32C3: A Free and Open Source Verilog-to-Bitstream Flow for iCE40 FPGAs

[Clifford] presented a fully open-source toolchain for programming FPGAs. If you don’t think that this is an impressive piece of work, you don’t really understand FPGAs.

The toolchain, or “flow” as the FPGA kids like to call it, consists of three parts: Project IceStorm, a low-level tool that can build the bitstreams that flip individual bits inside the FPGA, Arachne-pnr, a place-and-route tool that turns a symbolic netlist into the physical stuff that IceStorm needs, and Yosys which synthesizes Verilog code into the netlists needed by Arachne. [Clifford] developed both IceStorm and Yosys, so he knows what he’s talking about.

What’s most impressive is that FPGAs aren’t the only target for this flow. Because it’s all open source and modifiable, it has also been used for designing custom ASICs, good to know when you’re in need of your own custom silicon. [Clifford]’s main focus in Yosys is on formal verification — making sure that the FPGA will behave as intended in the Verilog code. A fully open-source toolchain makes working on this task possible.

If you’ve been following along with [Al Williams]’s FPGA posts, either this introduction or his more recent intermediate series that are also based on the relatively cheap Lattice iCEStick development kit, this video is a must-watch. It’s a fantastic introduction to the cutting-edge in free FPGA tools.

Reverse Engineering Lattice’s iCE40 FPGA Bitstream

Unlike microcontroller projects, projects involving FPGAs cannot yet claim to rely on a mature open-source toolchain. Each FPGA will, at some point, need to be configured with a proprietary bitstream produced from a closed source synthesis tool. This lack of a full FPGA toolchain to take your project from Verilog-or-VHDL to an uploadable bitstream is due to many reasons. First, writing such a “compiler” is complicated. It involves intimate knowledge of the resources available on the FPGA that can assimilate the functionality of the intended design. Second, the entire synthesis procedure is closed-source, a “secret sauce” of sorts for each FPGA vendor.

In response, [Alex] and [Clifford] have taken the first step towards an open-source toolchain for one FPGA; they’ve reverse-engineered the bitstream of Latttice Semiconductor’s iCE40 FPGA. The duo didn’t just pick the iCE40 on a whim. This choice was deliberately because that FPGA is available on a development board for a mere $22 so that others could follow in their footsteps without breaking the bank.

In the video below, [Clifford] demos the functionality of this new tool by synthesizing a design from Verilog to a bitstream and then back from a bitstream to Verilog. Given this feature, a staggering amount of work has been done towards developing a polished open-source toolchain for this particular FGPA.

To snag a copy of the latest code, have a look at its documentation page.

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