The advent of million-gate FPGAs has made programmable logic a viable platform for system-on-chip integration, but the most commonly used FPGA technology could leave millions of designs vulnerable to the theft of intellectual property.
Reverse engineering is nothing new, but in the FPGA arena it wasn't much of a problem until recently. Now that the devices often contain the IP that defines a system, customers are starting to think about how to safeguard their designs, said Barry Marsh, vice president of product marketing at Actel Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif.
"Even when we were only shipping 10,000- to 50,000-gate devices, 15% to 20% of our customers said security was the reason they bought Actel parts," Marsh said. "Now that we're shipping million-gate devices with lots of IP inside, security becomes a much bigger factor."
As more FPGAs are shipped to overseas EMS providers, OEMs
should take more precautions to protect IP, he said.
Actel has begun a campaign to highlight design security issues, and in the process promote its flash- and antifuse-based FPGAs, which the company claims are impervious to reverse engineering.
Competing suppliers said the problem is still small, but they anticipate growing interest.
Chrysalis-ITS, a network security system OEM, said it exclusively uses antifuse-based parts from Actel and QuickLogic Corp. to perform sensitive functions, though less sensitive parts of the design are typically done with FPGAs from other vendors.
"When we first started using FPGAs, we eliminated anything that was SRAM-based," said Bruno Couillard, chief technology officer of the Ottawa, Ontario, company. "We've heard that companies like Xilinx are working on ways to secure the bitstream, but our designs are not large enough to force us to look into SRAM-based devices. We'll probably stick with antifuse."
In the Internet era, security issues are in the spotlight, though the focus has been on shielding data that moves in and out of a system. Various protocols were developed for this purpose, including Data Encryption Standard (DES) and 3DES, and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).
IP blocks can also be encrypted, but this offers little protection if the key can be stolen right from the bitstream, Actel said.
The vast majority of FPGAs shipped are vulnerable to this type of theft. Based on SRAM, they require an external device to store design files until the system is powered on. During bootup, design files can be intercepted and copied.
FPGAs that use on-chip nonvolatile memory to store design files are less susceptible but have so far attained only a niche market position. Suppliers include Actel, Lattice Semiconductor Corp., and QuickLogic.
Altera Corp. plans to tackle security issues in future product lines, though not necessarily by adding nonvolatility to its SRAM-based parts, according to Tim Colleran, vice president of product marketing at the San Jose company.
"It's an area we have our sights set on," Colleran said. "But we don't start with what technology we're using. We start with what's the customer's problem, and then look at a variety of ways to address it."