Intellectual property speculation
While millions of people all over the world are chatting on their mobile phones, downloading music or watching streaming video on laptop computers, developers at Xilinx in Scotland are quietly working away in the background to make the underlying technology work – thinking up the “logic” which makes very similar chips do very different jobs…
“We provide solutions for many things consumers take for granted or depend on,” says Dr Colin Carruthers, Director, Xilinx Scotland. “We also do a lot of things that people aren’t even aware of, as they go about their everyday lives.”Sometimes, Xilinx thinks up new ideas which no-one has thought of before, and for which there may not even be a market yet…
As far as the consumer is concerned, what Xilinx develops in Scotland is often invisible – blocks of logic which provide the intelligence for the FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) used in many digital products. The same FPGAs can be put into very different devices, but what makes them different is how they are programmed. According to Carruthers, Xilinx chips are even used in the Mars Rover and particle accelerators to solve the greatest mysteries in science, as well as more common applications such as HDTV, mobile phones, PDAs and wireless basestations.
Xilinx customers can change or upgrade (i.e programme) product features and functions “on the fly” – adapting to new standards and reconfiguring the hardware for a specific application. This “on the fly” technology can be achieved even after the product has been installed in the field, allowing upgrades and design flaw repairs following consumer purchase.
Xilinx in Scotland
Xilinx today is the world’s largest maker of FPGAs, with just over 50 per cent market share, and its presence in Scotland can be traced back to a company called Algotronix, a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh in 1989 which became a part of Xilinx four years later. Like Xilinx, which was formed in 1984, the small team of developers at Algotronix recognised the potential of FPGAs and developed a numeric co-processor chip which fitted in well with the Xilinx portfolio, plus several other patented devices with commercial potential. Xilinx also recognised the talent at the fledgling Scottish company, and persuaded them to join forces – in the process setting up the company’s first overseas development venture, which has since become a major European R&D centre for Xilinx.
As the years went by and FPGA technology continued to evolve, Xilinx in Scotland grew from four to 16 people, focusing on chip design and layout software, as well as board level and development tools. Now more than 40 strong, the Edinburgh-based development team was not only able to take full advantage of the company’s international marketing strengths but also its software development skills, documentation and chip verification capabilities – plus what Carruthers calls “cross fertilisation of cultures.”
In 1997, Xilinx had four or five radically different FPGA platforms, all performing different tasks but using very similar technology, so the company decided to rationalise to avoid duplication of effort, in the search for a more homogenous architecture. At this time, says Carruthers, using FPGAs for digital signal processing (DSP) was gaining momentum, and this presented Xilinx with tremendous opportunities, especially in the mobile phone market.
The next generation of the so-called third generation “3G” wireless standard is called Long-Term Evolution (LTE). This provides a leap in performance over existing standards, and presents significant challenges to deal with higher data throughput rates
By using existing Xilinx IP blocks to maximise IP reuse, and using Xilinx Platform Studio as a single integration framework, design teams can concentrate on the novel parts of the LTE downlink design. This has allowed rapid development and tracking of changes in the LTE specification as it approaches ratificationIn Scotland, the development team focused on cores – blocks of pre-coded functionality, to which the customers can add what Carruthers calls their “secret sauce”, taking advantage of the reusability of the components which sit on the FPGA. The cores can even be downloaded free from the web so that customers can try them out before placing an order.
The Xilinx team in Scotland also works very closely with Xilinx headquarters to help in the design of new FPGAs, and because they know the layout of the FPGAs inside-out from the moment they first hit the market, they can quickly exploit the architecture of the new chip design to optimise results for different customers. Although developers in Edinburgh are pushing the edge of research, Carruthers says they’re not engaged in what is sometimes described as “blue sky” thinking but very down to earth and practical solutions for their customers. In fact, their greatest satisfaction comes from solving real-world customer problems, as well as dreaming up original ideas. When the Xilinx sales team is talking to customers, the Edinburgh team are often called in for discussions, to talk engineer to engineer, in order to come up with new solutions.
In terms of applications, Xilinx solutions are used all over the digital world. For example, it produces cores which enable the FPGAs to be used in mobile phone network base stations, as well as the “satellite” base stations which are now installed in buildings to boost network signals.
Paraphrasing the words of Arthur C. Clarke, Carruthers says that Xilinx technology is “sometimes so advanced it’s hard to distinguish from magic”, but its success in Scotland is not an illusion.
What are FPGAs?
When they were invented, Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) were regarded as an “off-the-wall concept” that would never take off in the market. Dreamed up by Xilinx co-founder Ross Freeman, the FPGA was a totally new kind of semiconductor which could be customised by individual customers to meet special system requirements, with the help of special software. In the early days, however, the technology required a lot of expensive transistors, so many mainstream companies rejected it because it did not seem to be commercially viable.
Thanks to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors you can fit onto an integrated circuit doubles every 18-24 months, enabling dramatic reductions in costs, the Xilinx concept soon became increasingly attractive as a business proposition, and a multi-billion dollar market has emerged, providing smart solutions for a wide range of industries and applications – many of them hardly imagined when the FPGA was conceived.
In simple terms, an FPGA is built around a matrix of configurable logic blocks (CLBs) connected via programmable interconnects. Unlike Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), which are specially built to carry out specific tasks, the same FPGA can be programmed to do different jobs, using the same infrastructure laid out on the chip. This means that the customer can buy a lot of FPGAs off the shelf and then configure them to carry out particular functions, instead of building an ASIC from scratch. As well as being much more flexible and cost-effective, the FPGA eliminates much of the blood, sweat and tears that go into designing new products.