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Undertow of Ubiquity

FPGAs Abound at ESC

Over the past few years, FPGAs have risen from a whisper to a roar at the Embedded Systems Conference. This year, at the newly re-relocated event (back in San Jose after a few-year foray up to San Francisco), there was barely a booth on the show floor without boards bearing FPGAs connected to cameras, displays, LEDs, remote-control cars, bins of bouncing balls, Dance Dance Revolution sensor pads, and even to the inner-workings of our old, remarkably destructive friend Cyclonebot’s 220-pound, half-inch-plate-titanium-clad frame.

Originally, FPGAs stealthily crept onto most embedded system boards wearing their innocuous “glue logic” disguise. In that role, they were barely noticed, flying in under the radar while mainstream embedded components like processors, peripherals and memory hogged the spotlight. Most embedded system designers handed off the FPGA part of the project to a junior engineer, who picked a programmable part almost at random and stuck it in between a bus and some primary pins with a simple program that compensated for differences in protocols between various connected components. Like killer viruses, the devices laid low, steadily improving their capability and integrating more and more functions from the board. Chips surrounding the FPGA started quietly disappearing in the night. Finally, the industry woke up and noticed that FPGAs had moved to center stage in most embedded system designs, challenging discrete processors for the starring role.

Many embedded designers were terrified. Previously, the typical embedded system board could be quickly assembled from off-the-shelf components by an electrical engineer with only modest experience. Design requiring dangerous levels of deep and detailed expertise (like the horror of hardware description languages) had always been safely segregated away in distant secret labs where high-end ASIC-based systems were carefully crafted by black-belt engineering savants with specialized skills. Now, custom logic design was staring the average system designer squarely in the face, and the prospects were scary. Synthesis, Simulation, Timing Analysis, and other vast and frightening unexplored wastelands loomed between embedded designers and success on their future projects. They panicked. They packed. They went to ESC.

Once there, for the most part, they found the usual vendors hawking typical wares. For the past few years, FPGAs hid in plain sight at ESC – staring back with sinister smiles from discrete locations – ever farther from the edge connectors on prop-house development boards brandished with bravado by hired-gun actors eloquently enunciating unfamiliar technical jargon from their makeshift stages during hourly booth performances. This year, however, they could conceal themselves no more. FPGAs are bigger, badder, right in the middle, and no longer camouflaged by groves of the miscellaneous discrete components they’ve systematically pushed toward extinction over the past decade. System designers saw them. They gasped. They gulped. They headed for the specialists’ booths.

Actel, Altera, Altium, Arrow, Avnet, Celoxica, Lattice, Mentor Graphics, National Instruments, Xilinx, and many others were waiting with open arms and order books to calmly guide the quivering neophytes through the stormy seas of their first FPGA-based system designs. “Want to stitch together a few peripherals on a standard bus? Just click here. Need to add PCI Express to your design? Grab this inexpensive development kit. Want an Ethernet MAC? Simply drag and drop this piece of pre-configured IP. Have some software you need to accelerate in hardware? Hand it to our tool. Everything will be A-OK.”

For this crowd, the great equalizer is the development board. This board is for developing high-performance video processing applications. That one is for industrial control systems. If a supplier has a development kit aimed at your application, the mixture of methodologies and devices all seems to melt away in the wash. The existence of the physical board is tangible. It proves that, at some level, the overall problem has been solved, and the solution has been made into something that you can hold in your hand. All you need to add is special sauce and software to sail away in your custom, value-added creation. The existence or non-existence of FPGAs on that board becomes a secondary concern. The fear is alleviated.

Celoxica has been successfully fighting the fears of FPGA-phobes for years now. They long ago discovered the placative powers of the development board. Celoxica offers a full line of FPGA-laden development platforms along with their powerful proprietary design software to help hardware neophytes achieve impressive results in real-world applications. Celoxica is the undisputed veteran of the FPGA-based “ESL” market. While most other companies in the space talk about theoretical gains from C-based hardware design or tout examples from one of a handful of early customers, Celoxica has years of experience and literally hundreds of customers who have created real, working, high-performance systems using their approach.

Celoxica’s strength is their C-to-FPGA synthesis, using either their own proprietary Handel-C dialect, or the more verbose and unwieldy-yet-semi-standardized SystemC. Celoxica has developed a large infrastructure around these tools based on extensive experience gained from their customer engagements. The result is an effective, end-to-end solution that can get top-notch results in applications like video processing systems without the penalty of a top-notch learning curve. This year, they’re pushing lower on the price chain with low-cost, entry-level design kits aimed at bringing new designers into the fold. Together with Altera, they also made a major announcement of an SOPC-Based Accelerator kit for embedded digital-image and signal-processing applications.

Also surfing the wave of FPGA-enabled performance with a drop-dead-easy interface is National Instruments. NI has long been known for their Lego-like modular instrumentation systems that allow you to build a pretty rugged version of just about anything electronic, right in your lab, by snapping together a few modules and popping off a few mouse clicks in their renowned LabVIEW software system. A few years ago, it seems, they discovered FPGAs. Now, you can do much, much more than before with their reconfigurable I/O (RIO) hardware module, and LabVIEW FPGA. The graphical drag-and-drop environment of LabVIEW FPGA allows you to create complex functions in hardware without learning the intricacies of FPGA development tools, and to interface those capabilities to just about anything you can plug into their RIO chassis. NI’s solutions are aimed at the custom instrumentation crowd, of course, but it doesn’t take super-power goggles to see that they’ve got a highly ruggedized reconfigurable development platform with an elegant, easy interface for programming it with a mixture of conventional software and FPGA-based hardware.

Australia-based Altium was up from down under for the show, packing in crowds with their new “Nanoboard 2” development board backed by a new version of their Altium Designer FPGA-based system design software. Like many of the other savvy players, Altium leads with a sexy, feature-laden board and brings up the rear with the real value – the FPGA design software. Altium aims at the board-based system designer with a full-featured tool suite that handles everything from FPGA design to embedded software development to printed circuit board layout. Altium’s turnkey system touts vendor independence, and the company points out that postponing critical decisions like which FPGA to use can often save a design team’s bacon by allowing a last-minute swap in case performance goals can’t be met, parts can’t be delivered on time, or a new device with better characteristics suddenly emerges on the scene.

Altium was debuting their own C-to-hardware capability at the show, aimed at allowing embedded software designers to easily fashion FPGA-based hardware accelerators for performance-critical routines by compiling them with a special version of their Viper compiler. By lowering both the financial and technical barriers to FPGA-based system design, Altium wants to help empower a new generation of fast-paced product designers in their efforts to get innovative ideas to market faster.

Of course, the FPGA vendors themselves were on hand, as were their distributors. In recent years, as FPGAs have become more important in embedded system designs, embedded system designers have become correspondingly more important to FPGA companies. (Funny how that works, isn’t it?) Altera was busy rolling out their own C-to-hardware compiler while Xilinx waved their flag over a new low-cost PCI Express development kit and a ChipScope debugging platform for high-speed serial design. All the while, Actel managed masses of attendees lined up to learn more about their new Fusion mixed-signal FPGAs with ARM7 processors inside.

At the end of the day, if you attended ESC as a system designer and didn’t notice the newly assertive role of FPGAs, you probably are either legally blind or in some kind of post-traumatic fear-induced denial. Don’t worry, the FPGA industry is here to help – “Get therapy. It’ll be OK. FPGAs can be your friend. Just send us a PO, and…”

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