Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) Explained

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What is Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC)?

ASIC or Application Specific Integrated Circuit refers to the specific silicon chip that is designed to do specific jobs, and, in fact, to perform a function repeatedly and most effectively.

This is much to the contrary of those processors that are designed for general purpose and to perform a seemingly infinite variety of operations. These general-purpose chips, such as the CPUs and the GPUs, are also not as efficient as the ASICs.

In short, the ASICs are powering and are changing the future of IT today for a better tomorrow creating a new wave of digital revolution through specialization in almost every field from blockchain to Machine Learning.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The Application Specific Integrated Circuit can perform repetitive functions most efficiently and does not need additional ICs for it.
  • The major types of ASICs available in the market are full custom, semi-custom, gate array, and programmable ASICs.
  • Advantages of using ASICs are its large number of circuits that allows using it in large and advanced systems and in high speed applications and its low power consumption. However, it is less flexible and expensive.
  • ASICs are used extensively today in different devices such as cell phones, satellites, voice recorders, Bitcoin miners and others.

Understanding Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC)

What is Application Specific Integrated Circuit

The Application Specific Integrated Circuits may not have as extensive application as the general purpose chips but is used today in several devices and in several places such as:

  • Public clouds
  • Private data centers and
  • Connected devices all over the world.

The highly specialized Application Specific Integrated Circuits are not like other devices because these are typically not like the standard integrated circuits.

Though the development work related to the ASICs started way back in the 1980s, it is now that you will see it changing the way that the electronic device systems are being designed, developed, manufactured, and marketed.

The most significant advantage of using an Application Specific Integrated Circuit is that the overall design of the chip can be incorporated into one single Integrated Circuit.

This reduces the number of additional ICs to be used.

The modern Application Specific Integrated Circuit chip design includes different aspects such as:

  • 32-bit processors
  • Memory blocks and
  • Several large building blocks.

Ideally, the modern Application Specific Integrated Circuit is also known as the SoC or a System on a Chip.

The design as well as the function of the Application Specific Integrated Circuit is pretty complex and that is why most of the designers of the digital ASICs utilize Hardware Description Languages or HDLs such as Verilog and VHDL to describe it.

Steps of ASIC Design

There are several steps involved in designing an Application Specific Integrated Circuit. Here they are along with a brief description of each of them:

  • Design Entry – This is the step in which the designer begins the process of designing the microarchitecture with the help of a text description or a system specific language such as C language or Hardware Description Language called HDL such as VHDL, Verilog and SystemVerilog.
  • Logic Synthesis – This step involves producing the netlist to be used that consists of the interconnection and the description of the logic cells to be used in the ASIC. Once again it is prepared by using HDL.
  • System Partitioning – This process involves dividing the large design into a smaller one so that the large sized die is made into ASIC sized portions.
  • Pre-layout Simulation – This process allows the designer to check whether or not the design is functioning correctly and to find out any errors contained in the design so that these can be rectified.
  • Floor Planning – This particular process involves creating a plan for the arrangement of the blocks in the netlist on the ASIC.
  • Placement – This refers to placing the different cells that are present in the block according to the predetermined locations.
  • Routing – This step refers to providing the required interconnections between the cells and the blocks.
  • Circuit Extraction – In this step the translation of the Integrated Circuit to the electrical circuit is made. It is typically done by taking the capacitance value as well as the resistance value of the interconnections into account.
  • Post layout Simulation – This is the final step and is just the opposite of the pre-layout simulation in which the ASIC designer checks the final layout before submitting the model for manufacturing. The system function is checked here in conjunction with a load of interconnect.

Types of ASIC Designs

Typically, you will find only three major types of Application Specific Integrated Circuits that are categorized according to their different designs. These are:

  • Full Custom ASIC design
  • Semi-Custom ASIC design and
  • Programmable ASIC design.

However, there are also other types of ASICs found as well, and a brief explanation of all those designs are given below for your knowledge.

Full Custom ASIC Design:

This particular design methodology is specifically useful for Integrated Circuits and is normally referred to as handcrafted design.

In the layout of the circuit there are different components placed such as:

  • The resistors
  • The transistors
  • The capacitors
  • Digital logic and
  • Analog circuits.

One of the most notable and simple examples of a full custom Integrated Circuit is a microprocessor.

The usual manufacturing time for a Full custom IC is about 8 weeks and the design is quite expensive.

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However, at the high price of it you will get a high return as well in the form of:

  • Maximized performance
  • Smaller size or area and
  • Higher degree of flexibility.

However, in spite of the above useful features, there are some risks of using a full custom Integrated Circuit.

This is mainly due to the fact that the entire design of it is not designed from the usual library elements that are normally used and are usually untested.

The design is also complex and needs specialized designers to make sure that its specific design application is just as intended.

Semi Custom ASIC Design:

The Semi-custom design is considered to be an alternative to the full custom ASIC designs. In this design the elements from a regular library are used.

This means that every logic cell in a semi custom ASIC design is pre-designed with only a few mask layers customized.

These cells from the standard libraries are more often than not designed by using full custom designs.

The most significant advantage of using such logic cells that are predesigned from the library is that it simplifies the designing process of the chip.

Typically, the semi custom ASICs can be further divided into two basic subgroups which are:

  • Standard Cell Based ASICs and
  • Gate Array Based ASICs.

The Standard Cell Based ASICs:

These types of ASICs are typically designed by using pre-designed logic cells. These include:

  • Logic gates
  • Multiplexers
  • Demultiplexers
  • Flip flops and others.

The predesigned logic cells used in the design are usually called the Standard Cells that come with flexible blocks commonly referred to as standard cell areas. In this particular ASIC design there are several rows of these standard cells.

The standard cell areas are created in the ASIC design by using a combination of larger standard cells such as the microcontrollers.

These larger standard cells are also known by different names such as:

  • Mega cells
  • Mega functions
  • Full custom blocks
  • System Level Macros
  • Fixed Blocks
  • System Level Macros or
  • Cores.

The die of the standard cell based ASICs are so designed that it provides interconnection of cells.

This is the most significant aspect of these ASICs that offers some significant benefits such as:

  • Money saving
  • Reduced time and
  • Lower risk level as compared to the full custom ASIC designs.

However, the disadvantages of using the standard cell based ASICs are its higher cost and longer time that it takes to fabricate the design and create the standard library.

Gate Array Based ASICs:

The gate array based ASIC chips are usually prefabricated silicon chips.

Normally, the gate array based ASIC designs are commonly referred to as the Masked Gate Array.

In these types of ASICs the logic gates, transistors, and all other dynamic devices are located at positions that are predefined and are usually made on a wafer.

This predefined pattern of these ASICs is typically referred to as the Base Array and the logic cell or element present in these particular types of ASICs are called the Base Cell.

The designer of the ASIC can choose the predesigned logic cells, which are also referred to as Macros, from the gate array library.

This makes it easier for them to design the ASIC and make it better in performance.

It also reduces the time and lowers the costs, which are some of the advantages offered by these types of ASICs in particular in comparison to the standard cell ASIC designs and even the full custom designs.

Usually, there are three major types of gate array based Application Specific Integrated Circuits.

These are:

  • Channeled Gate Arrays
  • Channelless Gate Arrays and
  • Structured Gate Array.

The major difference in the design of these three types is that in a channeled gate array, the predefining area for interconnect among the rows of cells are usually fixed in height but in a channelless gate array there is no such space available between the rows of cells.

On the other hand, in the structured gate array or the embedded gate array you will find a combination of the features of both the gate array based ASICs as well as the standard cell based ASICs.

Programmable ASICs:

These specific types of Application Specific Integrated Circuits are usually categorized into two further groups namely:

  • Programmable Logic Devices or PLDs and
  • Field Programmable Gate Arrays or FPGAs.

Programmable Logic Devices:

Often referred to as the PLDs, these signify those specific electronic devices that are typically used to make the reconfigurable circuits.

The most unique and useful features of the Programmable Logic Devices are:

  • Much faster turnaround time
  • Much larger programmable interconnect and
  • Absence of modified logic cells and mask layers.

Some of the most common examples of programmable Integrated Circuits are:

  • PAL or Programmable Array Logic
  • PLA or Programmable Logic Array
  • GAL ROM or Generic Array Logic Read Only memory
  • PROM or Programmable Read Only Memory
  • EPROM or Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory
  • EEPROM or Electrically Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory
  • UVPROM or Ultraviolet Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory and others.

Field Programmable Gate Arrays:

Commonly referred to as FPGAs, these are quite larger and more complex reconfigurable devices.

The exclusive feature of the Field Programmable Gate Arrays is that in here none of the mask layers is customized and it includes programming logic cells and interconnects.

Advantages and Disadvantages of ASIC

Just like any other product manufactured, the Application Specific Integrated Circuits also offer both advantages and disadvantages.

Some of the advantages of ASICs include:

  • Its small size which makes it a favored chip to be used in the large and advanced systems
  • Its high speed applications due to large number of circuits placed over one single chip
  • Its low power consumption
  • Its minimum routing requirement to connect different circuits since all of these circuits are placed side by side being a System on a Chip or SoC and
  • Its lack of post-production configuration and timing issues.
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And, as for the major downsides of the ASICs, those are:

  • Little or no flexibility for programming since these chips are already customized
  • High cost per chip because each of it needs to be created from scratch or the root level and
  • Bigger time to market margin.

Examples of ASIC

So, now that you know about the different characteristics of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits along with its functions and design aspects, it is time to take a look at some of the examples of different ASICs.

Some of the Standard Cell based ASICs are:

  • SIG 1, 2, 3 families of ABB Hafo Inc
  • LCB 300k and 500k from LSI Logic Company and
  • GCS90K from GCS Plessey.

Some of the Gate Array products are:

  • SCX6Bxx from National Semiconductors
  • AUA20K from Harris Semiconductor and
  • TGC/TEC families from Texas Instruments.

Some of the PLD products are:

  • GAL family from Philips Semiconductors
  • PAL family of Advanced Micro Devices or AMD and
  • XC7300 and EPLD from XILINX.

Some of the FPGA products are:

  • XC 2000, XC 3000, XC 4000, and XC 5000 series from XILINX
  • pASIC1 from QuickLogic and
  • MAX 5000 from Altera.

In addition to the above there are several other types of Application Specific Integrated Circuits available in the market that you can choose from.

However, make sure that you research their performance and functionality to ensure you get just what you want from it.

Risks Involved

In addition to the above disadvantages, if you intend to develop or use Application Specific Integrated Circuit hardware, you should also be well aware of the additional risks involved in it.

Since these chips are specifically built for one specific purpose, in spite of it doing the job superbly, the risk of buying or building it still remains especially if that particular purpose of building an Application Specific Integrated Circuit becomes obsolete in the future.

If you want to mitigate this particular risk, you can use the FPGAs, which are pretty similar to the Application Specific Integrated Circuits but are customizable.

This means that you will get the flexibility of reprogramming it later on as and when needed to handle other jobs in the future.

And, along with it you will also get the efficiencies and the benefits of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits at the same time without needing a lot of commitment to the fundamental function and logic.

Companies like Microsoft’s Bing, for example, have found huge success while trying to set up ASICs and FPGAs in one of their data centers.

This deployment improved the efficiency and speed of the search engine and along with it offered twice the improvement in the output.

This also resulted in a significant decrease in the network latency.

However, if you do not want to get into the additional hassles of creating and maintaining a team of efficient and professional people to work on the custom solutions or incur a larger expense, you can move to the cloud technologies.

It will allow you to rent space and machines from other organizations.

This is the best and safest move to start with and once the ASIC reliant cloud technology has proved to be able to retain power you can think of moving the capacity in-house.

Use of Application Specific Integrated Circuits

Application Specific Integrated Circuits have a lot of uses and applications due to its design and for its customized built to perform a specific function.

The ASICs has opened a lot of different options to the users and are now being used as special chips to run several devices including and not limited to:

  • Satellites
  • Cell phones
  • Bitcoin Miners
  • Voice recorders and lots more.

Usually, the ASICs are used on those products that have a larger production run and high volume.

This is because the cost of these chips is pretty high.

You can see the use of the ASIC technology in several fields today.

Some of the fields in which this technology is extensively used are:

  • Medical
  • Industrial and
  • Automotive sectors.

In the medical field, the applications of Application Specific Integrated Circuits can be seen to be used in products such as:

  • Biometric monitors
  • Hearing aids and more.

And, as for the industrial sector the use of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits are seen in products including and not limited to:

  • Micro Power 555 programmable timers
  • Thermal controllers
  • 8 bit microcontrollers and more.

Finally, in the automotive sectors, the Application Specific Integrated Circuits are used as and in several things such as:

You will also see the use of ASICs in security applications and several products related to it such as the RFID or Radio Frequency Identification tags.

As said earlier, the ASIC technology is empowering the future of IT to make it much better, faster, and more productive.

From that point of view, here are some other broad usages of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits.

Machine Learning:

Application Specific Integrated Circuits are used extensively for Machine Learning purposes. One of the most significant examples of such an ASIC is the TPU or Tensor Processing Unit of Google.

This particular ASIC is designed to run the primary deep learning algorithms within its TensorFlow Machine Learning framework.

Previously, Google used CPUs and GPUs for training the Machine Learning Models but once the new generation of TPUs was developed, it is now being used extensively to run as well as train the models.

For your information, TensorFlow is the open source Machine Learning library developed by Google that works best on TPUs as well as on the CPUs and GPUs both.

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Blockchain:

As you may know, the nature of the cryptocurrency blocks is to be discovered and validated by using different hashing algorithms by the users, called the crypto miners.

As more and more blocks are discovered, validated, and added to the chain, the level of difficulty goes up.

This increase in difficulty level means that the users need more computing power to stay in the race of mining new crypto coins.

This eventually results in using much more powerful computers for crypto mining, one that can be achieved only by using the Application Specific Integrated Circuits instead of the standard CPUs and GPUs.

For example, in the case of Bitcoin mining which was originally and easily done for about three/four years since its launch in 2009 by using CPUs and GPUs, it needed a high power Application Specific Integrated Circuit from 2013 onwards.

With the launch of the Bitcoin ASICs, SHA-256 hashing algorithms could be run easily, quickly, and more efficiently in comparison to the general purpose processors.

This made the regular CPUs and GPUs obsolete for Bitcoin mining functions in particular.

Today, the leading blockchain ASIC is Bitmain, which not only designs the Application Specific Integrated Circuit but also the hardware relevant to it. Bitmain is used in some of the largest data centers of the world today.

The company is also supposed to use its ASIC expertise in Artificial Intelligence or AI to enter the MLaaS or Machine Learning as a Service market and compete with companies like Google and AWS or Amazon Web Services.

IoT Devices:

The Application Specific Integrated Circuits are also powering the IoT or Internet of Things edge devices resulting in a digital upheaval in the circuitry of these devices.

The custom-built ASICs diminish the physical room on the chip and also have lower energy requirements to function.

Apart from that, the IoT kits connect to the different cloud platforms that themselves run on the Application Specific Integrated Circuits.

Some of these platforms are:

The IoT devices use the Application Specific Integrated Circuits to collect data with sensors and push them further into the current algorithmic models running on ASICs and based on the cloud.

It then sends back the alerts along with other outcomes to the end user from the model.

Alternatively, it may also feed the model simply to predict the future outcomes in a much better way.

Multi-cloud Scenarios:

As you may know, Enterprise IT typically powers almost everything from sporting events and social media to ATMs.

However, it is typically viewed as a multi-cloud setting which includes:

  • Private cloud
  • Public cloud and
  • Hardware on premises.

Typically, all modern digital businesses these days rely heavily on such an environment where the Application Specific Integrated Circuits sit either in the cloud or in the on-premises setting.

These ASICs are usually available via the MLaaS in the multi-cloud setting and several business organizations today use this technology.

Talking about the cloud, you may wonder about the future of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits in the multi-cloud setting.

Well, it is quite bright because these ASICs play a major role in powering and transforming digital data transmission especially in the data centers, whether it is private or public.

Therefore, if you are an IT savvy user then your concern should not be whether or not you should use the Application Specific Integrated Circuits or the Field Programmable Gate Arrays, because it is elementary that you use it today.

Rather, you should focus more on how exactly you can integrate this technology in the best possible way into the traditional CPUs and GPUs within a multi-cloud environment.

You should also consider how best you can manage the costs related to it, which is quite high as of now, through more beneficial production deployment life expectancy and software development.

Ideally, today, with the use of cloud on the rise, no one can take on the risks of technological obsolescence, and so you should not either.

In fact, not making the best use of the technological developments and the benefits offered by the Application Specific Integrated Circuits may prove to be a burden for you especially if your company is engaged in some way or the other with the digital economy.

It is true that developing or using the custom built Application Specific Integrated Circuits is costly and, as of now, it is only possible for the companies with cutting-edge technologies and well-funded projects to use.

However, it seems to be the only feasible and productive option for the digital companies that want to be the leaders or leave others in the market behind.

Therefore, with its useful design, you can expect to see an extensive use of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits in more and more products and fields in the near future.

However, for that the cost of the ASIC technology has to come down significantly from its current-high in the first place.

Conclusion

So, with all the details about Application Specific Integrated Circuits mentioned and explained in this article clearly and in an explicit way, now you surely know how this specific technology is useful and is changing the current world of computing for the better.