What Are FPGAs and How Are They Used?

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FPGAs, which stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, are a type of chip which consist of unconnected digital components. When the FPGA is programmed, connections are created between these different components to create a complex electronic system.

FPGAs can be reprogrammed for specific tasks which makes them much more adaptable than a processor. Although this adds additional expense and difficulty to program, it gives the user far greater flexibility.

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What are FPGAs Used For?

FPGAs are used in a wide variety of different fields including image processing, aerospace and the finance sector. 

However, FPGAs are best suited to digital circuits which require intensive mathematical processing, such as encoding/decoding audio or video signals. They are also well suited to applications which high speed, low latency signal processing, such as financial trading platforms or Ethernet interfaces.

FPGAs also excel at parallel processing which makes them ideal for real-time systems which require fast, accurate results such as self-driving vechicles.

In recent times, FPGAs have also started to gain prominence in AI applications.  They are well suited to the implementation of neural network topologies where large numbers of simple, repetitive calculations need to be performed. 

How are FPGAs Programmed?

To program an FPGA you use a Hardware Description lanaguge (HDL) such as verilog or VHDL. Although these HDLs share a number of similarities with languages such as C++, they behave very differently and thus require a learning curve to use.

The main difference between is that you don’t write code in terms of high-level abstractions such as classes or functions. Instead, you must describe the functionality of the circuit you wish to implement.

For example, if you want to implement an adder, you would describe it in terms of one input for the two operands and another input for the carry-in signal. You would then go on to define how these should be processed by defining what happens at each stage of the clock cycle.

This requires a lot more detail than writing applications in C++, but has several advantages. Firstly, there are no restrictions placed upon what can or can’t be implemented – everything is possible! Secondly, every single piece of functionality gets its own dedicated circuit which allows for several calcaultions to be done in parallel.

Advantages of FPGAs

Better Performance

One of the main benefits that comes with FPGA is the speed. A typical CPU isn’t able to run parallel processing, which gives FPGAs an advantage because they can process and computation simultaneously at a much faster speed. With careful planning, FPGA can complete any task more quickly than a CPU, which runs software programs in sequential manner.

FPGAs come with additional wires and gates which allow them to be flexible and programmeable. This extra wiring comes with costs and makes FPGAs perform more slowly than ASICs.

Programmability

The most significant benefit that FPGAs have over the other option is that they can be reprogrammed. That means that after the circuit is developed and put into operation, FPGAs can still be modified, updated and completely change their functions to accomplish a totally different function than it was prior to.

Reprogrammability helps reduce the time and expense for ongoing maintenance on these chip. There is no need to spend money on replacing or creating new hardware if the older one gets outdatedit’s easy to update the code of the chip and then program it to incorporate the latest features.

Cost Efficiency

Because FPGAs are able to be reprogrammed and again, they are proven to be cost-effective in the long run , even while they might have more expensive cost per unit. This is definitely one of the benefits for FPGA architecture.

They eliminate the necessity of paying for regular bug-related costs you might be trapped with if you were to go for An ASIC. ASICs also come with hefty costs that are not recurring and can be avoided completely when it comes to FPGAs, in conjunction with the fact they don’t require the need for expensive and costly tools to design or set up the FPGA chip.

ASICs are also more costly over the long term as they have to be completely revamped and hardware upgraded if improvements or updates are required. FPGAs don’t share these costs because they can be programmed for little or nothing.

Parallel Task Performance

Chips that carry out data processing sequential fashion are not recommended for to run time-sensitive applications. FPGAs are able to process multiple blocks of data simultaneously. This means it is able to give a much higher degree of scalability opposed to other processors like ASICs and MCUs and also time-sensitive data processing.

Prototyping

As previously mentioned One of the benefits for FPGAs is that they can be flexible and reusable. This makes them a great option for prototyping purposes , especially for ASIC validation.

Before you start tape-out of your ASIC it is essential to establish if your ASIC design is functioning and fulfills the purposes it was designed for. ASICs are extremely difficult and expensive to produce and should you come with a chip which requires modification, you’ll be required to invest a substantial amount of money and time to modify the ASIC.

With FPGAs with reprogrammability, it lets you run tests by altering programs and then identifying the optimal configuration for a single chip. After you’ve completed prototyping and have determined what is the most effective solution then you can change the FPGA into an permanent ASIC and then deploy it for use.

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