Military designers of embedded systems see integrated circuits designed as intellectual-property (IP) cores as the solution to the obsolescence issue that has been the bane of users of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment for more than a decade.
In the past, many program managers faced headaches when microprocessor companies such as Motorola or Intel would obsolete a chip. Now microprocessors on IP cores implemented on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) allow these chips to last for decades.
IP cores on FPGAs eliminate the obsolescence problem that the COTS initiative gave us,” says Ray Alderman executive director of the VME International Trade Association in Tempe, Ariz. “COTS brought a lot of wonderful things such as low prices but obsolescence was the bad side-effect.”
Now systems integrators can keep that chip technology on a core, he adds.
IP cores enable designers to control their own destiny, plan on 10-to-15-year lifecycles, and get all the advantages of COTS chips without the disadvantage of obsolescence. “Microprocessor cores are key but they’re just part of a much bigger picture,” says Wade Petersen, president and chief executive officer of Silicore in Plymouth, Minn.
Petersen says it is also important to comply with new government regulations for embedded devices. “These new regulations are appearing at the state and federal level in the United States, with more expected in other countries,” he adds.
IP cores will also enable companies to “reduce inventory by reducing or eliminating lifetime-buy” situations. They will be able to obtain available off-the-shelf material from companies such as Actel and Xilinx, Peterson says.
One of the leaders in the IP-core market is FPGA supplier Xilinx, which makes sense because many of these cores will be placed on FPGAs.
IP cores give the customer a great deal of flexibility, says Jay Gould, product marketing of embedded development tools at Xilinx. They solve the obsolescence problem and, he adds, “Xilinx FPGAs and IP cores enable the customer to be the expert.”
In other words, the tools and the ability of the cores to be reprogrammed and updated enable the user to tailor his core to whatever application he needs it for, Gould explains.
In the past, microprocessors were designed around the application, but now with IP the application can be designed around the microprocessor, says Rey Archide, senior staff marketing engineer, embedded processing division at Xilinx.
Petersen has found the military market a tough one to crack. “I’ve shifted focus to high-reliability, long-lifespan critical components for highly regulated international markets such as medical devices and HAVA-compliant voting machines,” he says. HAVA stands for the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
“It uses a technique that I call investment-quality IP,” Petersen continues. “If I’m right, we should be able to get a 40-year design service life for semiconductor chips.”
IP cores enable integrated-circuit design to be done through software as opposed to hardware, Petersen says. This enables them to be done right the first time, meet new government regulations, and be relatively inexpensive to build and maintain. Portable, open-source codes enable the design to move between silicon vendors and be subjected to industry-standard quality controls such as verification, validation, and test.
Silicore provides standard open, portable, and available WISHBONE interconnections in several topologies: point-to-point; data flow; shared bus; broadside network; ring network; crossbar switch; and off (inter) chip.
Click here to download a .PDF of Microprocessor IP cores