Justin Kennington on AV Supply Chain Using FPGA vs. ASIC Chips

Supply Chain
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We talk a lot about SDVoE (opens in new tab) being sustainable, flexible, and available. These days, availability might be the rarest and most valuable of those attributes. After all, AV professionals cannot do their job without installation equipment.

Justin Kennington, President, SDVoE Alliance

SDVoE Alliance President, Justin Kennington

(Image credit: SDVoE)

"Many of the industry’s most prominent manufacturers are failing to meet their customers’ demands due to component shortages. It’s challenging for them to obtain the chips needed to build products."

SDVoE products are widely available, while many proprietary AV-over-IP products are back-ordered for over a year. Many of the industry’s most prominent manufacturers are failing to meet their customers’ demands due to component shortages. It’s challenging for them to obtain the chips needed to build products. Why?

Every electronic device has one main chip that delivers the product’s functionality: the CPU. It’s in every laptop or cell phone, the system-on-chip in a television, the microcontroller in a toaster, or the CODEC engine inside an AV-over-IP encoder. Surrounded by resistors, capacitors, power supplies, and other components, this central device completes the product.

As you can imagine, today’s consumer demands have accelerated the need for semiconductors. In 2021, the global semiconductor industry shipped a record 1.15 trillion semiconductors (opens in new tab).

These core devices come in three primary flavors, including CPUs, FPGAs, and ASICs. The type of device used has a massive impact on availability. Let’s start by understanding these devices.

The CPU

The most familiar device is a CPU. It is at the heart of the PC or mobile device. A CPU, or central processing unit, is a hardware device that executes a series of predefined instructions. The instructions are wide-ranging and allow a CPU to perform any computational task possible. A CPU can also change tasks virtually instantaneously. Although, the overhead of running pre-defined instructions means that a CPU (yes, even your blisteringly powerful 24-core monster) is relatively slow and power-hungry compared to the other chips. For this reason, AV-over-IP streaming on a CPU is relatively new and rather rudimentary, though it is possible and likely to gain popularity over the long term.

The FPGA

An FPGA, or field-programmable gate array, shares some of the flexibility of a CPU, but achieves this in a vastly different way. An FPGA is programmable hardware, which means it does not run instructions. Instead, the programmer re-shapes the hardware to perform a specific task. An FPGA can be programmed to perform any computational task with very high performance. It can only change tasks by being reprogrammed. The extra transistors that make the FPGA incredibly flexible add cost and power consumption to the package. FPGAs are great for high-performance applications, but volumes are relatively low.

The ASIC

An ASIC, or application–specific integrated circuit, is optimized to compute one single function or a set of functions. It does nothing except what it was initially built to do, and that’s all it will ever do. It performs with the highest performance, lowest power consumption, and lowest per-device cost possible.

Why would anyone use anything else? Well, sometimes, the flexibility of a CPU is essential. For a minute, imagine a PC that could only run Microsoft Word. Additionally, developing a single ASIC costs $10 million or more. They’re very cheap after the first one, though.

AV Supply Chain

Now, how does this impact the AV supply chain? As mentioned above, FPGAs are a great choice when the cost of developing an ASIC is not justifiable. For a single AV manufacturer, it is impossible to justify spending $10 million upfront to develop an ASIC. Instead, using an FPGA makes a lot of sense. Manufacturers pay more per unit but practically nothing upfront. Performance is good and the power consumption issues, fans, and special PoE adapters become something that’s widely accepted. The business model works, but only in the pre-pandemic world when all chips are easy to source all of the time.

Currently, the entire semiconductor supply is in a crunch as the market for complex chips, such as microcontrollers, microprocessors, and FPGAs does not have enough supply to meet today’s growing demand. Due to their flexibility, FPGAs are important to all electronics manufacturing industries – not only professional AV. Now that these chips are limited, they are being rationed to the highest-volume customers. An example is the automotive industry chip shortage. Who do you think gets to the front of the line for FPGAs? DVI Gear or General Motors? This is said with love and respect to DVI Gear, who doesn’t have this problem! For specific FPGA devices, customers report an average lead time of 52 weeks or one year. Does that figure sound familiar?

On the other hand, ASIC devices are built to perform one single function, limiting customers for a particular device. Who needs an AV-over-IP-only chip? Pro AV manufacturers only!

Today, SDVoE is powered by the BlueRiver ASIC (opens in new tab) from Semtech, a Steering Member of the SDVoE Alliance. A BlueRiver ASIC combines AV processing, encoding/decoding, and network connectivity onto a single chip, which interfaces to the SDVoE API in a standardized way – regardless of who integrates the ASIC into their product. The combination of BlueRiver ASIC and SDVoE API gives SDVoE products natural interoperability.

The chip is limited to the pro AV environment, demand is easier to predict, and it has not been subject to the significant shocks seen in other electronics industries (or, more pertinently, in the combination of other electronics industries). A BlueRiver ASIC is available and shipping today to companies across the community.

The flexibility, availability, and sustainability of BlueRiver ASIC are exactly why SDVoE members have products in stock and ready to ship. As a result, the SDVoE Alliance is poised to support a global customer base with a flexible ASIC solution to meet customer delivery demands amid ongoing supply chain disruptions.