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Startup To Release Cheap, Fast Programmable Chip

Velogix says its digital-signal FPGAs cost a third of what other programmable chips cost and are 10 times as powerful.

Not every IT shop needs supercomputing power, but what if they could get it for the price of a typical server? That's precisely the promise a 4-year-old company is hoping to deliver with a new field-programmable gate array, or FPGA.

Makers of computers and other devices have relied for years on application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, which are chips custom-designed for a specific purpose and user. But the average cost to develop an ASIC has rocketed to $10 million from $500,000 over the past decade as chip fabrication equipment has miniaturized. FPGAs to be released from Velogix as early as year's end don't require customization during the manufacturing process and will cost about $1,000.

All FPGAs are programmable, using languages such as C. Earlier versions basically strung together a CPU and a simple chip, with the CPU doing the heavy-duty processing. The new Velogix FPGAs are different: They do the number-crunching themselves.

Velogix says its digital-signal FPGAs cost a third of what other programmable chips cost and are 10 times as powerful--working at 100 billion operations per second. The technology will let companies deploy fewer, more efficient servers, which would in turn reduce the space needed to house servers and the electricity required to run them. "Think of this as a turbocharger for the computer," says Warren Miller, Velogix's senior director of marketing and business development.

Speed Freaks
And expect FPGAs to keep getting faster. SRC Computer CEO Jon Huppenthal sees FPGAs evolving more quickly than the speed dictated by Moore's Law, which holds that the computing power of microprocessors will double every 18 to 24 months. FPGAs' processing power could quadruple during the same period, says Huppenthal, whose company will use the Velogix chip in the next version of its reconfigurable computing system, the SRC-7.

Surgeons using medical imaging devices employing FPGAs from Velogix will be able to see pictures inside a body at videolike speeds, unlike current technology, which produces an image every few seconds.

But for business IT, the new FPGAs can be used in any application that requires intensive computing. Wall Street firms have expressed interest in using the chip in servers to run complex algorithms that can time market movements.

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