Actel Corporation was the second company (after Xilinx) to launch a commercially successful FPGA. It used a fundamentally different programming element called an antifuse, which ultimately proved a technological backwater. Subsequent products migrated to Flash technology for holding the device configuration, but they also retained some differentiating features.
For many years, Actel reported revenue that gave it an FPGA marketshare of around 7 percent. In 2010, Microsemi Corp. acquired Actel. At that time, Microsemi was around twice the size of Actel but had no previous involvement in programmable logic. It produces high-reliability discrete devices and mixed-signal ICs, and it clearly intends to gain further inroads into its chosen markets of defense and aerospace.
My experience with acquisitions has shown it takes time to assimilate products and people into an organization. Customers might hesitate to design in devices for fear of product discontinuation. Staff members often leave or change roles. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the Actel/Microsemi programmable logic marketshare is no higher today -- and probably a little lower -- than it was when the purchase was made. (Microsemi does not break out its FPGA numbers.)
FPGA revenue of around $60 million per quarter makes it extremely difficult to justify and use leading-edge processes, because tooling each device costs tens of millions of dollars. Also, Flash technologies (at least, the versions available for use in FPGAs) are several generations behind the SRAM technologies used by Xilinx and Altera. To compensate, devices need to offer unique attributes.
One feature of Flash-based FPGA devices is that they are ready for use a few microseconds after the supply rails reach their working range. This instant-on feature can win some sockets in applications where the FPGA controls the bootup processes of other components. The devices offer low power consumption, especially when in standby modes for applications that require only intermittent operation.
The nonvolatile nature of Flash and antifuse technology (which is of interest for space applications) eliminates the need for an external configuration bit stream. Microsemi is making a lot of the assertion that this increases the security of the devices. This is a complex subject, and I will discuss it in more detail in a future blog; for now, let's simply state that it makes design security easier. Another claim made about nonvolatile configuration is that it is immune to disruptions such as single-event upsets from sources such as cosmic rays. Again, this requires an involved discussion that we will leave for another time.
Actel used Flash to combine mixed-signal capabilities alongside FPGAs in a family called SmartFusion. This is certainly unique, because the chips feature programmable digital fabric together with one or more ADCs, DACs, comparators, and monitors alongside a 100MHz ARM Cortex-M3 microcontroller core and associated peripheral functions. The family targets a large number of potential applications, such as industrial, automotive, and telecommunications systems that can benefit from the integration of analog and digital processing capabilities. Today the Zynq All Programmable SoC family from Xilinx offers high-performance dual ARM Cortex-A9 cores alongside dual ADCs and a sensor block that has some of the same analog capabilities.
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