FPGAs for Linux software engineers - Part I

For a while now, I have fancied playing around with FPGAs; I mean, how hard can it be? I had watched a number of YouTube videos, most notably Ben Heck and EEVBlog's fantastic offerings, and they both spoke highly of the Terasic DE0-Nano. It was a bit more expensive than some eBay offerings, but I wanted something I knew would work out of the box. Maybe my next one will be a cheaper one now I have a vague idea what I'm doing.

The Terasic DE0-Nano has an Altera Cyclone IV FPGA, a few LEDs, switches, an accelerometer, a bunch of RAM and more GPIO than you can shake a stick at. Its form-factor is such that it could work very nicely for an actual project, rather than some of the other boards out there that have all the bells and whistles already attached whether you use them or not. 

Software

My initial thought was that the development tools would all be Windows applications, and I would have to set up a VM and all the fun that means for USB devices an so on. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Altera's Quartus II software was available for Linux as well - it turns out it's a Java application, but one that is for the most part very nice indeed. Granted, the download was an eye-watering 5GB, but much of that was taken up with things I didn't need to install such as profiles for different FPGAs. And after scratching the surface of the tools that make up Quartus II, I can begin to see why it is a hefty install.

One issue I should note is that each manufacturer's FPGAs are entirely incompatible, and can only be programmed by that company's tools (Project IceStorm is an open source attempt at reverse-engineering Lattice's iCE40 FPGAs), so make sure you meet the system requirements before investing, and be prepared for a bit of vendor lock-in.

The DE0-Nano user manual has a couple of tutorials to get you started, and the CD has a handful of demo configurations to show off things like the accelerometer. The first tutorial is called my_first_fpga which I thought a reasonable starting point, so I dived in. A couple of issues are that the manual covers an older version of Quartus, and the MegaWizard Plug-in Manager (yes, that's an actual thing) has now been moved to a different part of the UI and is now the relatively disappointingly named IP Catalog which by default sits over on the far right of the main UI in a dock window and took me ages to actually notice it. Secondly, once you create an IP component (no idea what it stands for - Intellectual Property I guess), make sure the configuration window that appears is resized to remove scrollbars. Otherwise the first interaction with the GUI will cause a CPU core to peg and the application to freeze. Other than that, the tutorial was reasonably clear and worked with the minimum of head-scratching.

Hardware

Altera devices need a programmer called a USB Blaster which seems to mostly just be an FTDI chip to handle USB to JTAG communications, and cheap Chinese knockoffs can be found all over eBay. But the DE0-Nano has it on board, so it's a simple case of using the supplied micro USB cable (which comes in one of those snazzy but annoyingly weighty spring-loaded roll-up things) and plugging it straight in. You will have to set up a udev rule to give users permission, e.g. in /etc/udev/rules.d/40-usbblaster.rules:

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTRS{idVendor}=="09fb", ATTRS{idProduct}=="6001", GROUP="plugdev", MODE="0666", SYMLINK+="usbblaster"

Once that is done, it all works mostly smoothly... I found that the programming tool detects the USB Blaster but doesn't seem to like it if it is in certain USB ports on my machine. I've yet to get to the bottom of it, but it might be worth experimenting if it doesn't work first time.

Next...

In Part II, I'll go into more detail about actually creating a project and some of the many pitfalls that exist for software engineers - them silicon engineers are an odd bunch of people.