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The Tipping Point



Exactly 117 years ago this week, Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company. Ford didn’t invent cars, nor did Ford invent the manufacturing line. What Ford did do was to recognize the huge potential of blending an existing product (the car) which served a limited market with a new capability (the assembly line) to make it suitable for the masses. This was the tipping point that forever transformed the automotive industry.

The Benefits of Open Source…
Fast forward to 2020 – I believe we are at a similar moment in our industry. The Programmable Logic (FPGA/eFPGA) market is multi-billion dollars in size and expected to grow at a moderate pace of >7% per year over the coming five years. Another subset of the semiconductor market is the open source RISC-V IP, software and tools market – predicted to grow at nearly 7X that of the FPGA Market. That begs the question… “Why is an open source standard creating such a large market so quickly?”

We believe one key reason is that open source hardware and software enable flexibility and freedom. We should not mistake freedom for free, there are proven business models built on open source that benefit the user, the community and the companies that actively participate (e.g. Red Hat with Linux).

Open source FPGA tools have been around for a long time, being used primarily by hobbyists and in academia. Over the past few years, this situation has evolved, with an increasing number of new developers with software backgrounds gravitating towards open source FPGA development tools, including design teams at some of the largest companies in the electronics industry.

With companies like Google and Antmicro, as well as several universities, making significant contributions to them, these tools are only going to keep getting better. This active participation has improved the quality of results, user experience, and encouraged broader adoption. To see what the open source community has done without direct and active Programmable Logic company participation is nothing short of remarkable. And it makes one wonder what could be possible if Programmable Logic companies participated more actively. Building a sports car is so much more efficient and effective when the engine specifications are shared with the design teams.

Walled Gardens…
Since the inception of the Programmable Logic industry, the vendor-supported FPGA development tools have been proprietary and closed source. Initially this was simply because that is the way things were done – there were no open standards. But over time, keeping them closed and proprietary enabled a level of influence and control over users. If a designer liked your software, they tended not to change, and that implicitly makes your user base captive.

I would argue that the Programmable Logic industry, ourselves included, has been so busy rearranging the plants within the walled garden that we are ignoring the lush biosphere outside of it.

For reference, there were approximately 70,000 computer hardware engineers in the USA in 2016, anticipated to grow at 5.4% for the following ten years. On the other hand, there were over 800,000 software engineers in the USA in 2016, anticipated to grow by over 30% in the same period. That means there are more than 10X the number of software engineers than computer hardware engineers. The obvious question becomes, “how can we make hardware (FPGAs) more like software?”

QuickLogic Open Reconfigurable Computing (QORC) Initiative…
What started as a conversation with a Google open source visionary, transformed into an entire open source initiative for QuickLogic. Once we decided to take the leap into open source, we knew we needed our efforts to address much more than just FPGA tools. This was the thought process that led to the QuickLogic Open Reconfigurable Computing (QORC) initiative.

Our EOS S3 MCU + eFPGA SoC is a great ultra-low power device for embedded systems design, because it integrates two common hardware blocks often found in embedded systems – an MCU and an FPGA. It’s a platform that could, and should, appeal to both of the engineering groups I mentioned earlier – software AND hardware engineers. To achieve this, we need to ensure that 100% open source software supports BOTH the MCU and the FPGA.

As a result, under the QORC initiative, we collaborated with Google and Antmicro to develop the following:

• FPGA Development Flow: SymbiFlow – Open source tools for the optimization and automation of the FPGA design flow, from Verilog to synthesis (through the embedded Yosys synthesis tool) to place and route (through Verilog to Routing) to bitstream generation. These tools enable innovation by making FPGAs more accessible to a broader community.

• SoC Emulation: Renode – Antmicro’s Renode is an open source simulation framework for rapid prototyping, development and testing of multi-node systems. Utilizing Renode gives developers the flexibility to fully evaluate multiple development board applications.

• Real-Time Operating System (RTOS): Zephyr – The Zephyr RTOS is an open source, vendor-neutral, compact, real-time operating system running on the Arm® Cortex® M4F for connected, resource-constrained and embedded devices in applications that require security and safety

QuickFeather Development Kit – A small form factor, open source development board ideal for the next generation of low-power Machine Learning (ML) capable IoT devices

There is a reason why I started this blog with Ford Motor Company. Ford transformed the automotive industry by taking an existing technology/product, and changing the way it was built so that it could address a significantly larger market. Similarly, we believe that our products (EOS S3, FPGA and eFPGAs), brought to market in a very different way (with open source tools) will ignite a market that has yet to be tapped – one that has a potential user base 10X larger than the one we address today.

This month marks my 24th year in the Programmable Logic industry. For my entire career, during which I’ve seen so many Programmable Logic companies come and go, I’ve seen us use our software as the gate to the hardware inside our “walled garden”. Today I am proud to say we have opened the gates and are looking far beyond the walls.

I’m proud of what our team and our collaboration partners, Google and Antmicro, have accomplished in getting to the initial release today, and yet this is just the beginning. We’ll work together to push the industry past the tipping point and into a brave new world where open source tools for FPGA-enabled devices are the norm rather than the exception.

One thought on “The Tipping Point

  1. Thank you very much for the effort you took to look into the possibilities open source could give you as a FPGA company. Your text is pointing out importan aspects, and I hope, your vision will become true of a much faster growing market.

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