Protection measures for FPGA designs

How do FPGA manufacturers protect their devices against counterfeiting and theft of IP? By Tony Storey, Applications Engineer, Digi-Key

The shift from vertical integration to a structure based on an extended third-party supply chain has improved cost effectiveness, but introduced risks for the electronics OEM.A particular risk due to this shift is the task of securing the Intellectual Property (IP) within a design.

Individuals, criminal networks and even governments are involved in attempts to unlock the secrets of electronics systems either for financial gain or to compromise systems for future tactical advantage. Pirates may offer near-identical counterfeits and sap profits; competitors may use your IP to kick-start their own efforts; and adversaries may use the information obtained from a system to cripple it when they see a chance.

The field-programmable gate array (FPGA) has become a key target in these attacks. FPGAs have now become widely used in systems that, previously, would have required hardwired ASICs or microcontrollers. Process technology improvements have increased gate counts into the millions; this makes it possible to build a complete system with an FPGA at the heart of it. Increasing logic density allows FPGAs to provide the processor as well as the custom logic for the bulk of the system. This transition to programmable solutions has changed the way in which engineers need to look at design security while protecting their organisation’s IP and reputation.

There are a number of ways in which design security can be compromised. One is reverse engineering. Determining the logical functions of a chip lets a pirate duplicate a system or to mix and match other functions to implement new systems being sold as more advanced products than the original. Both ASICs and FPGAs are vulnerable to this practice, but it is possible to use the FPGA’s features to make reverse engineering much more difficult for competitors.

The layout of an ASIC…

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