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  • Seven Reasons to Use FPGA Prototyping for ASIC Designs

    Using an FPGA to prototype your next hardware design is a familiar concept, extending all the way back to the time that the first FPGAs were being produced by Xilinx and Altera. There are multiple competitors in the marketplace for FPGA prototyping, so I wanted to discern more about what the German-based company PRO DESIGN had to offer in their proFPGA systems by attending a joint webinar that they hosted last week with the ASIC services company Open-Silicon. SemiWiki blogger Bernard Murphy was the moderator and he was able to get things started by concisely listing seven reasons to use FPGA prototyping for ASIC designs:

    1. Developing and debugging bare-metal software, accelerating the time to build a system
    2. Hardware and software performance testing
    3. Compliance texting with big use-case and regressions
    4. In-system validation
    5. Functional simulation is too slow, and emulation is too expensive
    6. Waiting for first silicon to start system testing is way too late
    7. You need a quick proof of concept

    There are four options for you to consider when choosing an FPGA prototyping approach:

    Four FPGA prototyping options to consider

    The best practices include not starting FPGA prototyping while the RTL is still in flux, don't expect a prototype to be used for hardware debug, and finally the challenges to partitioning can be taxing. If you opt for a turnkey prototyping solution then you don't have to spend time becoming an FPGA expert.

    Philipp Ampletzer from PRO DESIGN talked about six attributes of an ideal FPGA prototyping system:

    • Flexibility, adaptability (both Xilinx and Altera)
    • Performance and signal integrity
    • Scalability and capacity (latest FPGA devices)
    • Host interfaces
    • User-friendly
    • Price friendly, cost-performance ratio

    It turns out that PRO DESIGN has a series of FPGA Prototyping products that use both Xilinx and Altera FGPAs, and you can start with a small configuration using a single FPGA, or scale up to a system with four FPGAs, or ultimately combing five boards for a total of 20 FPGAs. Here's a photo of the FPGA Module SG280 which provides:

    • Single Intel Stratix 10 FPGA providing up to 20M ASIC gates
    • Up to 1,026 user I/O
    • Up to 8 voltage regions
    • Up to 1.0 Gbps single-ended point to point speed

    PRO DESIGN, FPGA Module SG280
    The final presenter was Sachin Jadhav from Open-Silicon and he walked us through the typical ASIC design life cycle with 11 distinct steps showing where FPGA prototyping fits in:

    Open-Silicon, ASIC Design life cycle

    Based on actual experience with FPGA prototyping at Open-Silicon, they look at five challenges:

    • Selecting an FPGA Platform (capacity, I/Os, expected frequency, partitioning, turnkey or custom)
    • Design Partitioning (automatic, manual)
    • Optimum operating design frequency (choosing speed grade FPGAs, design IP placement, global clock, clock loading)
    • Custom PHY's
    • Debugging (integrated RTL debugging)

    Related blog - Open-Silicon Update: 125M ASICs shipped!

    One case study was shared by Open-Silicon where they designed an ASIC for use in a professional camera system and partitioned their design across two Virtex 7 FPGAs with the following IP blocks:

    Sarayu FPGA Design Partitioning

    This ASIC used 40 million gates and the FPGA prototype used manual partitioning with IOs in one FPGA and logic in the second FPGA, while communication between the two was with a SerDes. By using an FPGA prototype the design team saved some 5 months from the schedule and reached a first silicon success. Other achievements on this project included:

    • Production quality software developed on FPGA prototype
    • Custom PHY's (HDMI, LVDS-TX, HSIFB, UHS-II) using FPGA resources
    • Validated custom IP blocks with external devices prior to tape-out

    Related blog - ARM and Open-Silicon Join Forces to Fight the IoT Edge Wars!

    ASIC design teams are under immense pressure to meet product requirements and develop software before silicon is fabricated, so using an FPGA prototyping approach can help you do that by enabling early software driver development and even producing a proof of concept to investors. Maybe it's the right time for your next ASIC project to start using an FPGA prototyping methodology.

    To watch the archived webinar you can go here.