As we started to research ARM based Embedded Computing Board (ECB) manufacturers for our Embedded Computing Board (ECB) Resource Guide Dave Tokic of Xilinx told us that there are now 25 companies making ECBs based on the Xilinx Zynq-7000 SoC.
If you haven't come across Zynq before it’s a very interesting part, it take a dual core ARM Cortex-A9 processor combined with a Xilinx FPGA. For any designer it’s a very flexible and powerful platform that bridges best in class processing with ARM and a programmable fabric that can be optimized for their application.
I asked Dave about the evolution of Zynq and he told me that Xilinx has been incredibly successful in FPGAs but wanted to enter the broader embedded market which is comfortable with the ARM architecture. Xilinx chose to work with ARM because of the robust ecosystem, low power and a compelling roadmap into the future. For Xilinx the fact that by joining the ARM ecosystem they could take advantage of all the IP, software, services and tools offered by 3rd parties meant they could help customers get to market faster. Being very frank, Dave told me they thought the Zynq would be a no-brainer device for system on module (SOM) and Embedded Computing Board companies but even they were surprised at the speed with which it has been adopted. Avnet was first to market with their Zedboard about 2 years ago when the silicon went into full production and I can personally attest to the vibrancy and growth of the Zedboard community.
All the research I have seen over the years about FPGAs showed they were intriguing to designers but intimidating to many because the perception was they needed special skills in HDL (hardware description language), unfamiliar software and the parts were expensive and used too much power. Old perceptions die hard but with Zynq, designers can enter the world of FPGAs using their ARM experience and easy to learn tools from Xilinx. Zynq was designed with a “processor first” approach, so designers can bring up the ARM side of the Zynq first and then program the FPGA directly or through a companion EPROM. Dave told me that Xilinx knew they would have to invest in tools to help software designers further simplify the design process on Zynq and Zynq-based modules. The recent announcement of the SDSoC development environment provides a greatly simplified ASSP-like C/C++ programming experience for the software design community and enables module providers to simplify and accelerate their customers design process.
Dave pointed to several SOM vendors that have taken the capabilities of the Zynq and created amazing products:
National Instruments is an iconic test and instrumentation company (if you ever get a chance to go to their NI week, don't miss it) and are famous for cutting edge data acquisition and measurement hardware with their visual programming software called Labview. In many types of science and engineering NI is the gold standard and now by using a Zynq based SOM (pictured below) the complex processing and algorithms needed can happen in a single system.
Another clever use of Zynq in a SOM comes from Holland via Topic Embedded Systems who have built a compact SOM called Miami complete with software aimed at the medical/clinical design market:
Xilinx are not resting on their laurels in this market and just announced a new hardware platform called Ultrascale MPSoC which takes the Zynq concept and moves up the ARM processor roadmap:
As you can see in the block diagram above MPSoC not only has dual core ARM Cortex-A53 processors but dual Cortex-R5 real time processors and an ARM Mali GPU. This means that customers of Xilinx’s board partners who expect real time processing, video, multiple data flows, streaming data and touch interfaces can get it all on a single SOM.
So as you can see by combining the best of the ARM portfolio with leading edge FPGAs designers of systems and boards have capabilities that were unheard of in a single device.