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Celebrating one year of disruptive content: ipXchange’s top 5 picks for FPGA innovations

This week marks the anniversary of Eamon’s very first article for ipXchange, so let’s celebrate with a rundown of the top 5 innovations that ipXchange has discovered in the big-name-dominated field of FPGAs.

Love them, or not willing to touch them with a stick, FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) are an important part of many systems that require specific functionality beyond that which can be provided by standard MCUs and other off-the-shelf devices. The internal logic reconfigurability makes FPGAs one of the most versatile components one can encounter, but this comes with quite the learning curve for those unfamiliar with programming them and/or integrating them into a complete electronic system.

That said, working with FPGAs does not have to be as difficult as it might seem, so here are our top-5 picks for the FPGA innovations we think you should know about. They may not all be FPGA devices specifically, but they are certainly things worth considering when using them.

-> This list only covers devices that ipXchange has written about. Since we’ve written about nearly 200 devices so far, of which FPGAs make up a very small proportion, we apologise if we have missed something that should have made the list.
-> ipXchange has only included items that we believe to be readily available to engineers at the time of writing from companies willing to engage in one-on-one conversation with engineers to help them solve their design challenges.

Let’s start with some ready-to-use FPGA solutions where you can get started immediately without having to worry about learning to program these devices from scratch:

Digilent’s Eclypse Z7 development board is designed with high-speed instrumentation, measurement, and control application prototyping in mind. This platform is built around a Xilinx Zynq-7020, which features a Cortex-A9 processor and an FPGA with 13,300 logic slices and 220 DSP slices, and a platform MCU for configuration of adjustable power supplies and temperature management. Along with a wealth of peripherals, including two 12-pin Pmod ports, the key feature of the Eclypse Z7 is a pair of Digilent’s open-source Zmod expansion ports. Users can use these to connect their own custom hardware options with the board’s high-speed I/Os or plug in Digilent’s ready-made 2-channel Scope, AWG, or Digitizer modules for immediate measurement and analysis at up to 125 Msps.

Digilent’s Eclypse Z7 is a great place to get started with your FPGA journey, with the benefits of immediate usability for creating commercial projects using industry-standard Xilinx devices – Learn more

Red Pitaya’s boards take the Eclypse Z7’s Xilinx Zynq FPGA offerings and turns it up to the next level for a module that is designed for full integration within your embedded product. Built as an FPGA-enhanced Single-Board Linux Computer (Linux SBC), Red Pitayas grant their users immediate (i.e. out-of-the-box) access to a wide range of test-and-measurement tools that include oscilloscopes, signal generators, spectrum analysers, LCR meters, bode analysers, logic analysers, and vector network analysers with 2-input, 2-output connectivity via SMA or direct interfacing to your hardware design; another, more specialist Red Pitaya is available as a 4-input device with a larger FPGA if your application requires it. While the Red Pitaya forgoes the P- and Zmod connections of Digilent’s Eclypse Z7, all these I/Os are provided as connections to the board, so users get the same full use of that Xilinx FPGA and measurements at 125 Msps.

For those unfamiliar with FPGA and Linux programming, a Red Pitaya serves as a pocket-sized test-and-measurement tool with almost everything you could want in your lab. For more experienced designers, it can become a Linux-based test-and-measurement heart in applications ranging from software defined radio, to drone-mounted ground-penetrating radar, to air quality analysis aboard the International Space Station. Given these use cases, we at ipXchange see the Red Pitaya as an absolutely must-know product for any designer or researcher, and it should not be underestimated because of its ease of immediate use – Learn more

Now, let’s assume you’re familiar with programming FPGAs. Here are some solutions that will help you integrate FPGAs into your design with the sound knowledge that they will work well and be secure against attacks.

AnDAPT’s custom programmable PMICs are designed with FPGA operation in mind. For those unfamiliar with the technology, many FPGAs require several different power rails in order to operate, and these rails must be switched on in a precise sequence to prevent damage to the device. This means that as well as requiring another level of expertise to program FPGAs, one must also have access to a hardware engineer that knows how to integrate them. AnDAPT aims to solve this problem with their programmable PMICs, and, as expected, they have created devices to serve Xilinx’s industry-leading devices. A pair of AnDAPT’s PMICs can serve the 26 power-supply rails required by a single Xilinx Zynq UltraScale+ MPSoC, but this is not the biggest innovation regarding AnDAPTs solution.

Due to the complex board layout required to deliver power to an FPGA, time-consuming redesigns are a given when switching-out FPGAs due to shortages, discontinuation, or second-source cost cutting. Since AnDAPTs PMICs are reprogrammable, this is no longer the case. So long as you can fit a new FPGA in place of the old one, AnDAPTs PMICs can be reconfigured to serve the new device with minimal or zero changes to your board layout or bill of materials. AnDAPT also makes solutions for Intel, Microchip, and custom-requirement FPGAs, so if you work with FPGAs often, AnDAPT are a company that could save you a lot of design time and cost. For those new to the FPGA game, they could also be a valuable partner for smaller teams that do not have the time or resources to do complex FPGA power designs themselves – Learn more

Intrinsic ID is a security solution that every embedded designer needs to know about. While their discovery is usually talked about in terms of SRAM, the same principle applies to the logic slices within FPGAs, so here’s the jist of what Intrinsic ID offers:

During the power-on phase, every single FPGA device will have a unique, repeatable order in which the logic slices initialise, due to the inherent sub-micron imperfections in the silicon structure, created during the manufacturing process. This can be used to create a Physically Unclonable Function (PUF) or ‘silicon fingerprint’ for the device that serves as a unique root-of-trust for cryptographic key generation that is not stored outside of the device. This makes the root key invisible to attackers when the device is powered down. This key is also not injected during the manufacturing process, saving cost of security implementation and ensuring a greater level of trust with your customers as there is no third-party involvement in the security process.

As FPGAs gain footing as a go-to component within IoT and connected devices, security should be a growing concern as legislation to protect consumers becomes a larger part of the political discussion regarding technology, with companies/manufacturers held accountable for protecting their customer’s data. Perhaps it is worth getting ahead of the curve and looking into the best ways to protect your FPGA-based designs now rather than later – Learn more

And now we get to a true disruptor on the market: a new name in FPGAs that should be the talk of the town!

Cologne Chip’s GateMate FPGAs may not be the powerhouses offered by big names like Xilinx, but for the first time, engineers can now get their hands on a low-cost, small-to-medium-sized, European-made FPGA that enables projects previously unviable using larger, more expensive/in-demand devices. Key benefits of Cologne Chips FPGAs include low power consumption with 3 operation modes, a simple, two-supply-rail power architecture where either can be switched on first – no AnDAPT-type solution required – and only two signal layers required on the PCB for implementation; truly, GateMate FPGAs are designed with ease-of-use/integration in mind. In terms of the FPGA size, the smallest of the devices features 20,480 programmable elements and 162 single-ended I/Os with 1.2-2.5 V output, but Cologne Chip aim to release devices with up to 512,000 programmable elements in the near future.

Cologne Chip’s GateMate devices are synthesised using the open-source Yosys framework, so while they may not be the most comfortable conversion for those already well-versed with industry-leading devices, for those new to FPGAs, it may be the perfect way to start learning for projects where a Xilinx device is simply overkill. Like the Digilent boards, the GateMate evaluation board features a pair of Pmod connectors for interfacing with your favourite peripheral devices, so get stuck in as one of the first adopters of this new name on the FPGA market, before they become so popular that a new disruptor will be asking ipXchange for an interview at another exhibition!  – Learn more

Well, hopefully you’ve discovered something new in this article that will either be worth your consideration as an experienced FPGA engineer, or simply make you a little more likely to try out the technology in your next design if you’re not so experienced with such devices.

The real question we at ipXchange should be asking is what innovations did we miss in this past year? Follow the links above to learn more about each of our picks and apply to evaluate these technologies for use in a commercial project.

Keep designing!

Cologne Chip GateMate FPGA Evaluation Board

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