Q: What Do You Get when You Combine the x86 Architecture with FPGAs?

By Christine Van De Graaf, Kontron

A: A Common Platform that Is Open and Flexible for Applications that Need Dedicated I/Os

Field-programmable-gate-array (FPGA) technology has been a useful design resource for quite some time. It continues to be a mainstay because it delivers many of the same benefits as x86 processor architectures. Among the FPGA technology’s many common advantages are multifunctionality, a healthy and broad-based ecosystem, and a proven installed base of supported applications. Giving embedded designers hardware platforms that combine x86 processor boards with FPGA-controlled I/Os expands these benefits even further. Quite simply, it allows them to design dedicated I/Os to support a wider range of application requirements. By employing next-generation x86 processors with FPGAs on a single hardware platform, engineers can opens up the chance to reduce the overall bill of materials by eliminating chipsets. Different areas of applications can then be built on the same platform without a full redesign, but rather just the the exchange of the IP cores. Further cementing this approach as an appealing, long-term design solution is Loring Wirbel of FPGA Gurus. He estimates that the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for FPGAs will continue at a strong 8.6%, which will put the FPGA market at $7.5 billion worldwide by 2015.

Advantages of Open, Dedicated Platforms
The x86 processor architecture continues to evolve to enable new levels of platform openness, thereby supporting enhanced design flexibility. This is demonstrated by the vast number of x86-based developers and a staggering installed base of applications. However, the number of x86 designs may have contributed to too much of a good thing in the form of features. A plethora of pre-determined instruction sets has been spawned from those features, limiting many types of embedded applications. For this reason, embedded designers have been looking for a better way to meet the specific I/O requirements or have the ability to customize embedded solutions with proprietary I/O or acceleration.

By combining the central-processing-unit (CPU) core with an FPGA, designers gain access to pure IP. They can use that IP to increase design flexibility and streamline the design process for new applications. Furthermore, only the IP cores need to be maintained in the design (compared to the daunting task of managing several different controller components). Integrating the latest x86 processors with FPGAs provides a high-performance open platform. It can utilize dedicated I/Os for proprietary interfaces and other functionality, which is configured to an application’s needs. Even more importantly, this solution ensures design longevity with interface support that’s available for as long as it’s required. The advantages gleaned from a combined CPU core and FPGA solution solve dedicated I/O requirements for a broad array of systems—especially systems with unique I/O that also must interface with a range of various other devices.

Sustaining Legacy Designs, Enabling Migration
FPGAs have long been valued as a design tool to support older interfaces, such as ISA, RS-232, and CAN. Such interfaces are no longer supported by chipsets or dedicated hardware-designed I/O add-on cards. Looking to the future, it’s foreseeable that PCI will become obsolete and not be supported by standard chipsets. Current processor generations provide only PCI Express support, leaving designers to find other solutions such as PCI switches. These switches have to steal resources that may be needed elsewhere for the application, thus hindering the overall design. While leading-edge technologies have their place, there’s still a 20-year installed base of PCI-based applications actively deployed today. The designers working with these systems will find that it’s overkill to migrate to next-generation PCI Express or Gigabit Ethernet for applications that only call for 32-bit/66-MHz performance. An optimal solution would be to use an FPGA versus a chipset to execute the PCI interface for the needed I/O.

With FPGAs, software and IP cores can now assert a major role in embedded computing at the hardware level. Rather than using a chipset with pre-configured I/O support, designers can utilize IP to customize I/O with software in a single-board solution. This approach makes it easier to migrate from legacy designs. For system upgrades, this streamlined method facilitates the adding of devices that can interface with the application. The need to include additional hardware is taken out of the equation.

Support for Proprietary Applications
The reality is that many proprietary applications exist today. This is especially true in the industrial-automation market, which has to take into consideration the number of industrial Ethernet technologies that are currently in use. It has become an overwhelming task to develop different fieldbus implementations for all of these proprietary protocols. Further adding to the proprietary industrial-automation-application dilemma is how panel PCs and HMIs are supported in these countless different installations. What if an industrial- automation designer could build on the same hardware platform as a CAN, PROFIBUS, or LonWorks terminal—or any other field-bus or industrial Ethernet that’s required in a specific application? By using a platform solution that only requires the IP cores to be exchanged, one can really see the value of a flexible approach that allows a wide variety of devices to easily speak with each other.

The same is true in many medical applications. Each piece of diagnostic and patient-monitoring equipment has been designed with unique I/O that has special interface requirements. It has been a tedious endeavor to upgrade these systems and network them, due to the tremendous additional hardware, configuration, and programming that would be required. An advanced CPU core and FPGA-based single-board computer is a welcome solution that delivers the design flexibility to bring all of the pieces together.

Real Solutions
Hardware solutions now exist based on this combined approach. Recently, the Intel® Atom™ processor E6x5C series paired with an integrated Altera FPGA in a single package was introduced. The energy-efficient processor core offers high performance with 3D graphics, display, memory, and a PCI Express controller. In addition, Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology delivers increased performance and system responsiveness to enable multitasking and faster web-page downloads. The integrated, hardware-assisted Intel® Virtualization technology helps to consolidate multiple environments into a hardware platform (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: With flexible FPGA I/O options, OEMs now have the design flexibility to develop applications that have specific or dedicated I/O requirements.

Kontron, in turn, has announced its MICROSPACE® MSMST. This PCIe/104 embedded single-board computer employs this latest Intel® Atom™ processor and FPGA combination (see Figure 2). With the Kontron MICROSPACE® MSMST, embedded-systems designers can react quickly to changing application requirements. They can easily configure a platform due to the availability of validated IP cores for the CAN-bus, serial interfaces (SPI master/UART), and PCI-Express, I2C, and GPIO. All that’s needed to enable the interfaces is the IP core and corresponding high-speed mezzanine cards (HSMCs).

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Figure 2: The MICROSPACE MSMST is an industrial-temperaturerange, PCIe/104 embedded single-board computer based on the Intel® Atom™ processor E600C series.

Making this a particularly useful solution, the PC/104 standards, of which PCIe/104 is one of the newest, are welladopted, highly successful, computing bases. As a result, designers have found it easy to use this familiar off-the-shelf open platform. It is an optimal platform to marry PCI-Express with a low-power computing core and an FPGA. Plus, there’s an established x86/FPGA technology ecosystem of IP cores and HSMCs. OEMs also will benefit from a reduced bill of materials (BOM), eliminating the need for additional carrier boards. Furthermore, the Kontron MICROSPACE® MSMST is by-design industrial-temperature-grade (-40° to 85°C) SBC. It’s therefore a viable choice for harsh environments, such as outdoor POS/POI systems, transportation, energy, and military applications.

Christine Van De Graaf is the product manager for Kontron America’s Embedded Modules Division. Van De Graaf has a decade of experience working in the embedded-computing technology industry and holds an MBA in marketing management from California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA.