FPGAs or Field Programmable Gate Arrays are semiconductor chips which are exactly as the name suggests – gate arrays that be configured in the field by the designer based on their needs. It consists of many configurable logic blocks which can be programmed based on what functions the designer requires it to perform. In addition to the logic blocks, an FPGA consists of a programmable interconnect matrix that allows the designer to configure the FPGA internal wiring.
The confirmable logic blocks and the interconnect matrix make the FPGA a very powerful and flexible technology.Digital computing task in software are developed and compiled down to a bit stream or configuration file that contains detailed information useful in determining how the components are to be wired together. When an FPGA is reconfigured, it automatically takes on a new personality when recompiled in a different circuitry configuration.
The rules of FPGA programming are steadily changing due to the continued increase of high level designing tools with new technologies emerging that transform graphical diagram blocks or even C code into digital hardware circuitry. Field programmable gate arrays provide convenient speeds that are hardware timed and reliable and do not require high volumes to justify the expense of custom application specific integrated circuits.
There are a number of advantages that make FPGAs very attractive in various applications. This paper lists 10 benefits that make FPGAs a great choice:
A general CPU is unable to perform parallel processing, giving FPGAs the upper hand as they can perform processing and calculation in parallel at a faster rate. Carefully designed FPGA can execute any function faster than a CPU which is running software code in a sequential fashion. FPGAs have additional gates and wiring that allow them to be flexible and programmable. This overhead come with a cost and therefore make FPGAs run slower than ASICs.
What is the greatest advantage that FPGAs have over any other alternative is the fact that they are reprogrammable. This means that even after the circuit has been designed and implemented, FPGAs can still be modified, updated, and completely change its functionality to perform a completely different task than before. Reprogrammability reduces the efforts and cost required for the long-term maintenance of these chips. You do not need to invest in replacing or redesigning new hardware when the old one becomes out of date — you can simply update its code and program it in the field with the new funtionality.
Since FPGAs can be reprogrammed again and again they prove to be extremely cost effective in the long run even though they may pose higher unit costs. They rid you of the need to cover for recurring any bug related costs that you may get stuck paying if you were to opt for an ASIC. ASICs also have heavy non-recurring expenses which are skipped altogether when it comes to FPGAs in addition to the fact that you do not require the use of any costly and expensive tools to design or configure your FPGA chip.
ASICs also prove to be more expensive in the long run as they must be completely redesigned along with hardware if updates and enhancements are needed. FPGAs do not share these costs as they can be reprogrammed for next to nothing.
Unlike ASICs, FPGAs do not need to be upgraded or maintained in the same way as they are reprogrammable and can be upgraded or enhanced without a great deal of time and resource investment that would be required to reconfigure permanent circuit boards and hardware.
Parallel Task Performance
Chips that perform data processing in a sequential manner tend to not be used time critical applications. FPGAs can be designed to include multiple blocks processing data in parallel. This means that it can offer much greater scalability as compared to other processors such as ASICs and MCUs as well as time critical data processing.
As mentioned before, FPGAs are reprogrammable and reusable. This makes them the perfect choice for prototyping purposes – especially for ASIC validation purposes. Before you tapeout your ASIC, it is important to determine whether your ASIC design in functioning and successfully achieves the purpose it has been designed for. ASICs are difficult and incredibly expensive to manufacture which means that if you end up with a chip that needs modification, you will have to invest a considerable amount of time and money to redesign the ASIC. With FPGAs, the reprogrammability feature allows you to perform test runs by manipulating the programming and determining the ideal configuration on one chip only. Once you have completed prototyping and determined what the best solution is, you can easily convert the FPGA into a permanent ASIC and deploy it for use.
Faster Time to Market
One of the most significant advantages of FPGAs is that it allows you to finish the development of your product in a very short amount of time, meaning shorter time to market. FPGA design tools are easy to use and do not require a long learning curve. In addition to that, FPGAs are designed in a higher description language called HDL which is also a modular programming code. Using HDL code, such as VHDL or Verilog makes the design process extremely fast and efficient. FPGAs can very easily be reprogrammed at the software to test and validate the design in the lab. Modification can take place very quickly allow bug fixes in a short cycle time.
Simpler Design Cycles
Compared to ASICs, FPGAs have simpler design cycles meaning the design tools take care of the major function by themselves including placement, routing, and timing in reference to the specifications you have set for it. As such, they require almost little to no manual intervention when converting the program code into a downloadable design. If the design does not perform as expected, a new downloadable code can be prepared in a matter of hours – making the entire design cycle simple and quick.
Because of their reprogrammability, FPGAs enable you to adapt and modify at the level of the customer rather than recreate the product whenever you need to make any updates. Even after the product has been finalized, developed, and delivered, you can update it and adapt it to the needs of the customer with minimum fuss.
Real Time Application
Like mentioned before, FPGAs are perfect for time critical systems due to their more efficient processing architecture. As such, they are ideal for real time applications as they can perform more processing in a shorter period of time as compared to other alternative in the market.
System on Chip
Since the 90’s FPGAs have become larger in terms of gate count. This made it possible to include CPU cores inside the FPGA – from a single core to a multiple number of cores, alongside a custom hardware code. By combining CPU cores and hardware code in a single chip making the FPGAs to function as system on chip.
FPGA chips are field programmable and do not require the intense workmanship or dispending of time and resources as involved with redesigning of ASICs. FPGA chips can keep up to date with future improvements on software that may be necessary. As a system reaches stages of maturity, enhancements towards its functionality can be made without time wastage in redesigning hardware or the board layout.
Since FPGAs work in a parallel fashion, they boast much higher speeds and thus can be used to solve complex computable problems, together with the re-programmability ability — this makes FPGAs both powerful and flexible machines. Some of the most common uses and applications for FPGAs today are: