John East is a pioneer in the programmable logic industry, serving as Actel's president and CEO for nearly 20 years. Under his leadership, the company has achieved many milestones, including the world's first flash-based field-programmable gate array (FPGA) solutions; the industry's lowest-power FPGA family, IGLOO; and the first mixed-signal programmable system chip, Fusion. Started as an antifuse FPGA company, Actel has grown to offer a diverse portfolio of programmable product families and has expanded into consumer, automotive, military, industrial, networking and medical applications.
Over the past five years, Actel has emerged as a low-power leader in programmable-logic offerings by attacking power at both the chip and system levels. This focus on low-power devices and power-management solutions has enabled new classes of applications that are both cost efficient and environmentally responsible.
You have spoken publicly on the need for changes in the electronics industry relative to power consumption. What has prompted this concern?
Wasting nearly half of the power delivered to them and increasing the cost of power, desktop PCs are a perfect example of the need for low-power offerings. Unfortunately, the generation of the electricity required to power electronic systems contributes to a high proportion of the greenhouse gasses associated with global warming. Though environmentally friendly steps have been taken, such as lead-free initiatives and RoHS compliance, the electronics industry has not adequately addressed the power issue. And, whereas the presence of small quantities of lead in electronics devices does indeed present a problem, its scope is minimal compared to the disastrous effects that could come if we fail to control global warming.
Where do you see the biggest opportunity for today's low-power products to make a difference?
When designing a system, a power goal is set. Often, however, if the designer “approximately” meets this specification, little additional effort is expended to improve the design, leaving watts on the table. Because electronic systems are sold by the hundreds of millions, a few watts of inefficiency in each system eventually translates into staggering amounts of resources being consumed unnecessarily, which has a detrimental impact on the environment and the cost of running the system. Unfortunately, there is usually no easy way to track power down to the individual components or voltage rails, making the job of removing all unnecessary power from devices a difficult task. There is also rarely a way to measure voltages, currents and temperatures when the system is in operation, which complicates the ability to recognize when things are going badly. Thus, we need to attack power at both the chip and system levels and fully leverage available power-management solutions.
How can designers successfully employ this approach in today's designs?
As more vendors realize the environmental and business benefits associated with power-efficient solutions, we are starting to see a change in design approaches. For example, a mixed-signal programmable system chip can be used to intelligently control and reduce total power consumption in an overall system. By integrating elements of system management, such as flash, analog, microprocessors and clock management, a power-efficient device enables designers to remove parts from the board, reduce total power consumption and bill-of-materials costs, and enable sophisticated power management of the system. This can have a dramatic impact by significantly reducing the overall cost of running the system and on the associated greenhouse gasses.
What specific actions can the electronics industry take to “go green” and further environmental efforts?
Today, Actel and other companies are reducing energy usage across the power continuum to protect the environment, but we can do more. It is interesting to note that no EPA Energy Star guidelines exist for semiconductors to date. Though these semiconductor products contribute to the power efficiency and management of Energy Star-rated products, the industry has not yet supported an approach to benchmarking power efficiency for “low-power” ICs. Well-conceived requirements for semiconductors would enable boards, systems and end products to minimize energy consumption, improve power efficiency and reduce greenhouse gasses. We not only can do more, we must do more.