Altera reshapes embedded SoC offering with Cortex-A9

Altera reshapes embedded SoC offering with Cortex-A9

Richard Wilson

Tuesday 19 October 2010 10:59

Altera has made its play to turn the FPGA into a processor-based system-on-chip (SoC) device and it involves an ARM Cortex-A9 hardcore processor and a system-level FPGA design tool.
Making the FPGA into an embedded SoC device is something all FPGA suppliers are attempting to do.

The pre-requisite seems to be adding an ARM processor along with other peripheral functions to the FPGA’s programmable logic and I/O.

Altera is not the only FPGA supplier to integrate the Cortex-A9 MPCore, but its approach is to offer a number of processor options and to support this with an integrated design flow which it says will make it easier to design processors embedded in the FPGA.

“This marks a significant increase in our focus on the embedded systems market,” said Chris Balough, senior director of marketing at Altera.

The processor is the key element of using the FPGA as a system-on-chip device. Until quite recently FPGAs typically relied on lower performance soft core processors.
For Altera this was the Nios II processor. “30% of FPGAs shipped by us include a NIOS processor,” said Balough.
FPGA firms came to recognise that they needed the performance of a hard core processor and like other suppliers Altera turned to ARM.

Altera decided that it was not sufficient to offer the processor core, it also needed to support this with its design tools.
It has created a single design flow for FPGA and processor subsystems incorporating the new Qsys system-level tool.
“The single tool flow is a critical part of the embedded design process,” said Balough.
It also decided to offer different embedded processor options both hard core and soft.

So along with the ARM Cortex-A9 MPcore, the company will continue to support its NIOS II soft core processor and will also offer the higher performance the MIPS MP32 soft processor core.

There is also a possibility,

unconfirmed at this stage,

that Intel’s Atom E600 series processor could make a showing.

Altera has said that the new design flow,

which is based on its Quartus II software,

will support Cortex-A9 MPCore

and MIPS32

and the E600 series Atom processor.

Although Altera has no plans at present to offer the Atom processor in its FPGAs, the design tool support means the possibility remains.

“You can never say never,” said Balough.

The on-chip bus is critical to processor-based devices and for ARM this means the AMBA bus.

ARM has created the AMBA AXI4 bus which can be integrated into the FPGA fabric. Will Altera adopt the AMBA AXI4 bus? “We’d be fools not to,” said Balough.

Altera plans to integrate the Cortex-A9 processor into an as yet unspecified family of FPGAs fabbed on a 28nm process.

“More details will emerge next year,” said Balough.