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I’m not sure that it makes sense to categorize MathStar and Ambric as FPGA companies because their fabrics were quite a bit different than a “sea of gates” architecture of Xilinx and Altera.
I agree that introducing a new programmable architecture to directly compete with Xilinx or Altera is financial folly. Only a niche or focused approach will likely succeed, and then hopefully be acquired by Xilinx or Altera as a new product family to complement their mainstream offerings.
You are correct, MathStar and Ambric are slightly different compared to a traditional FPGA company. But they attempted to be an alternative to the classical FPGA approach.
It will be interesting to see whether low power can be a niche for SiliconBlue. Also there is some development on the low power FPGA side that is getting interesting: RT @ocoudert Researchers present MRAM-based FPGA architecture http://bit.ly/4wMlrT
I also would not categorize MathStar or Ambric as FPGA companies. However, I would add Stretch to Olivier’s list.
Good coverage and assessment Olivier. One would expect that at some point there will be some discontinuity ala ‘Innovators Solution’, which will enable a startup to leapfrog one of the leaders. Perhaps power is the key dimension and not just density. At the same time, perhaps FPGA’s are an endangered species due to a closing gap between full custom and programmable processors as the ARM, and Intel architectures and their software stacks continue to improve and reach newer process nodes more quickly. Also Nvidia’s Fermi or IBM’s Cell3, and TI’s DSP all threaten the space. The FPGA market was robust when time-to-market of new systems was the key criteria for networking companies like Cisco. Nowadays power and cost are taking over as dominate design criteria for systems and you see a rise in SOC design in systems companies to address those requirements. At advanced nodes and increasing densities the overhead associated with FPGA architectures will become an increasing percentage.
Hi Olivier! In FPGA market X & A have built or gained the food chain consisting of hundreds of distributors, dealers, design engineering companies, garage shops, covering every possible company, application, offering all levels of support at all possible price ranges. It is an eco-system, into which you break in only through major differentiators. You have to be today 2X larger / faster and 50% less in power and cost than the NEXT generation of X and/or A. The subsequent geometry versions take 12-18 months, so you need to be two to three years ahead in technology implementation. The funds needed to make such difference can get close to $100M, with major innovation by a top technology team. It is not only the question of new, brilliant architecture, the environment for the implementation purposes must exist: design creation & synthesis tools, development environment, support resources for customers to adopt to new technology.
At the same time, even for the largest FPGA suppliers have a major challenge to not just scale but renew their products to meet the technology requirements. A new company may find its edge in changing the rules of the game, not having to continue supporting the legacy architectures thus being able to achieve the 2X over / 50% under two geometry generations ahead.
Disclaimer- I work for one of the big FPGA vendors.
Here are my personal opinions:
FPGA startups are a losing proposition.This is a niche market, well-protected by
2) The fact FPGA full-custom hardware is hard to create
3) The fact that FPGA P&R software is very hard to implement efficiently.
4) The preferred treatment, and early process access that the major FPGA manufacturers get.
Some things that might break the duopoly:
1) One of X or A screwing up on execution (hence making it a monopoly)
2) FPGA’s becoming obsolete (Don’t see that happening)
But FPGA startups will either
1) Implode because of technical difficulties
2) Be sued by either X or A for violating one of the many patents
3) Be acquired by either X or A.
Great blog BTW
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