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How Does an FPGA Work?

How Does an FPGA Work?

2023-05-03 12:11:47

Alchitry, Ell C





Let’s begin originally. What’s an FPGA? Effectively, FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, which isn’t useful in understanding what they’re or do however we needed to get that out of the way in which.

FPGAs belong to a category of units generally known as programmable logic, or typically known as programmable {hardware}. Basically, an FPGA doesn’t do something itself however it may be configured to be nearly any digital circuit you need. The magic right here is that nothing bodily modifications. You merely load a configuration into the FPGA and it begins behaving just like the circuit you wished. No soldering, no jumper wires, no fuss. An FPGA can then be reconfigured to behave like one other circuit, and one other, and one other. The configuration is RAM based mostly which suggests it will possibly basically be reconfigured a vast variety of instances.

Lattice iCE40 HX FPGA highlighted on the Alchitry Cu Board Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA highlighted on the Alchitry Au Board

Though we speak about utilizing FPGAs to create digital circuits, you don’t sometimes draw schematics to create designs for them. The dimensions and complexity of the circuits FPGAs can comprise would change into very cumbersome do you have to really draw out a schematic. As an alternative, you’ll be able to describe the habits of the circuit you need and the instruments will use this to create a circuit that matches that habits.

On this regard it will possibly really feel like programming since you might be simply typing textual content. Nonetheless, the elemental implementation is drastically totally different as you might be creating {hardware}.

If creating {hardware} with textual content looks like magic, don’t fear. The best way they work is definitely fairly easy in idea and on this tutorial we’re going to actually break it down.

Recommended Studying

On this tutorial we’re going to discover what an FPGA is and the way they work. I’m going to imagine you will have a good understanding of electrical energy (voltage, present, and so on) and binary values. All the things else might be rapidly constructed upon the fundamentals. That is meant as an summary of what an FPGA is and its basic design, not a information to designing your personal.

In case you aren’t conversant in the next ideas, we suggest trying out these tutorials earlier than persevering with.

What is Electricity?

We will see electrical energy in motion on our computer systems, lighting our homes, as lightning strikes in thunderstorms, however what’s it? This isn’t a simple query, however this tutorial will shed some mild on it!

Analog vs. Digital

This tutorial covers the idea of analog and digital indicators, as they relate to electronics.


A crash course in bi-polar junction transistors. Find out how transistors work and through which circuits we use them.

Digital Circuits and Logic Gates

Digital Circuits

One caveat of FPGAs is that they’ll solely create digital circuits. A few of the newer FPGAs embody on-board analog to digital converters, however even these convert the analog enter right into a digital sign as quickly as doable. However what’s a digital circuit?

In electronics, digital is used to explain circuits that summary away steady voltage values in favor of discrete 1s and 0s. The precise voltages used and the thresholds don’t really matter for the upper degree design however you’ll usually see one thing like 0V being a 0 and 1.2V being a 1 contained in the FPGA. If the precise voltage is, say, 0.8V that’s shut sufficient to 1.2V to be thought of a 1 and all the things works the identical.

A digital circuit is designed to push the voltages to the extremes which makes them extremely resilient to noise and different real-world interference. The idea of digital additionally offers us a approach to design sophisticated habits into the circuit with out having to fret concerning the decrease degree design. We get to work in a super world. The nitty gritty is taken care of within the design of the straightforward constructing blocks that we are going to be utilizing.

These constructing blocks are logic gates.

Logic Gates

There are a handful of various logic gates however the commonest ones are AND, OR, XOR, and NOT. Every of those takes digital inputs, performs its logical perform, and outputs a digital worth.

An AND gate takes two inputs and outputs a 1 solely when the primary enter and the second enter are 1. If both enter is 0, the output is 0. The image of an AND gate appears to be like like this:

And gate

An OR gate takes two inputs and outputs a 1 when both the primary enter or the second enter is 1. Solely when each are 0 is the output 0. Right here’s the OR gate image:

Or gate

An XOR gate is just like an OR gate however solely outputs a 1 when both the primary enter or the second enter are 1, however not when each are 1. It may also be regarded as outputting a 1 when the inputs are totally different. The X in XOR stands for unique. Right here is its image:

XOR Gate

A NOT gate is the best gate. It has one enter and easily outputs the alternative of no matter it’s. So a 1 turns into a 0 and a 0 turns into a 1.

NOT Gate

There are variations of the essential gates generally known as NAND, NOR, and XNOR. These are merely the usual variations with their outputs inverted.

Only for some further context, an AND gate, like all logic gates, may be constructed utilizing transistors. The picture beneath exhibits an instance of how an AND gate could possibly be applied. The schematic makes use of NMOS and PMOS MOSFET transistors. Such a design is called CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) and is what’s utilized in most trendy circuits.

And gate schematic

Observe that the above schematic is definitely a NAND gate adopted by a NOT gate. It is because CMOS circuits invert the output.


Now that we’ve got the essential constructing blocks from transistors to logic gates, we are able to make one thing extra helpful with them. With simply logic gates, you’ll be able to describe any digital circuit. Nonetheless, there are various reoccurring greater degree features that get their very own symbols similar to these used for binary math (adders, multipliers, and so on).

We’re going to have a look at one of many basic constructing blocks of FPGAs, the multiplexer.

A multiplexer selects a single enter out of set based mostly on the worth of its choose enter. Right here is its image:

Multiplexer symbol

The / on the sel line is used to indicate it’s 6 bits huge.

The variety of inputs will differ however the multiplexer at all times simply has one output.

The best way the choose enter is encoded will even differ. Normally, you will notice it as a binary quantity, however the less complicated circuit makes use of a one-hot encoding. A one-hot encoding is just a binary worth the place there’s at all times precisely one 1. The place of the 1 is the vital factor.

A decoder takes a binary worth and turns it right into a one-hot sign. An encoder turns a one-hot worth right into a binary quantity. These can be utilized to make a one-hot multiplexer settle for binary values.

Check out how we might implement a one-hot encoded multiplexer utilizing just a few AND and OR gates.

Multiplexer circuit

If we set the sel worth to be 000010, which means solely sel[1] is 1, then we are able to see that for each AND gate, aside from the one with the b enter, one of many inputs might be 0. That implies that every of these will at all times output 0 no matter what the inputs a, c, d, e, and f are. The one enter that issues is b. When b is 1, it’s AND’d with a 1 and the output of the AND gate is 1. When b is 0, it’s AND’d with 1 and the output of the AND gate is 0.

In different phrases, the output of the AND gate is just b.

Multiplexer circuit with selects labelled and b as the selected output

Results of the AND gates with sel[1] set to 1

The OR gate on this schematic is proven with greater than two inputs. This may be created by making a tree of two enter OR gates the place two inputs are OR’d collectively and the outputs are then OR’d collectively again and again till you will have one output. A multi-input OR gate behaves simply as you’d anticipate with the output being 1 if any of the inputs are 1.

Nonetheless, on this circuit each enter to the OR gate is assured to be 0 besides the enter from the AND gate whose output is b. Which means the OR gate will merely output a 1 when b is 1 and a 0 when b is 0.

In different phrases, the output of the OR gate is just b.

alt text

Results of the OR gate might be b

You might repeat this logic for any enter and, so long as the enter is one-hot, the enter that corresponds to the given 1 might be handed by to the output.

You may think about having a big matrix of multiplexers with a programmable sel enter. This might mean you can route indicators wherever you wanted in your design. That is how FPGAs get their indicators the place they should be and it’s referred to as the overall routing matrix.

Clearly the main points for routing hundreds and hundreds of indicators will get messy, however basically it’s simply utilizing a bunch of multiplexers with choose inputs related to programmable reminiscence.

Look-Up Tables

So now that we’ve got a approach to dynamically route indicators wherever they should be, we want a approach to carry out arbitrary logic. We are going to once more be utilizing multiplexers, or reasonably a descendant of them generally known as LUTs or look-up tables.

Think about we’ve got a multiplexer with 4 inputs and a 2 bit binary choose (as a substitute of one-hot). Now, as a substitute of exposing the primary inputs to the world, let’s hook them as much as some programmable reminiscence. This implies we are able to program every enter to some fixed worth. Wrap this all up right into a block and we’ve got a two enter LUT.

Two input LUT

The 2 inputs to the LUT are the choose inputs of the multiplexer. By programming the multiplexer inputs to be no matter we wish, we are able to use this LUT to implement ANY two-to-one binary perform.

For instance, we might make it act like a easy AND gate by setting the contents of the reminiscence to be as follows.

Tackle (In[1:0]) Worth (Out)
00 0
01 0
10 0
11 1

It is a easy instance – usually LUTs are greater than simply two inputs and the FPGA on the Alchitry Au is predicated round 5 enter LUTs.

Xilinx really places two 5 enter LUTs along with one other multiplexer to create both a six enter LUT or a 5 enter LUT with two impartial outputs.

Six input LUT

If you wish to actually dive into what the LUTs and sources within the FPGA seem like, try this document from Xilinx on the Artix 7. This doc could be very dense. You’ve been warned. Web page 20 is value a look although. It exhibits a simplified schematic of a SLICEL. Slices are one building-block above LUTs. The 4 containers on the left are the LUTs like proven above.

For some context, the FPGA on the Alchitry Au has 20,800 twin LUTs. That’s lots of LUTs however not even near the biggest FPGAs obtainable which have about 260x that quantity on the time of writing. As you’ll be able to think about, the routing of all these indicators alone is insanely complicated. Fortunately for us, to make use of FPGAs you don’t have to do any of that. The instruments care for all of the low degree routing and LUT programming. We simply get to explain the circuits we wish.

Why Use an FPGA?

Hopefully this tutorial has given you a heat fuzzy feeling for a way FPGAs really work, however why would you employ one?

Normally when this query comes up it is within the context of selecting between utilizing a processor or making a customized design with an FPGA. Numerous individuals know methods to code, far fewer perceive methods to create designs for FPGAs. Writing code is commonly simpler to create complicated habits and to drastically change how one thing is applied.

Nonetheless, FPGAs may be much more environment friendly when it comes to processing time in addition to providing very tight timing. For example this, let’s have a look at a trivial instance of turning an LED on while you press a button. In case you wrote code to do that with one thing like an Arduino, the processor would run a small loop of code that may learn the state of a pin then replace the state of one other pin based mostly on that worth.

In case you optimized the code you could possibly most likely get this to replace within the thousands and thousands of instances per second. Which will sound nice however let’s have a look at what it could seem like with an FPGA. Within the case of merely connecting a button to an LED with an FPGA, you merely join the button and the LED. The worth from the button passes by some enter buffer, is fed by the routing matrix, then output by an output buffer. This course of occurs constantly on a regular basis. The one delay comes from the switching delays of the transistors within the chip, that are extremely small.

To broaden on this, let’s now add a microphone to our design. We might take samples from the microphone and do some processing on it to determine the frequencies within the captured audio. From some first hand expertise, I do know that is fairly arduous to do on a small microcontroller in actual time with any respectable sampling price. The processor must juggle studying in samples from the microphone, storing them in some buffer, performing a bunch of math, then output the values to possibly a show of LEDs. Every of those steps takes time and the processor can solely actually do separately.

See Also

With an FPGA, you could possibly dedicate a small piece of your design to studying in samples from the microphone. This might then hand off the samples to a buffer, which, when full, would hand them off to a circuit that may do the calculations. That circuit might then hand off the outcomes to a different circuit that may show them on some LEDs.

Every of those levels would function fully independently from each other since they merely exist in {hardware}. They aren’t traces of code competing for processor time.

Now think about we nonetheless need the button hooked as much as the LED. Our earlier spectacular response time of a millionth of a second is now an abysmal fifth of a second as a result of we are able to’t spare the processor time to learn the button that usually. Nonetheless, within the FPGA the button and LED are nonetheless simply related collectively and responding on the close to instantaneous pace as earlier than.

This independence makes FPGAs a incredible candidate for controlling something that requires tight timing. For instance, the WS2812B LED (aka NeoPixel) requires a tightly timed stream of pulses to put in writing information to them. If you use a microcontroller, you often want to put in writing some inline-assembly simply to get the timing of the pulses to be correct sufficient. You additionally have to disable interrupts as any stalls can be detrimental to the sign.

With an FPGA, it’s easy to create a sequence of tightly managed pulses to drive these LEDs and also you don’t want to fret about anything in your design conflicting with the timing.

When to Use an FPGA

Given all the professionals of utilizing FPGAs, you could be asking your self “Why wouldn’t I take advantage of one for all the things!” Nice query!

Within the description of how FPGAs work, you’ll have seen that there is lots of further “stuff” that has to go on to implement even the best circuit dynamically. This isn’t with out its price, and I imply that each in $$$ and in design sources.

FPGAs are usually costly. The bigger ones simply go for tens of hundreds of {dollars} PER CHIP. That is because of the quantity of silicon required to make them, the large quantity of RnD to design the chips and the instruments, and the comparatively low quantity in comparison with issues like tiny processors utilized in telephones.

One other price is energy. There are lots of transistors used within the LUTs in comparison with the quantity wanted to implement the circuit instantly. All these transistors require energy to function. Due to this, FPGAs are usually poor candidates for battery operated units. You may in fact design your circuits to be energy environment friendly however even doing completely nothing, the FPGA on the Alchitry Au consumes slightly over 100mA. You may simply recover from 1000mA for those who begin pushing the chip. As a comparability the ATmega32U4, the chip used on the Arduino Leonardo, makes use of 27mA when operating with 5V at full pace. Granted the Alchitry Au is considerably extra succesful.

So why use FPGAs in any respect? Effectively, you will have two main alternate options to making a customized digital circuit. First, you could possibly construct it your self out of discrete logic. This might take a major period of time, probably price considerably extra, and have little flexibility for those who wanted to vary one thing.

The second, and extra real looking, various is to create the circuit instantly in silicon. This creates a really quick, very environment friendly circuit, however at the price of zero flexibility and truck a great deal of $$$. Customized silicon has big upfront prices related to the tooling and setup. The incremental price per chip can be decrease than particular person FPGAs although. Nonetheless, except you’re making tens of hundreds of chips, this might be costlier total. Even then, it typically doesn’t make sense to lock your design into silicon. With an FPGA you’ll be able to change it every time you’ll want to with out penalty.

Due to their flexibility and low-cost in comparison with the alternate options, FPGAs open the doorways to including customized digital circuits to only about any design. However, do you actually need a customized circuit?

It is very important remember the fact that FPGAs are identical to every other device. A hammer is nice for nailing in nails, however it’s horrible for screwing in screws. Simply as making an attempt to nail a nail with a screwdriver can be fairly futile.

Creating customized circuits may be troublesome and also you usually have to ask your self if there’s a higher resolution. There are a lot of very succesful processors with tons of peripherals that may deal with a lot of the issues you’ll want to resolve. Making an attempt to do one thing like sending and receiving information over WiFi can be a frightening process with an FPGA however is definitely achieved with a number of greenback microcontroller just like the ESP8266.

I usually describe FPGAs as an meeting line. Every station on an meeting line works impartial from one another and they’re extremely environment friendly at what they’re designed for. Nonetheless, it may be troublesome to initially arrange the road and if you wish to make main modifications it’s usually simpler to start out from scratch.

However, processors are like individuals. A single individual might do nearly any process given sufficient time and the coaching. Complicated sequential duties are straightforward for an individual to perform.

Do you actually wish to arrange a complete sandwich manufacturing plant simply to make you a sandwich for lunch?

FPGAs are superb and infrequently indispensable for the duties they excel at however they’re simply one other device so as to add to your toolbox. A really highly effective and worthwhile device to spend money on, however nonetheless simply one other device.


Sources and Going Additional

These are the fundamentals of how FPGAs work and what they’re fabricated from. Alchitry’s website has extra nice sources, together with tutorials, initiatives, and the Alchitry Discussion board.

If you would like to delve deeper into the world of FPGAs and Lucid, try “Learning FPGAs: Digital Design for Beginners with Mojo and Lucid HDL” by Justin Rajewski. It is obtainable on Amazon and is a good useful resource for understanding and in the end designing your personal FPGAs.

We’re frequently increasing our providing of tutorials and merchandise associated to FPGAs. Take a look at among the following tutorials!


FPGA chip


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