Parallax has embraced open source hardware by releasing the source code to its Propeller 1 processor (P8X32A). Designed by [Chip Gracey] and released in 2006, the 32-bit octal core Propeller has built up a loyal fan base. Many of those fans have created development tools for the Propeller, from libraries to language ports. [Ken, Chip], and the entire Parallax team have decided to pay it forward by releasing the entire source to the Propeller.
The source code is in Verilog and released under GNU General Public License v3.0. Parallax has done much more than drop 8-year-old files out in the wild. All the configuration files necessary to implement the design on an Altera Cyclone IV using either of two different target boards have also been included. The DE0-Nano is the low-cost option. The Altera DE2-115 dev board is more expensive, but it also can run the upcoming Propeller 2 design.
The release also includes sources for the mask ROM used for booting, running cogs, and the SPIN interpreter. [Chip] originally released this code in 2008. The files contain references to PNut, the Propeller’s original code name.
We’re excited to see Parallax taking this step, and can’t wait to see what sort of modifications the community comes up with. Not an Altera fan? No problem – just grab the source code, your favorite FPGA tools, and go for it! Starved for memory? Just add some more. 8 cogs not enough? Bump it up to 16. The only limits are the your imagination and the resources of your target device.
Interested in hacking on a real Propeller? If you’re in Las Vegas, you’re in luck. A Propeller is included on each of the nearly 14,000 badges going to DEFCON 22 attendees. While you’re there, keep an eye out for Mike and The Hackaday Hat!
There is a wide assortment of cheap development (dev) boards for Complex Programmable Logic Devices (CPLD), the smaller cousin of the Field Programmable Logic Array (FPLA)
Using an inexpensive board and the development software that’s free to download from the major programmable companies such as Xilinx and Altera, the only additional thing needed is a programmer module. Cheap ones are available on Ebay but I am hoping that someone takes the time to teach an ARM/Arduino to step in as a programmer.
I have a small collection of dev boards including some Ebay specials and also designs I did a few years ago to choose from. For today I am grabbing a newer board that has not been fully checked out yet; an Altera Max V device. I have stuffed the CPLD, the clock oscillator, some LED’s and part of the onboard power supply along with the JTAG header needed to program the CPLD and that’s about it.
The guys over at hackshed have been busy. [Carl] is making programmable logic design easy with an 8 part CPLD tutorial. Programmable logic devices are one of the most versatile hardware building blocks available to hackers. They also can have a steep learning curve. Cheap Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) are plentiful, but can have intricate power requirements. Most modern programmable logic designs are created in a Hardware Description Language (HDL) such as VHDL or Verilog. Now you’ve got a new type of device, a new language, an entirely new programming paradigm, and a complex IDE to learn all at once. It’s no wonder FPGAs have sent more than one beginner running for the hills.
The tutorial cuts the learning curve down in several ways. [Carl] is using Complex Programmable Logic Devices (CPLD). At the 40,000 foot level, CPLDs and FPGAs do the same thing – they act as re-configurable logic. FPGAs generally do not store their configuration – it has to be loaded from an external FLASH, EEPROM, or connected processor. CPLDs do store their configuration, so they’re ready as soon as they power up. As a general rule, FPGAs contain more configurable logic than CPLDs. This allows for larger designs to be instantiated with FPGAs. Don’t knock CPLDs though. CPLDs have plenty of room for big designs, like generating VGA signals.
[Carl] also is designing with schematic capture in his tutorial. With the schematic capture method, digital logic schematics are drawn just as they would be in Eagle or KiCad. This is generally considered an “old school” method of design capture. A few lines of VHDL or Verilog code can replace some rather complex schematics. [Carl's] simple designs don’t need that sort of power though. Going the schematic capture route eliminates the need to learn VHDL or Verilog.
[Carl's] tutorial starts with installing Altera’s Quartus II software. He then takes the student through the “hardware hello world” – blinking an LED. By the time the tutorial is done, the user will learn how to create a 4 bit adder and a 4 bit subtractor. With all that under your belt, you’re ready to jump into big designs – like building a retrocomputer.
Designing a computer from scratch is one of the holy grails of hardware design. For programmable logic, designing your own processor is a huge accomplishment. That’s exactly what [zhemao] has done. He created EZ8, an 8 bit processor is written in Verilog. EZ8 has a 3 stage pipeline, which makes design very interesting. Instruction set pipelines have been used in processors for many years. They speed up operation by allowing the processor to execute more than one instruction in parallel. The idea is similar to washing, drying and folding laundry. Most people pipeline their laundry. One load is in the washer, another in the dryer, and a third is being folded. Pipelines aren’t a free lunch though – there are hazards. If one instruction requires the result of an instruction which is still being executed in parallel, there’s a problem. In our laundry analogy this would be like having one sock on the folding table while its mate is still in the dryer. The folding operation must wait for the drying operation to complete before the socks can be paired. This is exactly how assemblers handle the situation – they insert NOPs between known hazard instructions.
[zhemao] didn’t just give us a processor and no support though. He also included an assembler written in OCaml, and an emulator written in C. Several test assembly programs are also up on [zhemao's] github repo to verify operation. [zhemao] has tested his processor with Altera Cyclone 5 series FPGAs, but it should be possible to port it to other FPGA manufacturers. If you want more information, [zhemao] also has a discussion going on in the ECE subreddit.
Flip-flops are extremely simple electronic circuits, forming the basis of clock circuits, memory circuits, buffers, and shift registers. Through his dilly-dallying with digital logic, [Jeffrey] decided he would build his own. Not with Verilog or VHDL, though, but Migen: the Python-based way to build digital circuits with software.
Migen is an interesting tool that makes traditional FPGA programming a lot easier; instead of Verilog or VHDL, Migen allows an FPGA to be programmed in Python. Yes, it’s the tool you’ve been waiting for, and the tutorials make it look pretty easy. After installing Migen, [Jeff] wrote a class for a D flip-flop in only three lines of code. That’s three readable lines of code, and he was able to simulate the flip-flop with gtkwave in another two lines. Compared to learning the complexities of VHDL or Verilog, Migen makes digital logic and FPGA programming a breeze.
[Jeff] has a great tutorial for building a D flip-flop with Migen, but we’d love to see some more complex examples of what can be done with this very cool tool. If you’re building (or have built) something with Migen, be sure to send it in and relate your experiences.
[Dave] noted that in a recent poll of FPGA developers, emacs was far and away the most popular VHDL and Verilog editor. There are a few reasons for this – namely, emacs comes with packages for editing your HDL of choice. For those of us not wanting to install (and learn) the emacs operating system, [Dave] got Notepad++ to work with these packages.
Notepad++ already has VHDL and Verilog highlighting along with other advanced text editor features, but [Dave] wanted templates, automated declarations and beautification. To do this, he used the FingerText to store code as snippets and call them up at the wave of a finger.
As [Dave] writes his code, the component declarations constantly need to be updated, and with the help of a Perl script [Dave] can update them with the click of a hotkey. Beautification is a harder nut to crack, as Notepad++ doesn’t even have a VHDL or Verilog beautifier plugin. This was accomplished by installing emacs and running the beautification process as a batch script. Nobody can have it all, but we’re thinking [Dave]‘s method of getting away from emacs is pretty neat.
If you’ve ever wanted to jump into the world of FPGAs but don’t want to learn yet another language, you can now program an FPGA with Python. PyCPU converts very, very simple Python code into either VHDL or Verilog. From this, a hardware description can be uploaded to an FPGA.
The portion of the Python language supported by PyCPU is extremely minimal, with only ints being the only built-in data type supported. Of course ifs and whiles are still included along with all the assignments and operators. A new addition is a way to get digital IO access with Python, and obvious requirement if you’re going to be programming Silicon.
PyCPU surely won’t replace VHDL or Verilog anytime soon, but if you’re looking to get into FPGAs and the ‘telling a chip what to be’ paradigm it offers, it’s certainly a tool worth looking into.
Hats off to [hardsoftlucid] for sending this in. Our wonderful (we mean that, really) noticed a few mistakes when this was first posted. Those mistakes have been corrected.