The History, Status, and Future of FPGAs

FPGA, illustration - Credit: DesignLinx

The History, Status, and Future of FPGAs
Communications of the ACM, October 2020, Vol. 63 No. 10, Pages 36-39
By Oskar Mencer, Dennis Allison, Elad Blatt, Mark Cummings, Michael J. Flynn, Jerry Harris, Carl Hewitt, Quinn Jacobson, Maysam Lavasani, Mohsen Moazami, Hal Murray, Masoud Nikravesh, Andreas Nowatzyk, Mark Shand, Shahram Shirazi

“ASIC teams always fight the FPGA concept. ASIC designers ask, “Which functionality do you want?” and are impatient if the answer is, “I don’t know yet.””


This article is a summary of a three-hour discussion at Stanford University in September 2019 among the authors. It has been written with combined experiences at and with organizations such as Zilog, Altera, Xilinx, Achronix, Intel, IBM, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, University of Wisconsin, the Technion, Fairchild, Bell Labs, Bigstream, Google, DIGITAL (DEC), SUN, Nokia, SRI, Hitachi, Silicom, Maxeler Technologies, VMware, Xerox PARC, Cisco, and many others. These organizations are not responsible for the content, but may have inspired the authors in some ways, to arrive at the colorful ride through FPGA space described here.


Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) have been hitting a nerve in the ASIC community since their inception. In the mid-1980s, Ross Freeman and his colleagues bought the technology from Zilog and started Xilinx, targeting the ASIC emulation and education markets. (Zilog came out of Exxon, since in the 1970s people were already afraid that oil would run out in 30 years, which is still true today). In parallel, Altera was founded with similar technology at its core.


An FPGA is a chip that is programmed by a circuit. It is said to “emulate” that circuit. This emulation runs slower than the actual circuit would run if it were implemented in an ASIC—it has a slower clock frequency and uses more power, but it can be reprogrammed every few hundred milliseconds.


People who make ASICs started using FPGAs to emulate their ASICs before committing them to a mask and sending them out to the factory to be manufactured. Intel, AMD, and many other companies use FPGAs to emulate their chips before manufacturing them.


The telecom industry has been a heavy user of FPGAs. Telecom standards keep changing and building telecom equipment is difficult, so the company that ships telecom solutions first tends to capture the biggest chunk of the market. Since ASICs take a long time to make, FPGAs offer an opportunity for a shortcut. FPGAs started to be adopted for first versions of telecom equipment, which initiated the FPGA price conflict. While the price of the FPGA does not matter to the ASIC emulation market, the price of a chip for telecom is important. Many years ago, AT&T and Lucent made their own FPGAs, called ORCAs (optimized reconfigurable cell arrays), but they were not competitive with Xilinx or Altera in terms of speed or size of the silicon.


Today, Huawei is the largest customer for FPGAs. It is possible the recent tension between the U.S. and China began with FPGAs from the U.S. giving Huawei an edge in delivering 5G telecom equipment two years before any of the other vendors around the world got ready to play.

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