Learning Verilog for FPGAs: Hardware at Last!

Getting into FPGA design isn’t a monolithic experience. You have to figure out a toolchain, learn how to think in hardware during the design, and translate that into working Verliog. The end goal is getting your work onto an actual piece of hardware, and that’s what this post is all about.

In the previous pair of installments in this series, you built a simple Verilog demonstration consisting of an adder and a few flip flop-based circuits. The simulations work, so now it is time to put the design into a real FPGA and see if it works in the real world. The FPGA board we’ll use is the Lattice iCEstick, an inexpensive ($22) board that fits into a USB socket.

Like most vendors, Lattice lets you download free tools that will work with the iCEstick. I had planned to use them. I didn’t. If you don’t want to hear me rant about the tools, feel free to skip down to the next heading.

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Learning Verilog for FPGAs: Flip Flops

Last time I talked about how to create an adder in Verilog with an eye to putting it into a Lattice iCEstick board. The adder is a combinatorial circuit and didn’t use a clock. This time, we’ll finish the demo design and add two clocked elements: a latch that remembers if the adder has ever generated a carry and also some counters to divide the 12 MHz clock down to a half-second pulse to blink some of the onboard LEDs.

Why Clocks?

Clocks are an important part of practical digital design. Suppose you have a two input AND gate. Then imagine both inputs go from zero to one, which should take the output from zero to one, also. On paper, that seems reasonable, but in real life, the two signals might not arrive at the same time. So there’s some small period of time where the output is “wrong.” For a single gate, this probably isn’t a big deal since the delay is probably minuscule. But the errors will add up and in a more complex circuit it would be easy to get glitches while the inputs to combinatorial gates change with different delays.

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Learning Verilog for FPGAs: The Tools and Building an Adder

Over the last year we’ve had several posts about the Lattice Semiconductor iCEstick which is shown below. The board looks like an overgrown USB stick with no case, but it is really an FPGA development board. The specs are modest and there is a limited amount of I/O, but the price (about $22, depending on where you shop) is right. I’ve wanted to do a Verilog walk through video series for awhile, and decided this would be the right target platform. You can experiment with a real FPGA without breaking the bank.

In reality, you can learn a lot about FPGAs without ever using real hardware. As you’ll see, a lot of FPGA development occurs with simulated FPGAs that run on your PC. But if you are like me, blinking a virtual LED just isn’t as exciting as making a real one glow. However, for the first two examples I cover you don’t need any hardware beyond your computer. If you want to get ready, you can order an iCEstick and maybe it’ll arrive before Part III of this series if published.

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Zynq and the OPL3 Music Synthesizer

We’re big fans of the Zynq, which is an answer to the question: what do you get when you cross a big ARM processor with a big FPGA? So it isn’t surprising that [GregTaylor’s] project to emulate the OPL3 FM Synthesis chip in an FPGA using the Zynq caught our eye.

The OPL3 (also known as the Yamaha YMF262) was a very common MIDI chip on older PC sound cards. If you had a Sound Blaster Pro or 16 board, you had an OPL3 chip in your PC. The OPL3 was responsible for a lot of the music you associate with vintage video games like Doom. [Greg] not only duplicated the chip’s functions, but also ported imfplay from DOS to run on the Zynq’s ARM processors so he could reproduce those old video game sounds.

The Zybo board that [Greg] uses includes an Analog Devices SSM2603 audio codec with dual 24-bit DACs and 256X oversampling. However, the interface to the codec is isolated in the code, so it ought to be possible to port the design to other hardware without much trouble.

To better match the original device’s sampling rate with the faster CODEC, this design runs at a slightly slower frequency than the OPL3, but thanks to the efficient FPGA logic, the new device can easily keep up with the 49.7 kHz sample rate.

Using an FPGA to emulate an OPL3 might seem to be overkill, but we’ve seen worse. If you prefer to do your synthesis old school, you can probably get a bulk price on 555 chips.

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Teach Yourself Verilog with this Tiny CPU Design

You probably couldn’t write a decent novel if you’d never read a novel. Learning to do something often involves studying what other people did before you. One problem with trying to learn new technology is finding something simple enough to start your studies.

[InfiniteNOP] wanted to get his feet wet writing CPUs and developed a simple 8-bit architecture that would be a good start for a classroom or self-study. It is a work in progress, so there may be a few bugs in it still to squash, but squashing bugs might be educational too. You can read the documentation in the HACKING file for details on the architecture. Briefly, the instruction’s top four bits encode the operation, while the last four bits select the register operands (there are four registers).

[InfiniteNOP] used the Xilinx tools to simulate and synthesize the CPU, but we thought it might be a good excuse to play with EDAPlayground. You can find a testbench that works with EDAPlayground, although you’ll probably want to update the CPU files to match the latest version.

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Learn FPGAs in your Browser

FPGAs aren’t really programmed, they are configured. Most designers use Verilog or VHDL to describe the desired circuit configuration. Developers typically simulate these configurations before committing them to silicon (a good habit, especially if you ever graduate from FPGAs to ASICs where changes are very expensive). That simulation takes a lot of software you have to install and learn, right?

Not necessarily. You can do e-mail, word processing, and PCB layout in your browser. Why not FPGA design? The EDAPlayground website provides two editor views: one for your main “code” and another for the testbench (the simulation driver you use to test your design). You can even open multiple files, if you have a complex design.

Once you’ve entered your Verilog or VHDL (or picked one of many examples) you can run the simulation and see the result right in your browser. No software to install, and–outside of actually learning VHDL or Verilog–not much learning curve.

As [Strauburn], [combinatorylogic], and others commented on our recent post about a VHDL CPU, you can do a lot of learning without ever having your hands on real hardware. The web site gives you access to several different tools (useful if you want to see how your code will behave on different tools) and also many standard verification libraries. There are limited synthesis tools, but honestly, if you want to go to real hardware, you are going to want the vendor tools for the specific FPGA you are using.

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An Open Source Toolchain For iCE40 FPGAs

FPGAs are great, but open source they are not. All the players in FPGA land have their own proprietary tools for creating bitstream files, and synthesizing the HDL of your choice for any FPGA usually means agreeing to terms and conditions that nobody reads.

After months of work, and based on the previous work of [Clifford Wolf] and [Mathias Lasser], [Cotton Seed] has released a fully open source Verilog to bitstream development tool chain for the Lattice iCE40LP with support for more devices in the works.

Last March, we saw the reverse engineering of the Lattice ICE40 bitstream, but this is a far cry from a robust, mature development platform. Along with Yosys, also written by [Clifford Wolf] it’s relatively simple to go from Verilog to an FPGA that runs your own code.

Video demo below, and there’s a ton of documentation over on the Project IceStorm project page. You can pick up the relevant dev board for about $22 as well.

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