The Cranky Sysadmin A world of technology, fun, and ignorant rants.

October 27, 2012

What’s an FPGA and Why Would I Want One?

Filed under: digital logic,Electronics — Cranky Sysadmin @ 12:28 pm

I recently became interested in FPGA’s because I want to continue my learning about digital electronics. It turns out that there are more reasons to like FPGA’s though. An FPGA is a “Field Programmable Gate Array”. Basically, you can program an FPGA to be whatever digital circuit you want. There aren’t any analog components in an FPGA (as far as I know), so you’ll probably still have some work outside the FPGA to interface with the real world.

Now why would a hobbyist want to deal with an FPGA? Even if you’re not terribly interested in digital logic, there are lots of pluggable applications or “cores” that you can download and install into your FPGA. The FPGA then becomes that core. When you get bored with that core, you can go find some other core and make your FPGA into something else. If you’re willing to take the time to learn, FPGA’s can give a hobbyist a ton of flexibility at a reasonable price point. My first board was a Xilinx based board. There are plenty of other companies that make FPGA’s, but most resources out there are aimed at either Xilinx or Altera, so you could do well to find something from those two companies first before looking into other manufacturers. Below are some links to FPGA resources that I hit all the time.

  • Papilio Wiki. Papilio is an inexpensive way to get into FPGA’s. The wiki has lots of information. Click the buy links to get to the corporate site.
  • Fpga4fun. Another great site with many example applications. This site deals in altera and xilinx material.
  • This site has a vast repository of FPGA cores in various states of repair and maintenance. I get a little confused by the navigation and just because there is a ton of info here.
  • I like radios, so I’ll probably get involved in this project, or some similar project.
  • Actel. FPGA manufacturer.
  • Lattice Semiconductor. FPGA manufacturer.
  • Xilinx. FPGA manufacturer.
  • Altera.FPGA manufacturer.
  • Digilent. Makers and sellers of many FPGA development/eval/learning boards.

My starting point is a papilio 500k with a logicstart board. This gives me a the flexibility of a bare FPGA board I can use in other projects, with a fairly complete IO board for learning without breaking out the breadboard and a pile of components. The only I am missing is access to some type of main memory.


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