Getting Good at FPGAs: Real World Pipelining

Parallelism is your friend when working with FPGAs. In fact, it’s often the biggest benefit of choosing an FPGA. The dragons hiding in programmable logic usually involve timing — chaining together numerous logic gates certainly affects clock timing. Earlier, I looked at how to split up logic to take better advantage of parallelism inside an FPGA. Now I’m going to walk through a practical example by modeling some functions. Using Verilog with some fake delays we can show how it all works. You should follow along with a Verilog simulator, I’m using EDAPlayground which runs in your browser. The code for this entire article is been pre-loaded into the simulator.

If you’re used to C syntax, chances are good you’ll be able to read simple Verilog. If you already use Verilog mostly for synthesis, you may not be familiar with using it to model delays. That’s important here because the delay through gates is what motivates us to break up a lot of gates into a pipeline to start with. You use delays in test benches, but in that context they mostly just cause the simulator to pause a bit before introducing more stimulus. So it makes sense to start with a bit of background on delays.

Continue reading “Getting Good at FPGAs: Real World Pipelining”

Pipelining Digital Logic in FPGAs

When you first learn about digital logic, it probably seems like it is easy. You learn about AND and OR gates and figure that’s not very hard. However, going from a few basic gates to something like a CPU or another complex system is a whole different story. It is like going from “Hello World!” to writing an operating system. There’s a lot to understand before you can make that leap. In this set of articles, I want to talk about a way to organize more complex FPGA designs like CPUs using a technique called pipelining.

These days a complex digital logic system is likely to be on an FPGA. And part of the reason we can get fooled into thinking digital is simple is because of the modern FPGA tools. They hide a lot of complexity from you, which is great until they can’t do what you want and then you are stuck. A good example of that is where you are trying to hit a certain clock frequency. If you aren’t careful, you’ll get a complaint from the tool that you can’t meet timing constraints.

Continue reading “Pipelining Digital Logic in FPGAs”

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!]

Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go

When [Lawrence] showed us the Alice4 after Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend it wasn’t apparent how special the system was. The case is clean and white, adorned only with a big red button below a 7″ screen with a power switch around the back. When the switch is flicked the system boots to display a familiar animation and drops you at a menu. Poking around from here elicits a variety of self-contained graphics demos, some interactive. So this is a Raspberry Pi in a box playing videos, right? Not even close.

Often retro computing focuses on personal computer systems. When they were new the 8-bit graphics or intricate 2D sprites were state of the art, but now their appeal tends towards learning opportunities and the thrill of nostalgia. This may still be true of Alice4, the system [Brad, Lawrence, Mike, and Chris] put together to run Silicon Graphics (SGI) demos from the mid 1980’s but it’s not the whole story. [Lawrence] and [Brad] had both worked at SGI during its heyday and had fond memories of the graphics demos that shipped with those mammoth workstation. So they built Alice4 from the FPGA up to run those very same demos in real-time.

Thanks to Moore’s law, today’s embedded systems put yesterday’s powerhouses within reach. [Lawrence] and [Brad] found the old demo code in a ratty FTP server, and tailor-made Alice4’s software and hardware to run them natively. [Brad] wrote a libgl which implements the subset of the IrisGL API needed to support their selected set of demos. The libgl emits sets of triangles to the SDRAM where [Lawrence’s] HDL running on the onboard FPGA fetches them to interpolate color and depth and draw the result on-screen. Together they allow the $99 Altera Cyclone V development board at Alice4’s heart to run these state of the art demos in the palm of your hand.

Alice4 is open source and extensively documented. Peruse the archeology of reverse engineering the graphics API or the discussion of FIFO design in the FPGA. If those don’t sate your appetite check out a video of Alice4 in action after the break.

Continue reading “Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go”

Video of the Arduino FPGA Board Demo at Maker Faire

This week, Arduino announced a lot of new hardware including an exceptionally interesting FPGA development board aimed at anyone wanting to dip their toes into the seas of VHDL and developing with programmable logic. We think it’s the most interesting bit of hardware Arduino has released since their original dev board, and everyone is wondering what the hardware actually is, and what it can do.

This weekend at Maker Faire Bay Area, Arduino was out giving demos for all their wares, and yes, the Arduino MKR Vidor 4000 was on hand, being shown off in a working demo. We have a release date and a price. It’ll be out next month (June 2018) for about $60 USD.

But what about the hardware, and what can it do? From the original press releases, we couldn’t even tell how many LUTs this FPGA had. There were a lot of questions about the Mini PCIe connectors, and we didn’t know how this FPGA would be useful for high-performance computation like decoding video streams. Now we have the answers.

The FPGA on board the Arduino Vidor is an Altera Cyclone 10CL016. This chip has 16k logic elements, and 504 kB memory block. This is on the low end of Altera’s FPGA lineup, but it’s still no slouch. In the demo video below, it’s shown decoding video and identifying QR codes in real time. That’s pretty good for what is effectively a My First FPGA™ board.

Also on board the Vidor is a SAMD21 Cortex-M0+ microcontroller and a uBlox module housing an ESP-32 WiFi and Bluetooth module. This is a really great set of chips, and if you’re looking to get into FPGA development, this might just be the board for you. We haven’t yet seen the graphic editor that will be used to work with IP for the FPGA (for those who don’t care to write their own VHDL or Verilog), but we’re looking forward to the unveiling of that new software.

Parallel Programming for FPGAs

One of the best features of using FPGAs for a design is the inherent parallelism. Sure, you can write software to take advantage of multiple CPUs. But with an FPGA you can enjoy massive parallelism since all the pieces are just hardware. Every light switch in your house operates in parallel with the others. There’s a new edition of a book, titled Parallel Programming for FPGAs that explores that topic in depth and it is under the Creative Commons license. In particular, the book focuses on using Vivado HLS instead of the more traditional Verilog or VHDL.

HLS allows a designer to express a high-level algorithm in C, C++, or SystemC. Given a bit more information, HLS will convert that into an FPGA configuration. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can just cut and paste ordinary C code. HLS has several restrictions due to the fact that it is compiling to logic gates, not lines of code. Actually, it also generates Verilog or VHDL, but if you do it right, that should be transparent to you.

After the introduction, the book is more like a series of monographs on very specific topics, but the depth of each is very impressive. There’s plenty of DSP examples, of course. There’s also general math, so if you ever wondered how to compute a sine or cosine in an FPGA, read chapter 3.

Continue reading “Parallel Programming for FPGAs”

Arduino Just Introduced an FPGA Board, Announces Debugging and Better Software

Today ahead of the Bay Area Maker Faire, Arduino has announced a bevy of new boards that bring modern features and modern chips to the Arduino ecosystem.

Most ambitious of these new offerings is a board that combines a fast ARM microcontroller, WiFi, Bluetooth, and an FPGA. All this is wrapped in a package that provides Mini HDMI out and pins for a PCIe-Express slot. They’re calling it the Arduino MKR Vidor 4000.

Bringing an FPGA to the Arduino ecosystem is on the list of the most interesting advances in DIY electronics in recent memory, and there’s a lot to unpack here. FPGA development boards aren’t new. You can find crates of them hidden in the storage closet of any University’s electronics lab. If you want to buy an FPGA dev board, the Terasic DE10 is a good starter bundle, the iCEstick has an Open Source toolchain, and this one has pink soldermask. With the release of the MKR Vidor, the goal for Arduino isn’t just to release a board with an FPGA; the goal is to release a tool that allows anyone to use an FPGA.

The key to democratizing FPGA development is Arduino’s work with the Arduino Create ecosystem. Arduino Create is the company’s online IDE that gives everyone the ability to share projects and upload code with Over-the-Air updates. The MKR Vidor will launch with integration to the Arduino Create ecosystem that includes a visual editor to work with the pre-compiled IP for the FPGA. That’s not to say you can’t just plug your own VHDL into this board and get it working; that’s still possible. But Arduino would like to create a system where anyone can move blocks of IP around with a tool that’s easy for beginners.

A Facelift for the Uno WiFi

First up is the brand new Arduino Uno WiFi. While there have been other boards bearing the name ‘Arduino Uno WiFi’ over the years, a lot has changed in the world of tiny radio modules and 8-bit microcontrollers over the past few years. The new Arduino Uno WiFi is powered by a new 8-bit AVR, the ATMega4809. The ATMega4809 is a new part announced just a few months ago, and is just about what you would expect from the next-generation 8-bit Arduino; it runs at 20MHz, has 48 kB of Flash, 6 kB of SRAM, and it comes in a 48-pin package. The ATMega4809 is taking a few lattices of silicon out of Microchip’s playbook and adds Custom Configurable Logic. The CCL in the new ATMega is a peripheral that is kinda, sorta like a CPLD on chip. If you’ve ever had something that could be more easily done with logic gates than software, the CCL is the tool for the job.

But a new 8-bit microcontroller doesn’t make a WiFi-enabled Arduino. The wireless power behind the new Arduino comes from a custom ESP-32 based module from u-blox. There’s also a tiny crypto chip (Microchip’s ATECC508A) so the Uno WiFi will work with AWS. The Arduino Uno WiFi will be available this June.

But this isn’t the only announcement from the Arduino org today. They’ve been hard at work on some killer features for a while now, and now they’re finally ready for release. What’s the big news? Debuggers. Real debuggers for the Arduino that are easy to use. There are also new boards aimed at Arduino’s IoT strategy.

Continue reading “Arduino Just Introduced an FPGA Board, Announces Debugging and Better Software”