May 21, 2013, anysilicon
With the increased complexity of SoC designs, high tapeout prices and shrinking time-to-market, ASIC Prototyping has become a key step in ASIC projects. FPGA development boards are being used more often to verify ASIC design, test hardware and software integration, and provide a proof of concept demonstration to potential customers and investors.
For those who are not familiar with the term ASIC Prototyping (which sometimes referred as: ASIC emulation board), it’s simply a PCB using a number of FPGAs that emulate the final ASIC functionality. This allows ASIC designers to upload their RTL code into the FPGAs and verify the ASIC functionality in real time at clock speed with higher test coverage. The FPGA is typically surrounded by peripherals, memories and connectors, allowing it to interface with the real world and at the same time provide designers with testing and debugging capabilities.
There are two different approaches for obtaining an ASIC prototyping board – build it yourself, or purchase a board from a vendor. Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these methods and it all depends on your needs, resources and budget.
First, consider that fabricating an emulation board in low volume can be quite expensive. There is nothing PCB manufacturing and assembly companies hate more than producing 7 development boards for your next month’s demonstration. With production lines optimized for high volume production, you simply have to pay a “penalty” price for disturbing production.
Schedule is another issue. Whilst off-the-shelf FPGA prototype boards can be delivered in 2-4 weeks, homemade boards would probably take around 2 months to produce. For a relatively simple board you could assume: 3 weeks for hardware design, 2 weeks for layout, 2 weeks fabrication, 1 week assembly). Of course, if there’s a design bug, you’ll need a few more weeks. The advantage of course is that with the DIY method, you have maximum flexibility and can accommodate any design requirement.
Design resources are always a problem with ASIC prototyping. Is there anybody available in the company to take ownership for the task? If you’re no one is available, then a subcontractor should be hired, which will usually involve more time, and a larger budget.
Generally speaking, the market is divided into high performance boards, which are able to emulate very large SoC, and small, low cost boards aimed at the ASIC mixed signal market. The latter will most likely allow you to add the analog portion of the design as a daughter card to the main board.
Here are some of the key suppliers we are familiar with, which offer ASIC development boards in different sizes and configurations. Obviously this is a partial list, so feel free to add additional names.