Here's a tip for the next time you need to evaluate a new FPGA architecture or develop an application: Try an evaluation board or even a full-blown development kit. The basic resources these tools offer help chop away at product development time and cost.
Prices for basic starter kits range from about $50 to well over $2500. So, they're a good starting point for designers who are familiarizing themselves with an FPGA complex programmable logic device (CPLD) architecture and its capabilities. These tools also benefit designers who need a jumpstart in developing their application. Boards with multiple FPGAs and even full ASIC emulation systems are available for advanced development. Such boards typically range in price from a few thousand dollars to over $10,000.
Boards and kits come directly from FPGA suppliers like Actel, Altera, Atmel, Lattice, QuickLogic, and Xilinx. Distributors like Avnet and independent board and system suppliers like the Dini Group, GiDEL Ltd., Nallatech, SBS Technologies, and VMetro offer hardware tools that support the FPGAs.
Not to be overlooked is a host of CompactPCI CPU and support cards. Some of the suppliers of these cards target Advanced Telecommunications Architecture (ATCA) applications with boards that use multiple FPGAs. Such cards also could serve as development platforms for vertical market applications.
If you're new to the field and want some low-cost boards for insight into FPGA architecture and configuration techniques, try a starter development kit or budgetpriced evaluation board. These tools range from about $50 to about $400. They're usually pretty simple, containing the target FPGA or CPLD, a small breadboard area, a few indicators, and some connectors or tie points for I/O signals (Fig. 1).
Examples of these boards include the Twister card for the Altera Cyclone FPGA offered by Alearep B.V.; the LatticeEC evalution board standard version from Lattice Semiconductor; the Spartan 3 starter board from Xilinx partner Digilent; and Actel's Fusion starter kit. The many other low-cost evaluation and development boards on tap from FPGA suppliers and third-party vendors range from general-purpose platforms to application-targeted solutions.
The Twister card is optimized to explore the double-data-rate (DDR) synchronous DRAM interface available on the Altera Cyclone devices. For $349, the evaluation kit includes an EP1C6Q240C6 Cyclone FPGA and the DDR SDRAM controller core as a block of intellectual property (IP).
The latter can be loaded into the FPGA along with the rest of the logic you craft to evaluate the controller. The FPGA packs just under 6000 logic elements (about 120 kgates), 92 kbits of RAM, two phase-locked loops (PLLs), and up to 185 user I/O pins.
Supporting the Cyclone chip on the card are a 128-Mbit (8-Mword by 16-bit) DDR SDRAM, an 8-Mbit flash memory to hold configuration data, two daughterboard expansion interface headers (compatible with the Altera Nios proto headers), several user-configurable LED indicators and switches, an RS-232 serial port, and a JTAG test port. A preconfigured MAX-family CPLD on the board handles the configuration control functions. The card also ships with a DDR SDRAM reference design optimized to work with Altera's Nios configurable embedded processor.
Evaluation for $99? That's what the Digilent Spartan 3 starter board offers. This self-contained environment for the Xilinx Spartan 3 FPGA includes the XC3S200-FT256 Spartan 3 chip, 1 Mbyte of SRAM, 2 Mbits of configuration flash memory, eight slide switches, four pushbuttons, nine LEDs, and a four-digit seven-segment LED display. It additionally boasts three 40-pin expansion connectors, a serial port, a PS/2 mouse/keyboard port, and a VGA video port. The XC3S200 packs about 200 kgates, a dozen 18-bit multipliers, and 216 kbits of block RAM. Internal clock speeds reach 500 MHz.
To program the board, a JTAG3 programming cable as well as P4 and MultiPRO cables from Xilinx can tie the card to a PC or host system. The board is fully compatible with all versions of the Xilinx ISE tools, including the free WebPack version. Furthermore, it ships with the power supply and programming cable, so designs can be implemented with no hidden costs.
Unlike the Twister card, the Digilent card doesn't come with any IP or reference designs. Therefore, you'll need to develop the circuit functions or download the desired blocks of IP before you can configure the FPGA for evaluation.
Also ringing in at $99, the Lattice MachXO starter card comes replete with a download cable and power supply. Based around the LCMX0256C-4T100C FPGA, it includes status LEDs and eight I/O LEDs, an 8-bit input switch, a prototyping area, and a 33-MHz oscillator.
The FPGA is the smallest member of the MachXO family, packing just 256 lookup tables (LUTs), up to 78 configuable I/O lines, and 2 kbits of distributed RAM. To use the card, you must run the company's ispLEVER tool to fit your design to the FPGA and the ispVM software to download the configuration to the flash-based FPGA.
The more feature-rich MachXO standard evaluation board costs $229. A higher-density MachXO device, a configurable clock manager, and a larger prototyping area are some of the highlights. This board also uses the same software tools as the starter board.
Multiple boards, each with a different-density device, can support the LatticeEC family of FPGAs. At the low end, a $149 PCI card includes the LFEC6E-4F484C. For $175, the card comes with a larger LFEC20 (or ECP20) FPGA. The EC6 contains 768 programmable function units and four DSP blocks (16 18-bit multipliers), 92 kbits of embedded memory, 6.1 kbits of distributed RAM, two PLLs, and up to 224 I/O lines.
The EC20 boosts the number of programmable function units to 2464. It adds three more DSP blocks for a total of 28 18-bit multipliers. And, it ups the embedded memory to 424 kbits, the distributed memory to 79 kbits, the number of PLLs to four, and the I/O to 400 configurable pins.
Like the MachXO cards, the LatticeEC cards employ the same software tools. Yet unlike the standalone MachXO cards, the EC cards can plug into a PCI host system. As a result, they don't need a power adapter or programming cable. IP demo software in the form of preconfigured bitstreams can be downloaded from Lattice's Web site.
Actel enters the fray with a recently unveiled kit that supports the company's new Fusion family of mixed-signal FPGAs. The $350 Fusion Starter kit includes an evaluation board with an AFS600-FG256 Fusion FPGA. Integrated in the FG256 are 600 kgates of logic, 108 kbits of RAM, 4 Mbits of flash storage, 10 analog quads, 40 analog I/O lines, and 172 digital I/O lines.
Thanks to the evaluation board's onboard regulation, designers can independently set the I/O voltages to 1.5 or 3.3 V on each of two I/O banks. The board's high-brightness multicolor LED can be used to denote temperature changes and pulse-width-modulation (PWM) fan control by varying the brightness and color. With the 40-pin daughtercard header, users can add functionality or connect to a larger target system.
Another kit feature is Actel's Flash-Pro3. This portable, low-cost USB 2.0 in-system programmer draws its power from the USB connection. Software bundled in the kit consists of the Gold version of the company's Libero integrated design environment (IDE). A programming cable, power supply, documentation, and even sample designs are included as well.
Budget-priced development kits also support Actel's ProASIC3 flash-based FPGA family. The company's $349 evaluation kit comes with an A3P250 device directly soldered to the board. And then there's the $449 prototyping kit, a board that packs a 208-lead socket that can host various ProASIC3 family devices.
Slightly more expensive versions of the kits come with the larger A3PE600 device, also in a 208-lead package. The A3P250 packs 250 kgates, 36 kbits of RAM, a 1-kbit flash ROM, and 151 I/O lines. The larger A3PE600 offers 600 kgates, 108 kbits, the same 1-kbit flash ROM, and 15 I/O lines in the 208-pin package option.
The boards include an LCD display module, eight LEDs, and four switches. Two CAT5E RJ45 connectors demonstrate the FPGA's high-speed, low-voltage differential signaling (LVDS) capabilities. All of the kits come with the FlashPro3 programmer, Libero IDE, power supply, programming cable, and sample designs and documentation.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Of course, designers can opt for a wide variety of development kits that surpass the $500 price point. Typically falling within the $500 to $5000 range, they offer applicationspecific resources such as special connectors for testing multigigabit serial channels, higher-density FPGAs, and more robust on-board peripheral support to implement full system designs. Examples include QuickLogic's Mobile Application Board (MAB), Nallatech's PC104 cardstack, another QuickLogic board that supports the companys low-power FPGAs, and LatticeXP's Advanced development board (Fig. 2).
The QuickLogic MAB offers a $999 mobile application board (MAB) that ties into the Intel PXA27x processor developer's kit. Based around QuickLogic's Eclipse II QL8325 FPGA, the MAB card comes in two versions. One targets Wi-Fi applications, while the other bridges to hard-disk drives (HDDs). The QL8325 FPGA packs 320 kgates of configurable logic, 55 kbits of embedded RAM, and a dozen embedded computational units that contain 8-bit multipliers and 16-bit adders. Additional on-chip resources include four PLLs and 310 I/O lines.
Complete solution bundles for the Wi-Fi and HDD connectivity applications include the board, the FPGA, reference-design files, and software drivers for Windows CE, Windows Mobile, and Linux. The version of the board shown in Figure 2 includes a hard drive, two SD-card slots, a cardbus interface, and headers for accessing the FPGA's I/O pins. QuickLogic also offers development kits for its QuickMIPS and QuickPCI FPGAs.
The Advanced Evaluation Board for the LatticeXP family of flash-based FPGAs lets users quickly evaluate XPseries FPGA performance. It also aids in the development of custom system designs. At a cost of $1295, the board comes with an LFXP10C-4F388C FPGA soldered onto it.
The FPGAs are based on an optimized version of the LatticeEC logic fabric. They pack 1216 programmable function units (PFUs), 216 kbits of embedded RAM, 39 kbits of distributed RAM, four PLLs, and up to 244 I/O lines. The PFUs come in two variations—one with both logic and RAM-based LUTs, and the other with just logic elements. On the XP10C, about one-third of the PFUs includes the LUTs.
What's on the board? For starters, it offers a PCI interface, a DDR memory interface, a 10/100/1000 Ethernet physical layer (PHY) for network implementations, and a high-speed fast-column DRAM. Surface-mounted-assembly (SMA) connectors are included for external clock inputs, a clock oscillator, multiple power input options, and various LED indicators. A download cable and a wall-adapter power supply come bundled. In addition, the XP Advanced Evaluation board uses the same ispLEVER amd ispVM software tools as Lattice's other boards.
Lattice also recently released a development card for its just-announced SC system chip family of FPGAs. The card includes one of the larger chips in the family, the SC25, which comes in a 900-ball fine-pitch BGA package. The board is designed as a standalone platform for functional development and rapid prototyping of applications that will incorporate high-performance source-synchronous interfaces such as SFI-4, XSBI, SPI-4.2, and DDR2 SDRAM.
To help evaluate designs based around Xilinx's Virtex family, Nallatech's Ben-NUEY-PCI-104 computing card and companion DIME-II expansion modules permit designers to configure a complete system. The cards use the PCI-104 form factor. In addition to the Virtex II FPGA on the BenNUEY-PCI-104 card, FPGA modules containing Virtex II, Virtex II Pro, or Virtex 4 FPGAs can be incorporated to expand the logic capability.
The BenNUEY PCI-104 card includes a 32-bit/33-MHz PCI interface and three of the company's DIME-II expansion slots. It also features 8 Mbytes of zero-bus-turnaround (ZBT) SRAM, a 68-way backplate generalpurpose I/O connector, and the ZBT interface core IP.
The card can be stacked along with other PCI-104 cards that contain analog and digital I/O interfaces, memory subsystems, and other features to implement a complete system. Each of the DIME-II expansion modules can hold one or two Virtex FPGAs. Some also include analog I/O capabilities or additional SRAM or DRAM. A single BenNUEY-PCI-104 card and three DIME-II modules can support up to seven FPGAs.
In addition to the BenNUEY card, Nallatech offers two development kits that are optimized for DSP applications. One of the kits is based around the Xilinx Virtex 4 family, while the other suits Virtex II Pro devices. The XtremeDSP kit for the Virtex 4 family includes the XC4SX35-10FF668 FPGA, which packs approximately 35k logic cells (about 700 kgates), about 3.5 Mbits of embedded memory, 192 dedicated DSP blocks, and up to 448 I/O lines.
Along with the FPGA, the board packs two independent, high-speed, analog-to-digital converter (ADC) channels (14 bits at up to 105 Msamples/s); two independent, high-speed, digital-to-analog converter (DAC) channels (14 bits at up to 160 Msamples/s); two banks of ZBT SRAM (512 kwords by 32 bits/bank); a PCI 32-bit interface; and a USB 1.1 serial port. The kit also includes the company's FUSE software and the XtremeDSP development kit software CD.
THE HIGH END
Xilinx supports the Virtex family with multiple cards that focus on specific aspects of different Virtex 4 family members. For instance, the Virtex-4 ML450 targets source-synchronous interfaces. It goes for $2262. Several Virtex II family evaluation and prototype boards range in price from $899 to $1400.
Some Virtex II Pro development boards that include the XC2VP70 FPGAs cost about $4995. These boards aim at high-speed serial designs based on the RocketI/O multigigabit transceivers embedded in the FPGA. The VP70 FPGA includes two PowerPC CPU cores, over 30k logic cells, 2.4 Mbits of SRAM, 136 18-bit multipliers, and 44 I/O lines.
Another development card for the II Pro series, the XC2VP7, may seem on the light side with only 11k logic cells. Don't be fooled, though, as it includes a PowerPC core, 792 kbits of RAM, 44 18-bit multipliers, and 396 I/O lines with eight Rocket I/O transceivers capable of 3-Gbit/s data transfers.
If you don't need high-speed I/O support, the MP310 development platform for embedded-system applications may be a good choice. Listing for $2495, it's also based on the Virtex-II Pro XC2VP30 FPGA. Many third-party development-board suppliers support the Virtex II, II Pro, and 4 families. Visit Xilinx's Web site to check out the list of suppliers.
The Stratix II family of FPGAs from Altera also sports a broad array of development platforms. They range from less than $1000 for a Nios development kit using the Stratix platform to as much as $4995 for a version for high-speed PCI evaluation. Going further up the scale, a $7995 high-speed development kit is based around the high-performance Stratix II GX devices that integrate multi-gigabit I/O channels.
These boards include a wide array of resources to support design development. For example, the PCI kit features 256 Mbytes of 333-MHz DDR SDRAM, 64 Mbytes of boot-block flash memory, flexible clocking options, differential I/O ports at rates of up to 800 Mbits/s, and a reference design with Windows software drivers.
The GX-based development kit is based on the EP1SGX40G Stratix FPGA, which supports serializer/ deserializer interfaces ranging from 622 Mbits/s to 3.125 Gbits/s. A large array of on-board connectors supports the many high-speed I/O options that can be implemented by the FPGA. This will ease the development of systems that incorporate 1-, 2-, or 10-Gbit/s Fibre Channel interfaces; OC-12/STM-4 and OC-48/STM-16 Sonet/SDH standards; SPI-4.2 interfaces; and many other high-speed interfaces.
With the Lattice ispXPGA evaluation board, designers will better understand the ispXPGA nonvolatile but infinitely reprogrammable FPGAs. The board includes the largest FPGA family member, the ispXPGA 1200.
This FPGA offers about 1.2 million gates, 414 kbits of embedded memory, another 246 kbits of distributed RAM, 20 high-speed serial lines (sysHSI ports), and 496 user I/O lines. On the card are 20 SMA connectors for accessing the high-speed serial signals.
Lattice's programmable ispPAC chip manages power.
When one FPGA isn't enough, VME cards and CompactPCI cards can serve as development platforms, since they integrate multiple FPGAs (Fig. 3). For instance, multiple FPGAs populate the VMetro VPF1 card. It integrates dual PowerPC CPUs as well as two Virtex II Pro FPGAs. Designed to support the VXS backplane switch-fabric communications standard, the card can run DSP algorithms for radar, software-defined radios, and many other applications.
Nallatech's BenERA CompactPCI card employs a pair of Virtex-E FPGAs. The board supports four of the company's DIME-II expansion modules. Predesigned modules come with Virtex II, II Pro, and 4 FPGAs. Designers then can expand programmable-logic capacity by plugging in DIME-II modules.
Not to be outdone, the Dini Group just released its DN8000K10 ASIC prototyping engine. A single board supports up to 14 Virtex 4 LX family FPGAs and two Virtex 4 FX family FPGAs. The FPGAs are interconnected via source-synchronous LVDS that clocks at 350 MHz (700 Mbits/s). A fully configured board would provide designers with nearly 37 million total available gates (about 24 million ASIC gates assuming 60% utilization). The FPGAs include multi-gigabit transceivers in the RocketI/O data channels.
Among the multiple on-board user interfaces are USB and RS-232 ports. Four DDR2 small-outline dual-inline memory modules provide up to 8 Gbytes of external memory. Alternate pin-compatible memory modules with flash, synchronous SRAM, quad-datarate SRAMs, and other memory types also are available. The board can be ordered with two to 16 FPGAs preinstalled. Prices start at $22,000 for the two-FPGA card.
FPGA DEVELOPMENT BOARD VENDORS
Third--party development boards*
*Companies mentioned in the article. For a full list of third-party vendors for each FPGA vendor's chips, go to each of the FPGA vendor Web sites and look for development board/development hardware listings.