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Introduction to FPGA programming and its Role in Computing

FPGA programming is a notion that might be misleading in a way. The fact is that a real program that can run in a sequential manner seizes to exist when dealing with FPGA programming. However, GPUs and CPUs have these “real programs,” making FPGAs a special case. So, how exactly does FPGA programming work? And why is it unique?

FPGA Programming, how does it Work, and what makes it Unique?

FPGA programming involves the creation of a hardware architecture that executes your requested algorithm. After executing your requested algorithm, it then describes it using HDL. The process differs from programming CPUs and GPUs in that it does not involve writing a real program that’ll execute in a sequential manner. Instead, you will utilize HDL to build circuits and then physically alter the hardware.

In software programming, you write your code, turn it into a simple binary file, then load it onto your FPGA to optimize your device. The outcome of FPGA programming involves the alteration of your gadget’s hardware. That fact makes software programming and FPGA programming completely different.

An FPGA program pieces together elements of lower levels, such as memory blocks and logic gates, which work jointly to undertake tasks. Making it not just efficient but also a powerful tool to utilize.

FPGA programming has impeccable flexibility as it lets you manipulate your device’s hardware entirely. You can adjust some basic functions such as power and memory utilization depending on various tasks.

Languages that you can utilize to Program an FPGA

Most people tend to think that FPGA programming primarily lies in a chip designer’s domain rather than the domain of a software engineer. After all, you’ll find that many hardware description languages are low-level languages. And as you might probably already know, hardware engineers tend to be pretty familiar with low-level languages. However, out of the many HDLs that exist, some are somewhat similar to software programming languages.

What we mean by programming when talking about FPGA isn’t necessarily about creating software. That is because of the way we execute and set up an FPGA program. However, by utilizing this term, what we wish to imply is that:

  • The coding and executing part of FPGA programming is similar, as per processing, to that of building a software algorithm. But the net result of FPGA programming is not software.

Using Unified Software Platforms, you can utilize your preferred language to create an FPGA program. However, the best part is that, when utilizing these platforms, you do not need to have impeccable HDL programming skills. Hence, you can eliminate the need to learn a new language to create FPGA programs. In doing so, you get to focus more on concept instead of hardware which ultimately boosts your program’s quality.

Unified Software Programming platforms work by translating high-level programming languages into low-level languages. After that, FPGAs take up the resulting low-level language program and utilize it to execute your desired function.

Here is a list of languages that you can utilize to create FPGA programs using Unified Software Programming platforms:

AI frameworks such as Pytorch and TensorFlow

Using Vitis AI, Artificial Intelligence scientist can effectively compile their models from Pytorch and TensorFlow for FPGA acceleration. In doing so, AI scientists do not just avoid learning a new language. They also gain fast compilations. The software compilation time is actually so fast that it almost matches that of GPUs and CPUs.

 C and C++

Thanks to HLS (high-level synthesis), you can now utilize these two languages (C++ and C) to create FPGA programs. Furthermore, when working with Vivado and Xilinx HLS compilers, you get an efficient programming environment to work on. In this environment, you will get key technology that has both specialized and standard processors that help optimize C and C++ programs. You hence get to optimize your code without compromising on computational resources and memory space.

Python

If you already know Python, you can opt to utilize it and its libraries to generate a high-performance FPGA program using PYNQ.

PYNQ, on the other hand, is a project that helps you utilize Xilinx Platforms with ease.

Moving on, if you are looking to utilize mainstream HDLs to create an FPGA program, then here is a list that might help you out. Note that these languages are primarily exclusive to FPGA programming:

Lucid

Lucid is a programming language that was specifically developed to create FPGA programs alone. Using this language, you can easily overcome dire pitfalls in other archaic languages, such as Verilog.

VHDL

VHDL stands for Very High-Speed Integrated Circuit. It is an HDL language that made its debut back in 1980. VHDL typically resembles Pascal and Ada. However, this language only creates FPGA programs exclusively.

VHDL is somewhat archaic as it bears some pretty severe pitfalls. For example, when using this language, you will find it challenging to inspect how your device’s architecture works. Therefore, capturing errors might become an issue.

Verilog

Verilog was the very first HDL language. In the past, this language was pretty popular as per FPGA programming. However, today programmers mainly utilize it for verification and test analysis.

Creating an FPGA Program

FPGA programming was exclusive to hardware engineers earlier. However, modern technology has brought changes. Using new platforms, software programmers and AI scientists can easily create FPGA programs. All you need is a bit of knowledge in programming languages, even those meant for software programming, and you’re good.

The simple process of creating FPGA programs is similar to that of creating GPU and CPU programs. However, as we saw earlier, the two produce two different outcomes.

To create an FPGA program, you’ll have to follow the following process:

  1. Write your code consisting of the functions that you want it to run
  2. Translate your code (which is now in program form) into a low-level language. To do so, you will have to utilize special software.
  3. Next, you will have to convert your low-level language program into a binary file.
  4. Lastly, you’ll have to feed your program onto an FPGA, and you are done.

However, if you wish to streamline this process further, you have to choose a platform that suits your needs out of the many that exist.

Conclusion

FPGA programming has become super easy to handle with the emergence of Unified Software platforms. Now you can create FPGA programs with ease using common software programming languages such as C and C++. What’s more, you can also optimize your code to produce impeccable outputs without having to master HDL. So, if you are looking to create an FPGA program, we hope that this article has been helpful to you.