Mithro Runs Down Open Source FPGA Toolchains

Tim [Mithro] Ansell has a lot to tell you about the current state of open FPGA tooling: 115 slides in 25 minutes if you’re counting. His SymbiFlow project aims to be the GCC of FPGA toolchains: cross-platform, multi-platform, completely free, and all-encompassing. That means that it’s an umbrella framework for all of the work that everyone else is doing, from work on synthesis and verification tools, to placing and routing, to vendor-specific chip libraries. His talk catches you up with the state of the art at the end of 2019, and it’s embedded below. Spoiler alert: SymbiFlow has the big Xilinx 7-series FPGAs in its crosshairs, and is closing in. SymbiFlow is that close to getting a networked Linux system on the FPGA fabric in a Xilinx 7 today, completely independent of any vendor tools.

But let’s step back a sec for a little background. When you code for an FPGA, words you type get turned into a bitstream of ones and zeroes that flip perhaps a few million switches inside the chip. Going from a higher-level language to a bitstream is a lot like compiling normal programming languages, except with the twist that the resulting computational logic doesn’t map straight into a machine language, but rather into lower-level physical hardware on the FPGA. So “compilation” for FPGAs involves two steps: synthesis and place-and-routing. Synthesis takes the higher-level language that you write and turns it into a set of networks and timing requirements that represent the same logic, and can work across chip families. Yosys is the open-source synthesis tool of choice here.

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Tiny FPGA Board Fits In Your Laptop

There are a bunch of FPGA development boards to choose from, but how many will fit inside your laptop? The PicoEVB is a tiny board that connects to a M.2 slot and provides an evaluation platform for the Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA family.The PicoEVB Block Diagram

This minimalist board sports a few LEDs, a PCIe interface, an integrated debugger, on-board EEPROM, and some external connectors for hooking up other bits and pieces. The M.2 connector provides the board with power, USB for debugging, and PCIe for user applications.

A major selling point of this board is the PCIe interface. Most FPGA boards with PCIe will cost over a grand, and will only fit in a large desktop computer. The lower priced options use older FPGAs. The PicoEVB is tiny and retails for $219. Not a bad deal when the FPGA on-board costs nearly $100.

The PicoEVB is also open source. Design files and sample projects can be found on Github.

[Thanks to Adam Hunt for the tip!]