Icestorm Tools Roundup: Open Source FPGA Dev Guide

We like the ICE40 FPGA from Lattice for two reasons: there are cheap development boards like the Icestick available for it and there are open source tools. We’ve based several tutorials on the Icestorm toolchain and it works quite well. However, the open source tools don’t always expose everything that you see from commercial tools. You sometimes have to dig a little to find the right tool or option.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. I don’t need to learn yet another fancy IDE and we have plenty of good simulation tools, so why reinvent the wheel? However, if you are only using the basic workflow of Yosys, Arachne-pnr, icepack, and iceprog, you could be missing out on some of the most interesting features. Let’s take a deeper look.

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FPGA Design From Top to Bottom

[Roland Lutz] gave a talk about FPGA design using the free tools for Lattice devices at the MetaRheinMainChaosDays conference this year. You can see the video below. It’s a great introduction to FPGAs that covers both the lowest-level detail and some higher level insight. If you’re getting started with these FPGAs, this video is a must-see.

[Roland] starts with the obligatory introductory material. He then jumps into an actual example before zooming back out to look at the internal details of the Lattice FPGA. For instance, this FPGA supports multiple bitstreams, so you can switch between different “programs” on the fly.

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E-ink Display Driven DIY

E-ink displays are awesome. Humans spent centuries reading non-backlit devices, and frankly it’s a lot easier on the eyes. But have you looked into driving one of these critters yourself? It’s a nightmare. So chapeau! to [Julien] for his FPGA-based implementation that not only uses our favorite open-source FPGA toolchain, and serves as an open reference implementation for anyone else who’s interested.

Getting just black and white on an E-ink display is relatively easy — just hit the ink pixels with the same signal over and over until they give up. Greyscale is made by applying much more nuanced voltages because the pixels are somewhat state-dependent. If the desired endpoint is a 50% grey, for instance, you’d hit it with a different pulse train if the pixel were now white versus if it were now black. (Ever notice that your e-book screen periodically does a white-black flash? It’s resetting all the pixels to a known state.) And that’s not even taking into account the hassles with the various crazy voltages that E-ink displays require, which [Julien] wisely handed off to a dedicated chip.

In the end, the device has to make 20-50 passes through the screen for one user-visible refresh. [Julien] found that the usual microcontrollers just weren’t capable of the speed that he wanted, hence the FPGA and custom waveform tables. We’ve seen E-ink hacks before, and [Julien] is standing on the shoulders of giants, most notably those of [Petteri Aimonen] and [Sprite_tm]. [Julien]’s hack has the fastest updates we’ve ever seen.

We still can’t wait for the day that there is a general-purpose E-ink driver chip out there for pennies, because nearly every project we make with a backlit display would look better, and chew through the batteries slower, with E-ink. In the meantime, [Julien]’s FPGA implementation is pretty close, and it’s fully open.

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Lattice iCE40 FPGA Configured by Linux Kernel

The Linux kernel recently added support for loading firmware into an FPGA via the FPGA Manager Framework. [OpenTechLab] has built a driver for the Lattice iCE40 FPGA (same chip used on the iCEStick and other development boards). One attraction to the iCE40 is there is an open source toolchain called iCEStorm.

Even if you aren’t specifically interested in FPGAs, the discussion about Linux device drivers is good background. The principles would apply to other drivers, and would definitely apply if you want to write another FPGA loader.

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Give Your RPi a Cool FPGA Hat

Need additional, custom IO for your Raspberry Pi? Adding an FPGA is a logical way to expand your IO, and allow for high speed digital interfaces. [Eric Brombaugh]’s Icehat adds a Lattice iCE5LP4K-SG48 FPGA in a package that fits neatly on top of the Raspberry Pi Zero. It also provides a few LEDs and Digilent compatible PMOD connectors for adding peripherals. The FPGA costs about six bucks, so this is one cheap FPGA board.

The FPGA has one time programmable memory, but can also be programmed over SPI. This allows the host Pi to flash the FGPA with the latest bitstream at boot. Sadly, this particular device is not supported by the open source Icestorm toolchain. Instead, you’ll need Lattice’s iCEcube2 design software. Fortunately, this chip is supported by the free license.

Icehat is an open source hardware design, but also includes a software application for flashing a bitstream to the FPGA from the Pi and an example application to get you started. All the relevant sources can be found on Github, and the PCB is available on OSHPark.

While this isn’t the first pairing of a Raspberry Pi and FPGA we’ve seen, it is quite possibly the smallest, and can be built by hand at a low cost.

The Perfect Storm: Open ARM + FPGA Board

Playing around with FPGAs used to be a daunting prospect. You had to fork out a hundred bucks or so for a development kit, sign the Devil’s bargain to get your hands on a toolchain, and only then can you start learning. In the last few years, a number of forces have converged to bring the FPGA experience within the reach of even the cheapest and most principled open-source hacker.

[Ken Boak] and [Alan Wood] put together a no-nonsense FPGA board with the goal of getting the price under $30. They basically took a Lattice iCE40HX4K, an STMF103 ARM Cortex-M3 microcontroller, some SRAM, and put it all together on a single board.

The Lattice part is a natural choice because the IceStorm project created a full open-source toolchain for it. (Watch [Clifford Wolf]’s presentation). The ARM chip is there to load the bitstream into the FPGA on boot up, and also brings USB connectivity, ADC pins, and other peripherals into the mix. There’s enough RAM on board to get a lot done, and between the ARM and FPGA, there’s more GPIO pins than we can count.

Modeling an open processor core? Sure. High-speed digital signal capture? Why not. It even connects to a Raspberry Pi, so you could use the whole affair as a high-speed peripheral. With so much flexibility, there’s very little that you couldn’t do with this thing. The trick is going to be taming the beast. And that’s where you come in.

Icestudio: An Open Source Graphical FPGA Tool

If you’ve ever worked with FPGAs, you’ve dealt with the massive IDEs provided by the vendors. Xilinx’s ISE takes about 6 gigabytes, and Altera’s Quartus clocks in at over 10 gigs. That’s a lot of downloading proprietary software just to make an LED blink.

[Jesús Arroyo]’s Icestudio is a new, graphical tool that lets you generate Verilog code from block diagrams and run it on the Lattice Semi iCEstick development board. A drag and drop interface lets you connect IOs, logic gates, dividers, and other elements. Once your block diagram is ready, a single button press downloads the code to the iCEstick.

Under the hood, Icestudio uses IceStorm, which we’ve discussed on HaD in the past, including this great talk by [Clifford], Icestorm’s lead. For the GUI, Icestudio uses nw.js, which spits out JSON based on the block diagram. This JSON is converted into a Verilog file and a PCF file. The Verilog is used to create the logic on the FPGA, and the PCF is used to define the pin configuration for the device. Clicking on selected modules reveals the generated Verilog if you want to know what’s actually going on.

It’s experimental, but this looks like a neat way to get started on FPGAs without learning a new language or downloading many gigs of toolchains. We’re hoping Icestudio continues to grow into a useful tool for education and FPGA development. A demo follows after the break.

[Thanks to Nils for the tip!]

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