Watson, vice president of marketing at QuickSilver.
"There's still a lot FPGA suppliers can learn from us," said ESL's Page, adding that while programmable logic is the best platform available today, the more complex PLD architectures become, the harder it is to achieve high-performance reconfigurability.
MPU and DSP makers are also struggling to use available transistors by adding memory, floating-point algorithms, and other functions.
"It's kind of like the Winchester Mystery House dilemma-if I keep building things onto my chip, I won't die," Watson said. "But from a processing standpoint, that's not very efficient."
QuickSilver's adaptable silicon architecture addresses mobile-communications applications. The company says the product is neither FPGA, MPU, nor DSP, but uses all these elements to modify its circuitry to perform whatever would have run in software.
Known as an Adaptive Computing Machine, the architecture delivers 10 to 100 times more computational power than current DSP or ASIC-based engines. Because all computation is done directly in silicon, rather than in code, power consumption is cut in half, Watson said.
ESL is marketing its product asConfigR. The tool, which is based on a derivative of the C-programming language, is designed to enable software engineers to produce complex hardware designs quickly.
"We're not looking for Intel to use it to develop 2-GHz processors, nor are we looking to displace Intel," Page said. "There are a lot of things that don't need that level of performance, but need to develop functionality quickly and deliver it to the marketplace."