Technically speaking: Trends in mass customization, FPGAs

6VITA Technologies reached out to the supplier community to ask “What is your vision of the embedded board/systems business five years from now? What does it look like to you, from an application, technology, and business perspective?”

The responses I got back were very interesting to me. They reinforce my observations on a trend to mass customization in the industry that I have commented on for several years. While many suppliers have not quite acknowledged the inevitable movement to mass customization, others have embraced the trend. They have adjusted their product strategies to better address the changing needs of customers who desire products that can be effectively and efficiently modified for their most specific needs. They have adjusted their product strategy to develop products that lend themselves well to customization, and can be implemented quickly and cost effectively.

FMC suppliers are at the lead of the move to mass-customized products. FPGA technology is well suited for this type of product. The FMC architecture makes it easier to modify the I/O capability of carrier boards, matching them up with the processing capability of the onboard FPGA. With the tremendous improvements in performance coupled with lowering costs, we are seeing a rising number of design wins for FMC suppliers.

High-end signal processing board and system suppliers also use a large number of FPGAs in their products. Besides the previously mentioned advantages, signal processing applications benefit from the programmability of the FPGAs. We can expect FPGA technology to continue moving onto single board computers as price levels decline.

Even system-level products are embracing the trend. VPX is broadly defined to accommodate an array of fabric interconnects that are often implemented with either FPGAs or programmable silicon switches. This enables system architects to define and design systems that can be modified to meet changing application needs.

Over the next five years, I expect the industry to continue the shift to products that are better suited to modification. Customers will be able to define specific needs and the suppliers will be able to quickly configure products to meet those needs.

Here are a couple of the responses that we got back.

Mass customization! All-programmable! Reconfigurable!

Adam Smith, CEO, Alpha Data Inc.

Applications are increasingly pushing the limits of embedded boards in multiple directions. Customer requirements are perpetually requesting more channels, additional interconnects, increased processing performance, adding specific features, ruggedizing, etc., while at the same time pushing for smaller sizes, lower power, lower cost, faster delivery, etc. These factors are often compelling system designers to look for existing solutions and COTS hardware. However, it is becoming more difficult to create a generic COTS product to satisfy all of these demands. So, I believe the embedded computing business will be changing to a mass customization model: quick-turn custom COTS boards, all-programmable systems centered on FPGAs, and a reconfigurable systems approach.

Embedded computing suppliers must adapt to the fast pace and ever-changing needs of processing applications. A catalog of boards, software, IP, and system solutions will still be essential, but each item will become more of a building block that can be readily adapted and re-configured in new ways. Successful businesses will be able to creatively utilize their core technologies and proven designs to offer custom solutions. Alpha Data has a strong track record of leveraging our commodities for fast-to-market and low-risk custom products, such as the ADA-PCIE-CLINK6V for Camera Link imaging applications.

Industry standard form factors (VITA), interconnect busses (PCIe, Ethernet), and IP interfaces (OCP, AXI4) will become even more prevalent as designers look to utilize complementary products from multiple vendors (Figure 1). These standards facilitate high design re-use and the ability to reconfigure common pieces of hardware, software, and firmware in multiple ways. The future of the embedded industry depends on these standards for core system architectures in order to mass customize products.

Figure 1: Alpha Data FMC-CAMERALINK is an FMC I/O Module with industry standard CameraLink interface.
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I/O customization with FMCs

kos Csilling, Product Development Manager, CES РCreative Electronic Systems SA

FMC technology is gaining ground as preferred I/O customization. FPGAs have long been used to implement I/O customization, since the required mix of I/O interfaces can be easily implemented in a programmable device from existing IP blocks. The electrical drivers and connectors also need adaptation; however, in a modular embedded system this is not an issue, because the I/O connectivity and electrical protections are customized to the application. It is not difficult to include the electrical drivers in this system-level customization.

On the other hand, for laboratory and test equipment, it is more convenient to have the electrical drivers directly onboard, because there is no need for sophisticated protection devices, and standard front-panel connectivity is convenient. The FMC form factor allows the customization of the electrical drivers and connectors on a low-cost mezzanine, while the FPGA board itself and the backplane connectivity remain unchanged.

The use of FPGAs for the I/O implementation may be more difficult than using a dedicated controller. On the other hand, an implementation in a programmable device has multiple advantages. FPGAs are intended for embedded applications, with a long support lifecycle, a wide temperature range, and the option to move the IP to a more recent device when needed. In addition, using a soft IP, the interface can be improved and new features can be added. A simple end-point interface can be upgraded to a test resource by adding more extensive error detection and injection capabilities.

CES has long used FPGAs for I/O customization and to implement test devices. The new CES FIOV-2310 product is a 3U VPX board with a Kintex-7 FPGA and an FMC slot (Figure 2). A wide range of FMC mezzanines are available from partners and from independent vendors, both for signal processing and I/O customization applications.

Figure 2: The FIOV-2310 is a new FPGA board from CES, with an FMC slot linked to a Kintex-7, in a 3U VPX form factor. It is intended both for FPGA-based digital I/O and as a front-end FPGA for signal processing applications.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.8x)