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ASICs? Souped up FPGAs? You decide.

Rick Merritt had an interesting article over on EE Times a few weeks ago, and it’s a good springboard for any debate on whether FPGAs with cores for communications systems are replacing ASICs in the comms systems world.

Rick’s article came on the heels of an early March announcement from Xilinx in which they talked about new solutions that leverage their programmable FPGAs and ARM-based SoCs and are more flexible and less costly to develop than ASICs. Xilinx sees the action moving away from ASICs and towards FPGAs.

Altera also has lots of comms cores in its portfolio, and, not surprisingly, they’re equally adamant about seeing a shift from ASICs to FPGAs.

There’s some data that Rick cited in his piece that seems to support the Altera-Xilinx position:

International Data Corp reported total ASIC starts declined to 2,313 in 2011, down six percent from 2002 levels. In wired comms, the decline was nearly twice as steep to 442 ASICs in 2011, down 11 percent from 2002.

Weighing in on behalf of fully-integrated circuits, Rick noted that Cisco remains committed to developing ASICs, and the HiSilicon (Huawei’s silicon design division) is going strong.

Critical Link’s approach is, of course, more along the lines of what Altera and Xilinx do. We continue to see strong demand from application developers who don’t want to paint themselves into a corner with an expensive and extended ASIC development cycle, and who produce applications in volumes that are too small to justify that ASIC build (even if they were willing and able to forego the flexibility/customizability that you don’t get with an ASIC).

We’ll play Switzerland here and stay neutral: there’s room for both alternatives.

But I will say that the debate’s an interesting one!