Combating obsolescence: FPGAs In electronic systems -

Combating obsolescence: FPGAs In electronic systems

Obsolescence is a constant, in life and engineering, but there are things we can do to postpone the inevitable.

Obsolescence is the fate of all systems, whether biological, mechanical, or electronic, and the most anyone can do to combat it is delay this outcome. For electronic systems, traits that combat obsolescence include flexible interfaces, the ability to operate across a range of existing or potential resource areas, and objectivity that doesn't focus on “single parts.”

It's more important to understand what a system is trying to do, rather than what it does. Keeping true to original intent allows for adaptation, delaying the need for evolution.

To survive, technology must be more generic and less specific. For example, most systems today are software-based, providing a layer of flexibility in their functions. Hardware has been less generic and adaptable, with application-specific parts in abundance. Even the microprocessor may be generic in function but its design is specific to its time and the ideas of its designers. This also means a systems designer is unable to deal with a large class of potentially fatal extinction events.

Fortunately, the emergence of large-scale programmable logic devices known as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) has brought true adaptability to electronic systems. Over the last three to five years, FPGAs have matured to sizes and capabilities that enable developers to use them in most areas of systems design. And with no fixed function, FPGA systems are completely adaptable.

FPGAs, like people, can work effectively in pretty much any environment. FPGAs may not be the most efficient at any one problem but they're generally the most adaptable choice for solving the greatest breadth of problems. This means they're less prone to extinction compared with other similar specialized technologies. FPGAs simply don't rely on one value chain to survive.

In the technology ecosystem, FPGAs have found a purpose, and that is to “lend” their survivability to host systems. The technology's use within products increases the host product's adaptability, improving the chance that the system will survive beyond the point where more traditional fixed-function products become obsolete.

FPGAs enable the function of a system to be held separate from its implementation. This, in turn, allows that function to remain true to its purpose, while the reconfigurable interfaces to the outside world adapt to changing circumstances. Increased complexity, and hence cost, of modern systems makes FPGA use not only desirable, but imperative.

Flexibility is truly the only way to combat obsolescence. The use of FPGA technology will give system designers the greatest chance to create electronic systems that still function and even flourish past their prime.

Allan Cantle , president and CEO of Nallatech, founded the company in 1993. Nallatech has emerged as a leading provider of high-performance computing systems.

Reader Response

FPGA's can also be used to overcome parts obsolescences on existing boards. I once designed an FPGA to replace a 40-pin dip part that was a Motorola 68K family member that was a VME interrupt controller. I took the parts data sheet which decribed its internal structure and interface requirements and duped them in a Xilinx part, which I then mounted on a small pcb which duped the 40-pin dip package. The final thing was a direct plug in replacement and surprise surprise, it actually worked better than the original since my software cohort told me that it cured a long standing bug they had never been able to eradicate. Made me feel proud!

–Don McCallum

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