Microsemi has just announced its PolarFire family of FPGAs. This family is ideal for a wide range of applications within wireline access networks and cellular infrastructure, the defense and commercial aviation markets, and Industry 4.0 (the term "Industry 4.0" refers to the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, and it encompasses things like cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing).
Microsemi has evolved substantially in recent times. Around 15 years ago, the company was predominantly selling discrete components into the aerospace and defense industries. Today, by comparison, approximately 60% of the company's revenues come from the communications and data center markets, while aerospace and defense account for only 26% of revenue. This should not, of course, be taken to imply that Microsemi's share of the aerospace and defense markets are falling; rather that the other market segments are growing.
The leading factor contributing to this evolution was Microsemi's acquisition of FPGA vendor Actel in 2010. Most people at that time thought this was a strange move. As Mark LaPedus wrote in his Microsemi buys Actel for $430 million column:
Observers were scratching their heads about the deal. It was a complete surprise. Analog and FPGAs are completely different markets.
What many people didn’t realize was how having FPGAs in its portfolio would allow Microsemi to sell sub-systems and complete systems based on its newly acquired FPGAs coupled with its discrete components. Even if all a developer does is to download a reference design, can you guess whose components are featured in that design?
To this day, I still hear people who aren’t aware of the past saying "Microsemi FPGAs?" in tones of derision, without understanding that Actel had a rich history regarding the creation of highly reliable and robust FPGAs for use in the harshest environments, including a wealth of space-grade offerings.
When it comes to off-the-shelf FPGAs (as opposed to embedded FPGA IP for use in SoCs), there are only four big players left standing: Intel (used to be Altera), Lattice Semiconductor, Microsemi, and Xilinx (there are also a few smaller players in the FPGA world, like Atmel and Achronix, but they account for only a fraction of the overall market).
Intel and Xilinx are, of course, focused on the high-end of the market, targeting the highest performance and highest capacity FPGAs the universe has yet seen. Lattice, meanwhile, is happily dominating the lower-end of the market with its ultra-low-power devices that are ideal for consumer and prosumer products.
This is not to say that Intel, Lattice, and Xilinx don’t have a presence in the mid-range arena, just that this is not their focus, and when something is not your focus it can become a weakness.
By comparison, in the case of its FPGAs, Microsemi has set its sights firmly on the mid-range market, hence the introduction of its PolarFire family. The "Polar" portion of the moniker comes from that fact that these devices consume relatively little power (and thus run cooler) than their competitors in this market segment. Meanwhile, the "Fire" part of the name is a metaphor for the relatively high capacity and performance they offer.
As one example, in collaboration with Silicon Creations, Microsemi has developed a 12.7 Gbps transceiver optimized to be area efficient and low power, resulting in total power of less than 90 milliwatts (mW) at 10 Gbps. These transceivers, which are featured in PolarFire FPGAs, satisfy the performance requirements of a wide range of mid-bandwidth applications. The transceivers in higher-end FPGAs can be "turned down" to the 12.7 Gbps level, but the fact they are designed to support much higher bandwidths leaves them less efficient at this lower speed (I can’t believe I'm referring to 12.7 Gbps as "lower speed," but that's the way things are these days).
Of particular interest to me is the deployment of PolarFire FPGAs in IoT applications, in which security is (finally) recognized as being a key factor. High levels of computation are no longer relegated to the core of the network; instead, more-and-more computation and intelligence is being pushed out to the edge of the network. Similarly, hardware and software security has to be pushed out to the edge of the network.
Leveraging Microsemi’s expertise in security, PolarFire FPGAs offer Cryptography Research Incorporated (CRI)'s patented differential power analysis (DPA) bitstream protection, integrated physically unclonable functions (PUFs), 56 KB of secure embedded non-volatile memory (eNVM), built-in tamper detectors and countermeasures, true random number generators, integrated Athena TeraFire EXP5200B Crypto Co-processors (Suite B capable), and a CRI DPA countermeasures pass-through license.
Microsemi’s PolarFire FPGA product family is shipping to early access customers now; samples for general availability will be offered in the second quarter of 2017 (orders for samples can be placed immediately). Visit Microsemi.com/PolarFire for more information.
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting