A Sipeed Tang Nano 9k board on a Thinkpad keyboard, with an LCD panel attached to it

An Open Toolchain For Sipeed Tang Nano FPGAs

[Sevan Janiyan] shares their research on putting an open FPGA toolchain together. Specifically, this is an open toolchain for the Sipeed Nano Tang FPGAs, which are relatively cheap offerings by Sipeed from China. The official toolchain is proprietary and requires you to apply for a license that’s to be renewed every year. There’s a limited educational version you can use more freely, but of course, that’s not necessarily sufficient for comfortable work.

This toolchain relies on the apicula project, an effort to reverse-engineer, reimplement and document the Gowin FPGA bitstream format, as well as the gowin integration for nextpnr (an open tool for FPGA place-and-route). With a combination of yosys, apicula, nextpnr and openFPGAloader, [Sevan] put together a set of commands you can use to build gateware for your Nano Tang FPGAs – without any proprietary limitations blocking your way. They show a basic blinkie demo, and also a demo that successfully operates a parallel LCD connected to the board.

The availability of open toolchains for FPGAs has always been somewhat of a sore point. Wondering about open FPGA toolchains? This Supercon 2019 talk by Tim [Mithro] Ansell will get you up to speed!

We thank [feinfinger (sneezing)] for sharing this with us!

FPGA Starter Videos To Help Soften That Learning Curve

Digi-Key have been producing YouTube videos for a number of years now, and if you weren’t aware, they’re definitely worthy of some viewing time. The playlist we’re highlighting here is a pretty good introduction to FPGAs, specifically those supported by open source tools, with low cost hardware. If you’ve always wanted to get into hacking FPGA platforms, but don’t know where to start, this is going to be a big help. After first covering what an FPGA is and is not, and why you want to use one, [Shawn Hymel] dives in to the toolchain.

We’re really lucky that the bitstream for the Lattice iCE40 was reverse engineered by the super talented Claire (née Clifford) Wolf (AMP hour interview) which enabled the project ICEstorm toolchain to be created. Leveraging Yosys for synthesis and logic mapping, Icarus verilog coupled with GTKwave for simulation, netpnr for place and route and finally the project ICEstorm bitstream tools for packing into iCE40 format and loading onto the hardware. The whole toolchain flow is managed by APIO for simplicity, that is, provided your FPGA board is supported!

Of course, [Shawn] is using the low cost (for an FPGA) ICEStick by Lattice for this tutorial series, and they’re currently hard to get (you know why by now!) but, there are many other boards you could use. If you want to play with applications coupling a ARM micro to an FPGA, then the excellent BlackIce Mx is an option, but there are many other boards now with an decent micro nestled next to an FPGA and a few peripherals for convenience.

We should mention here, that project ICEstorm and the iCE40 is not the only show in town. Project Trellis has had our eye for a while, which targets the more complex Lattice ECP5 device. Yosys and friends do support more architectures, but the available flows usually require at least some vendor tool support at this time (looking straight at you, Xilinx) but as more devices get decoded, the open source tools will grow, and we will bring you that news!

What’s nice about this Digi-Key YT series, is that it doesn’t just cover the basic toolchain flow, then drop you in at the deep end of a big learning curve. There are videos covering subjects such as finite state machines (FSMs), test-benching and simulation, using embedded (block) memories, PLLs, harder subjects like dealing with metastability and clock-domain crossing (OK, he covers one technique – there’s more than one way to skin that particular cat) before finally looking at soft cores like the RISC-V. Lots to learn, and pretty well executed if you ask us! A Github version is available, for those who can’t stand watching the videos!

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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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