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​Hardware? Software? Flex Logix hopes for best of both worlds

By making chip designs themselves a little bit programmable, a Silicon Valley startup expects benefits like quicker network upgrades and better search engine performance.

Flex Logix logo

In most of the computing industry, there are two ways of getting electronic brains to think: hardware that's fast or software that's flexible. A startup called Flex Logix Technologies, though, hopes to profit by offering the best of both those worlds.

In personal computers and smartphones, chip hardware provides a foundation on which software runs. The hardware design is fast but fixed, often years before a product comes to market, while software like operating systems or apps can be easily changed. This division of labor has served the computing industry well, but Flex Logix thinks it's time to ease the distinction a little.

In short, Flex Logix hopes to make a little bit of chips themselves programmable. The company doesn't create its own chips, but instead licenses its technology to chipmakers that can embed Flex Logix hardware into their own designs.

This isn't something average people will buy, but it is something that could directly help them. For example, wireless networks could get speed upgrades sooner, or Internet services like search engines could be upgraded with new features.

"This will become over time a mainstream technology," promises Flex Logix Chief Executive Geoff Tate. "This isn't a niche. It's not like we talked to 50 customers and found three that were interested. We talked to 50 customers and two thirds told us this is great."

If Flex Logix delivers what it promises, many customers should be interested, said Richard Wawrzyniak, an analyst with Semico Research. "It is interesting to see this technology come on the market because it can solve a lot of problems for a lot of people if done the right way," he said.

Flex Logix is small, with just three employees so far, but Tate is a big name in the industry. He founded Rambus in 1990, licensing chip memory technology to big names like Nintendo and later Intel.

That memory-licensing business eventually devolved into a series of ugly patent battles, so this time Tate is aiming for competitive technology rather than aggressive lawyers.

"As I learned at Rambus, patents aren't a force field that keeps the Klingons out," Tate said. "You only win if you stay better than the other guys."

New take on an old tech

This view shows how Flex Logix chip technology combines processing circuitry (RBBs, short for read-configurable building blocks) with memory for data storage and input-output (I/O) for communicating with the rest of a processor.
This view shows how Flex Logix chip technology combines processing circuitry (RBBs, short for read-configurable building blocks) with memory for data storage and input-output (I/O) for communicating with the rest of a processor. Flex Logix

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has a new take on an old technology called field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These are chips that can be reprogrammed to do any sort of computing job, making chip hardware as mutable as software, and companies like Altera and Xilinx have built big FPGA businesses.

FPGAs' flexibility comes at a cost, though: they're big and expensive for what they do, and typically show up in niche applications like high-end network devices.

The Flex Logix engineers -- Cheng Wang, who's vice president of engineering, and Fang-Li Yuan, who's principal hardware designer -- think they came up with a better way to build FPGAs that uses significantly less chip circuitry and thus dramatically lowers costs. But competing directly against the FPGA powers would be tough, so Flex Logix decided instead to license its technology in small, inexpensive doses, Tate said.

How much will it cost? Adding a midrange amount of Flex Logix to a chip is only about 15 cents per chip, including both the licensing cost and the extra square millimeter of chip area that must be manufactured. Tate thinks that's cheap enough to be compelling for a lot of customers.

And what kinds of customers? Those who need computing processes to run fast in hardware, not slower in software, but won't know until the last minute exactly what those software processes are. For example, a company with network products might want to support a new communication technology, but the chip design must be finalized before the new communication technology is standardized. "Missing a product cycle can mean millions in lost revenue," Tate said.

Wawrzyniak, though, is cautious.

"Common sense would tell you that if it was deemed to be really important, somebody would have already done it," Wawrzyniak said of Flex Logix's hybrid approach. It seems technological difficulties and performance constraints dampened enthusiasm, he said. "This is not a new concept and has been tried before, but no one has ever really gotten it right."

Data center boost

Flex Logix believes its programmable FPGA chip technology requires a lot less chip surface area than rivals' designs, making chips less expensive to manufacture.
Flex Logix believes its programmable FPGA chip technology requires a lot less chip surface area than rivals' designs, making chips less expensive to manufacture. Flex Logix

FPGA approaches have the potential to spread to one of the most competitive parts of the computing industry, too: the mammoth data centers packed with servers that power the services of companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple. There, hardware acceleration of a chore that otherwise would run in software can make a huge difference.

For example, Microsoft in 2014 disclosed a research project that uses FPGAs to speed up its Bing search service by 95 percent.

"We do see the possibility of some microprocessors integrating our technology," Tate said. "The area it could happen soonest is for data center processors."

Flex Logix measures its processing technology by tallying elements called lookup tables (LUTs) that define how a particular chunk of logic behaves. It's got two basic designs to start with, one with 100 LUTs and one with 2,500 LUTs. Those elements can be tiled together for more processing capability, though. The biggest size is a seven-by-seven grid with 122,500 LUTs, Tate said.

Flex Logix doesn't actually have any customers, but Tate expects that to change soon. Last week, the company got its first prototype chips back from chip foundry TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.), which builds chips for a wide range of customers, including Apple. Once the design is validated to work as advertised, customers will start building in the Flex Logix technology.

"The first of them should be in 2016," Tate said.

Rambus recipe

Flex Logix has a tiny team so far and venture-capital funding in the low single-digit millions of dollars. But that's how Tate got started with Rambus, too, and it's a formula he likes.

"Most of the money is still in the bank," Tate said. Venture capitalists are willing to sink in tens of millions more, but Tate hopes it won't be needed. Rambus' $7 million in funding was enough to carry it to profitability in six years, Tate said.

"If you have the right people you can make a lot of progress on the small amount of money."