No Slave to FPGA Fashion: Q&A with Technologic Systems
When it comes to FPGAs this SBC maker emphasizes practical functionality over the next new node.
Technologic Systems has been bringing embedded solutions to market since the mid 1980s and most recently introduced its ARM-based TS-7680 Single Board Computer (Figure 1). While any number of topics could be the focus of an interview with a company whose OEM customer base for products—including industrial grade single board computers, computer-on-modules and touch panel PCs—numbers around 8,000, our conversation centered on FPGAs. Edited excerpts from our conversation with the company’s Eliza Nelson, a Hardware Design Engineer at Technologic Systems, follow:
EECatalog: How are you and your customers typically using FPGAs?
Eliza Nelson, Technologic Systems: Technologic Systems and our customers typically use an FPGA to provided embedded control interfaces that need to be more responsive than what a large CPU and OS can accomplish. These can vary from offload engines that need to implement tasks in microseconds of time, to processing and buses that need larger pipelines and bandwidths than the CPU can easily offer. So for our applications the bigger and more general purpose the CPU and OS in an embedded system becomes, the more we will be looking towards FPGAs to advance the technology they offer. This can include everything from increasing the number of gates that fit into small packages to building hardened IP blocks for high-speed/wide-bandwidth buses. For many applications increasing complexity in tools or programming languages is what hinders growth.
EECatalog: What’s on your FPGA wish list and how does it differ from that of other manufacturers?
Nelson, Technologic Systems: We are not in a situation where we are chasing the latest node in FPGA, unlike, for example, those in the telecom and graphics arenas seeking the latest, greatest, fastest, most integrated, broadest feature set.
Our applications are well served with mid-scale FPGA technology, and many of the FPGAs that we are actively selecting and designing into new products today were introduced into the market from the FPGA supplier two to five years ago. We make sure they have a long life cycle, so we do not have to worry about the FPGA provider terminating them anytime in the near future, but we are not trying to be on their latest and greatest node because we don’t need that much performance for what we are looking to accomplish with an FPGA.
Where we would find a lot more value is if they would figure out ways to make them cost less. Also, we are typically looking for a small package where the pin spacing is not too tight, enabling us to manufacture using medium- to low-cost processes on the PCB. With FPGA tighter spacing or smaller pitch, we have to pay significantly more for the PCBs that interact with the FPGA because they would have to use more advanced processes.
EECatalog: How are you managing relationships with suppliers, especially with regard to your approach of not trying to keep up with FPGA “fashion,” as it were?
Nelson, Technologic Systems: We work closely with suppliers. We take the steps needed to present a good volume to a supplier, typically partnering with a single supplier and then using multiple components from that supplier. And as well using the same component many times on our products. Building up volume like this with our suppliers helps the suppliers understand that both Technologic and our portion of the market represent a good, stable, volume that is not going to go away when the market gets rough. This also helps us from an inventory perspective, because we inventory all our components and can build our boards faster if we have more commonality.
When the market gets rough, and those companies using the more expensive, flashier parts and which are doing high-level integration don’t have money, they stop doing it. And they stop buying parts. We [on the other hand] are out there in the middle of the market consistently buying parts and can represent a consistent volume and a stable volume of money to keep the doors open.
We try to make sure our suppliers understand that we are in this for the long haul, that we are in it to build partnerships that work for us and them.
EECatalog: How are customers benefitting from the additional interfaces offered on your SBCs?
Nelson, Technologic Systems: Often customers come to us because we are able to offer interfaces that they need: RS-232, PC/104, GPIO. If they were to design a board on their own, they may not know how to get there when an SoC does not have it. When they look at other SBCs that are not utilizing FPGAs they won’t have those features either. So many times we are getting selected by customers because we can build more interfaces on our SBC than an SoC alone would have, and we can provide functionality that they cannot find anywhere else and that they badly need in their system.
Some of them would find other ways to do it, but it would typically be more expensive and more space-consuming, because it would require cobbling a couple of different boards and solutions together, whereas we take care of it with one clean solution.
At the same time, we are engineers and we do like to play, adding little nuance-y features that makes our customers’ lives easier or allow them to do interesting and different things.
For example, we have an as-yet-to-be released product coming that will include an FPGA to which we have added a programmable state machine. We’ll issue some documentation to accompany it and see what customers come up with. You might say it’s a little bit of a solution seeking a problem, but we already have some early engagement customers asking for some very particular things that only the state machine will be able to accomplish.
EECatalog: How has Technologic anticipated trends for programmable logic and shared its expertise in a way that has made a price/performance difference for embedded designers?
Nelson, Technologic Systems: We differentiate our products using FPGAs to provide a broader product offering to our end customers, and offer them more interfaces in a single product than would otherwise be available based on a single SoC solution. Using FPGA technology we are able to support protocols that are not quite mainstream, like 1 wire bus, or quadrature interfaces. FPGA technology is also allowing us to support more interfaces that are now considered legacy in desktop applications, for example UART/RS-232 interfaces or PC/104. Some of these interfaces could be forced into a processor’s GPIO or parallel interfaces, but typically these interfaces would be unable to meet the timing required, where an FPGA is able to accomplish that easily.
However one of the best uses of FPGA technology is to implement something that would not be available in ASIC solutions. We are able to abstract a particularly onerous peripheral device interface (such as an ADC or HDLC controller) into a simple register interface or map it into something that already has easy to use drivers in the operating system. This moves a lot of complexity out of software and abstracts it into FPGA gates.
These kinds of features that only an FPGA offers make it possible for us to provide a better over all value proposition to our customers because of our expertise in FPGAs.
We will continue to integrate the newest interfaces that are relevant to today’s industrial and embedded markets, while also utilizing FPGAs to allow us to interface to systems or sensors that have been in use for a number of years. We are looking to the future as well. Many of the new products in our design pipeline are integrating more interfaces for remote machine to machine communications and better survival of products installed in aggressive environments.