FPGA hardware technology will continue to improve across the spectrum this year. Actel’s Igloo Nano FPGAs are available for under $0.50 (Fig. 1), while Achronix will be shipping 1.5-GHz Speedster (Fig. 2) parts. Altera, Lattice Semiconductor, and Xilinx will be pushing the limits of their product lines as well, but it is the year of FPGA software.
This software includes development tools as well as intellectual property (IP). Designing with FPGAs will continue to be a challenge but one that should get significantly easier this year, making FPGAs the platform of choice for a wider range of developers and applications.
SOFTWARE MAKES THE FPGA FONDER • FPGA hardware vendors have their own design tools. These tools have improved steadily, but design requirements are changing. More systems are being developed using soft-core processors and off-the-shelf IP.
Soft-core processors now show up in more than half of all designs, with multicore solutions becoming more prevalent. This means that designs also incorporate software application code in addition to the processor core, standard processor peripherals, and any custom IP.
The selection and integration of the first two will be significantly easier this year, opening FPGA system design to developers more used to software and system design than VHDL design. The vendors are well aware of this trend and are finally delivering the tools that can make it happen.
One software platform that keeps cropping up in this arena is Eclipse—yes, the same open-source platform that started in the enterprise realm and has taken over the embedded space. The migration to Eclipse from proprietary platforms has been slow, but native hosting of FPGA tools and complementary application software development tools will be available on a single environment.
FPGA hardware vendors won’t be the only source of design tool improvements. Tools such as National Instruments’ LabVIEW (Fig. 3) and Altium’s Designer will also target FPGA developers with new features. Altium’s Designer is one of the few tools that target chips from multiple vendors. Likewise, LabVIEW’s ability to transform dataflow applications into FPGA IP will be harder to ignore as more designers discover this FPGA development gem.
STANDARDIZATION HELPS ADOPTION • Soft-core processors can be designed by anyone, but creating an infrastructure that includes peripheral support, software development tools, and a group of developers that understand the core is a challenge. Platforms such as Xilinx’s MicroBlaze and Altera’s NIOS grew out of the necessity of having more than an 8051 core. Both have a large following, making them de facto standards.
Still, capturing the interest of software developers often means providing more familiar platforms. ARM’s Cortex-M1 and Freescale’s ColdFire soft-core processors provide compatibility with microcontroller platforms. Additionally, both have been around long enough to challenge soft-core-only platforms like the MicroBlaze and NIOS.
Achronix • www.achronix.com
Improved integration of these microcontroller soft cores with the FPGA design tools will make FPGAs a more practical platform for designers who never considered FPGAs as an embedded target.
INTEGATING IP • IP delivered as a standalone unit remains a common approach to third-party IP products. However, leaving the integration chores to the developer requires a developer with a good deal of FPGA design expertise. It is often why IP vendors provide integration and design services. In fact, vendors have been tuning their tools to make this IP integration chore easier, but this year should be a game changer for the industry.
Later this year, we should hear about tools that will allow better automatic integration of IP selected from a menu as well as the ability for third parties to provide front ends to developers. This means developers may not even need to deal with the FPGA tools directly. This will be especially useful for software developers that want the flexibility of an FPGA but without the need to deal with FPGA development tools.
There will be more reasons to use FPGAs this year than ever before. Low power, lower prices, small package sizes, and higher performance are just a few.