Actel rolls mixed-signal FPGA with hard ARM core

SAN FRANCISCO—Claiming a major advance that could have broad appeal for embedded designers, Actel Corp. Tuesday (March 2) introduced a family of flash-based field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that feature a complete microcontroller subsystem built around a hard ARM Cortex-M3 processor and programmable analog blocks. The first member of this family, called SmartFusion, is already available in production quantities, Actel said.

According to Actel (Mountain View, Calif.), the SmartFusion family of devices will enable embedded designers to optimize hardware-software tradeoffs “on the fly” without board-level changes. Providing the processor and necessary glue logic in one device offers performance, cost and footprint advantages, according to company executives.

“SmartFusion has a full microcontroller subsystem, not just a CPU core,” said Rich Kapusta, vice president of sales and marketing at Actel. “We've brought together, for the first time, a no-compromise FPGA and a no compromise microcontroller with some programmable analog.”

According to Jim Turley, principal of consulting firm Silicon Insider (Pacific Grove, Calif.), designers have been trying for about 10 years to put processors in FPGAs but haven't had much success because programmable fabrics and processor architectures don't mesh well, slowing communication between the elements. “What the Actel guys have done with SmartFusion is combined a normal ARM processor with their FPGA fabric and connected the two side by side, in such a way that they communicate really well,” Turley said.

SmartFusion evolved from Fusion, Actel's first mixed-signal FPGAs, which hit the market in 2005. Fusion devices can integrate soft processor cores, including 32-bit ARM Cortex-M1 cores. According to Fares Mubarak, senior vice president of marketing and engineering, Fusion was a great concept and has been a success, but Actel realized that in order to target a wider swath of applications it needed to put more muscle behind the processor by hardening it and providing a full complement of standard peripherals.

“We feel pretty good about the fact that this is a sustainable, differentiated device that no one can go and quickly copy because we have invested so much in our flash process,” Kapusta said. SmartFusion can supply the Cortex-M3 with its own embedded flash memory, while an SRAM-based FPGA would require external flash memory, he added. The flash technology also enables high-voltage analog to co-exist with digital circuits on SmartFusion, he said.

Actel believes SmartFusion can appeal to a large market at the intersection of the FPGA, programmable analog and microcontroller markets. The company is targeting applications such as system and power management, motor control, industrial automation, displays and others across markets including industrial, military, medical, telecommunications, computing and storage.

Block diagram of SmartFusion (click on image to enlarge).

But Actel executives acknowledge that SmartFusion will require a learning curve, particularly for designers who are experienced with FPGAs but new to microcontrollers, and vice versa. The company is providing a design environment to support the devices with its Libero integrated design environment, as well as a free SoftConsole Eclipse-based IDE with GNU, as well as evaluation versions of software from Keil and IAR Systems.

The microcontroller subsystem within SmartFusion features a Cortex-M3 running at 100 megahertz, according to Actel. Included is up to 512 kilobytes of flash memory and 64 kilobytes of SRAM, the company said. Built on Actel's flashed-based ProASIC FPGA architecture and implemented in 130-nm CMOS, SmartFusion devices feature between 60,000 and 500,000 system gates, with 350 megahertz performance and up to 204 I/Os, the company said.

Actel said it has been sampling SmartFusion devices since September 2009 and has already engaged with dozens of customers. The first SmartFusion devices, A2F200, are now in volume production, Actel said. A2F500 devices are scheduled for delivery in the second quarter and AF060 devices are expected in the second half of the year, the company said. Evaluation kit priced at $99 and a full development kits for $999 are immediately available, Actel said.

Note that there's a panel taking place at the Embedded Systems Conference (April 27) that will debate the virtues of a standalone microprocessor verses an embedded solution.

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