FPGA Clocks for Software Developers (or Anyone)

It used to be that designing hardware required schematics and designing software required code. Sure, a lot of people could jump back and forth, but it was clearly a different discipline. Today, a lot of substantial digital design occurs using a hardware description language (HDL) like Verilog or VHDL. These look like software, but as we’ve pointed out many times, it isn’t really the same. [Zipcpu] has a really clear blog post that explains how it is different and why.

[Zipcpu] notes something we’ve seen all too often on the web. Some neophytes will write sequential code using Verilog or VHDL as if it was a conventional programming language. Code like that may even simulate. However, the resulting hardware will — at best — be very inefficient and at worst will not even work.

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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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The Oldland CPU 32-bit FPGA Core

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) let you program any logic you’d like onto a chip. You write your logic using a hardware description language, then flash it to the FPGA. You can even design your own processor and flash it to the chip.

That’s exactly what [jamieiles] has done with the Oldland CPU. It’s an open source 32 bit CPU core that you can synthesize for use on an FPGA. Not only can you browse through all the Verilog code in the Github repo, but there’s also a bunch of tools for working with this CPU core.

Included with the package is oldland-rtlsim, which lets you simulate the processor on a PC. The oldland-debug tool lets you connect to the processor for programming and debugging over JTAG. Finally, there’s a GNU toolchain port that lets you build C code for the device.

Going one step futher, [jamieiles] built a full SoC around the Oldland core. This has SPI, UART, timers, and more features you’d expect to find in a microcontroller. It can be flashed to the relatively cheap Terasic DE0-Nano board.

[jamieiles] has also ported u-boot to the processor, and the next thing on the list is the Linux kernel. If you’ve ever been interested in how CPUs actually work, this is a neat project to look through. If you want more open source CPU cores, check out OpenCores.

Editing your FPGA source

[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.

MyHDL Python programming option for FPGA

MyHDL is a Python module that brings FPGA programming into the Python environment. [Christopher Felton] tipped us off about a simple tutorial he just finished that gives an overview of how the module is used.

You may remember hearing about PyCPU a couple days ago which can run very simple Python code on a FPGA. There was a healthy discussion in the comments section comparing PyCPU and MyHDL. Although they may seem similar at first, the two are quite different. PyCPU creates a processor on the FPGA chip which can execute a small range of Python code. MyHDL actually implements Hardware Description Language in the Python environment. Once you’re used HDL to model your hardware choices in a Python script, it is converted to VHDL then fed to the toolchain and pushed to the chip like normal.

This is not an absolute beginner’s experience. But if you’re well-versed in Python it makes the jump to HDL a lot easier because you’ll be working with syntax that is already familiar to you.