FPGA Prototyping - Build versus Buy Comparing Apples to Apples

2011.12.12 | Steve Pollock | VP, Marketing and Business Development

Sometimes we hear from customers that our off the shelf FPGA prototyping solutions are too expensive and that they can build the boards themselves at a lower cost.  If you take the bill of materials and add up the costs, it appears that you could save money by building the boards in-house.  But is this really the case?                            
We are all engineers and theoretically, given enough time and design resources, we can design anything.  The question that I always ask customers who are considering designing boards themselves is what is your end goal: designing a PCB or designing a SoC?  Where is your expertise: PCB design or SoC design?  Is it worth the risk of having your complex PCB not work versus buying a proven off the shelf solution?  What if your project complexity changes during the project?  Is your in-house solution flexible enough to scale to the new requirements?  What really saves your company money: potentially saving some money on FPGA boards or getting to market sooner with a proven and comprehensive solution?                          

To a chip designer, designing a PCB might seem trivial, but this is far from the truth.  Today's FPGA prototyping systems are very complex boards, often with over 20 layers of interconnect with on-board signals running at over 1 GHZ and I/Os running at 100 MHz or more.  Signals must be impedance matched to minimize skews.  There are complex clocking schemes to synchronize clocks between FPGAs on the same and different boards.  S2C has been developing FPGA prototyping systems since 2003.  We are currently developing our 5th generation solution.  Along the way, we have gained a lot of knowledge based on our experience and customer feedback.  Does your engineering team have that knowledge?                        

There is a lot more to a FPGA prototyping system than a FPGA board.  You need design software to map your design onto a board set up verification test points. Our Prodigy Player Pro does this for you.  You need the daughter cards and accessories to connect your FPGA prototype to the actual environment.  Do you want to transfer large quantities of data at high speeds between your verification environment and the FPGA prototype environment?  Our Verification Module (patent pending) technology does this for you.  Just plug in a verification module and use our customizable C-API.  Our growing family of over 50 different interface cards gives you off the shelf solutions to your interface requirements.

In summary  

  • Can you afford the time to develop the FPGA PCB?
  • Do you have the expertise and design tools to develop the FPGA PCB?
  • Does your company have sufficient resources to design a reliable system?
  • Can you afford the risk of your in-house designed PCB not working?   
  • Is your solution flexible enough to scale for the future?                          
  • Do you have sufficient daughter cards to support your design?                          

My advice to customers is to keep your eye on your end goal of getting to market early with the best SoC that you can develop.  Pick an FPGA prototyping partner with a broad portfolio of boards and accessories who can help you reach this goal.