SAN FRANCISCOClaiming a major advance that could have broad appeal for embedded designers, Actel Corp. Tuesday (March 2) introduced a family of flash-based field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that feature a complete microcontroller subsystem built around a hard ARM Cortex-M3 processor and programmable analog blocks. The first member of this family, called SmartFusion, is already available in production quantities, Actel said.
According to Actel (Mountain View, Calif.), the SmartFusion family of devices will enable embedded designers to optimize hardware-software tradeoffs "on the fly" without board-level changes. Providing the processor and necessary glue logic in one device offers performance, cost and footprint advantages, according to company executives.
"SmartFusion has a full microcontroller subsystem, not just a CPU core," said Rich Kapusta, vice president of sales and marketing at Actel. "We've brought together, for the first time, a no-compromise FPGA and a no compromise microcontroller with some programmable analog."
According to Jim Turley, principal of consulting firm Silicon Insider (Pacific Grove, Calif.), designers have been trying for about 10 years to put processors in FPGAs but haven't had much success because programmable fabrics and processor architectures don't mesh well, slowing communication between the elements. "What the Actel guys have done with SmartFusion is combined a normal ARM processor with their FPGA fabric and connected the two side by side, in such a way that they communicate really well," Turley said.
SmartFusion evolved from Fusion, Actel's first mixed-signal FPGAs, which hit the market in 2005. Fusion devices can integrate soft processor cores, including 32-bit ARM Cortex-M1 cores. According to Fares Mubarak, senior vice president of marketing and engineering, Fusion was a great concept and has been a success, but Actel realized that in order to target a wider swath of applications it needed to put more muscle behind the processor by hardening it and providing a full complement of standard peripherals.
"We feel pretty good about the fact that this is a sustainable, differentiated device that no one can go and quickly copy because we have invested so much in our flash process," Kapusta said. SmartFusion can supply the Cortex-M3 with its own embedded flash memory, while an SRAM-based FPGA would require external flash memory, he added. The flash technology also enables high-voltage analog to co-exist with digital circuits on SmartFusion, he said.