The Structured ASIC Debate
Contributor: AMI Semiconductor, Inc. (AMIS)
June 16, 2006 -- The debate over the structured ASIC market continues and the fall-out is severe for some suppliers that have invested heavily over the last three years. The big question now is whether the products will continue to survive.
I contend that the structured ASIC market isnít really a market at all. A structured ASIC is a product that supports ASIC requirements across vertical markets. For example, AMIS uses structured ASICs to enable cost reduction within the communications, computing, mil/aero, industrial, and medical markets. In so doing, we provide a means for our customers to move from a field programmable gate array (FPGA) device to an ASIC. This means that AMI Semiconductorís structured ASICs have to contain specific IP that enables a customer to drop in a pin-for-pin FPGA replacement device in the form of a structured ASIC. This obviously drives a completely different product than a structured ASIC designed only for storage applications for instance.
The key to looking at whether structured ASICs will continue to exist or not, is to review the benefits of the product in the market today. Simply put, the benefits are:
With these benefits, also comes a price when compared to cell-based products such as:
Compared to similar products of the past, the structured ASIC does have a different type of architecture and can handle more complexity than that of the traditional gate array. This is due in large part to the technologies that are available today. Furthermore, as mask costs increase and design cycle times continue to rise, structured ASICs continue to show significant benefits over other digital solutions. With that being said, just what exactly is causing some suppliers to abandon the structured ASIC for new developments after investing in the platforms for several years?
First, structured ASICs are similar to standard products in that every supplier has chosen a specific target for its platforms with embedded IP functions to match. If this target misses the market(s) needs either by being too late, too expensive or simply not containing the IP needed, the product wonít succeed.
Second, if the structured ASIC supplier is focused on new design-ins competing directly with FPGAs for an application, less flexibility and longer cycle times can be major reasons why it loses more than it wins. Therefore, the structured ASIC supplier is competing not only with the FPGA products for quick-turn and low cost of entry, but also standard cell ASICs for a low cost product at mid-to-higher volumes. This means that for a new design-in, a structured ASIC product can be squeezed at both ends of the spectrum.
This is why itís so critical that a supplier using structured ASIC technology target the product correctly and ensure that thereís value beyond that of the FPGA and cell-based approaches for a large enough market. There are structured ASIC products that achieve this benefit and are successful in the market today. We will continue to see some fallout with these type of products, but stabilization will occur within the next year or so.
I believe that OEMs with the right balance of usage between FPGAs, structured ASICs and standard cell ASICs will come out on top with the ultimate mix of solutions providing value and low cost to their market(s). Applications that are high-risk and/ or low-volume will go toward an FPGA platform provided the FPGA can meet performance requirements. Mid-to-high volume applications requiring the performance and density attributes of a structured ASIC will turn to those solutions since time-to-market and NRE are improved over the cell-based solution and unit pricing is an order of magnitude lower than the FPGA solutions. Also, customers that use FPGAs for prototyping but need lower cost solutions in production will turn to structured ASIC solutions targeting that type of approach. Cell-based ASICs will continue to be used for high-performance/ high-density applications that run at mid- to high-volume, especially for SoC solutions.
Is the structured ASIC platform a fad or is it real? In AMIS' case, weíre developing customer designs today and are in production on various structured ASIC arrays and will continue to do so where the products offer the best solution for our customers. AMIS will also continue to support the full range of ASIC products, i.e., gate array (yes, even gate arrays), structured ASIC and cell-based ASIC to service the mid-range ASIC market moving forward.
By Vince Hopkin, Vice President, AMI Semiconductor, Inc.
Reprinted from SOCcentral.com, your first stop for ASIC, FPGA, EDA, and IP news and design information.