Expanding Innovation: Bringing Arm to Programmable FPGA

Today Arm and Xilinx announced a collaboration that makes FPGA-based innovation faster, easier and more diverse: Arm DesignStart FPGA. You can read the announcement here. 

The design possibilities for embedded and IoT are wider and more accessible than ever with free, no-royalty use of Arm Cortex-M soft processor IP on Xilinx FPGAs.

Now developers can access the benefits and ecosystem of Arm Cortex-M processors with the flexibility of FPGA. Let's take a look at what's included and how to get started.

A strong foundation: Cortex-M and DesignStart

From small sensors and smart pills to whitegoods and industrial controllers, Arm Cortex-M processors are enabling the creation of the broadest range of smart, embedded devices. In fact, they have been shipped in over 35 billion devices to date! Taking advantage of this industry-proven technology is more accessible than ever with Arm DesignStart.

For the last decade, the DesignStart program has offered a quick and easy way to access Arm IP for the development of custom SoCs. The program has enabled hundreds of companies to develop application-optimized designs, and today we are excited to widen this offering, expanding the possibilities for innovation on FPGA.

Arm FPGA innovation design spectrum

NEW DesignStart FPGA: Addressing the needs of application-optimized designs

As technology continues to pick up pace and push boundaries, there is a need for flexibility in product designs, contributing to a predicted 74% volume growth of the field programmable gate array (FPGA)/Programmable Logic Devices (PLD) market between 2016 and 2022 (source: Gartner, Inc., Semiconductor Forecast Database, Worldwide, 2Q18 Update, July 2018). DesignStart FPGA allows embedded developers to combine the flexibility and product differentiation offered by FPGAs in commercial applications, with the software reusability and an overall faster time-to-market, achieved by the use of industry-leading Arm processors.

The Xilinx product portfolio has been built to enable customized designs; some of these products, like the Zynq-7000, pair the customizable logic of the FPGA with a high-performance Arm processor. Companies all over the world use these devices to build optimized solutions to meet application needs, resulting in already 1 billion cost-optimised Xilinx devices sold to-date.

The high power efficiency, low gate count and cost effectiveness offered by Cortex-M processors make them the preferred choice for hundreds of microcontroller (MCU) vendors creating off-the-shelf parts. However, many devices today require a custom solution to take optimization into hardware, offering flexibility and product differentiation.

DesignStart FPGA will further address the significant growth in application-optimized designs, in particular for those that are developing on FPGA. The program provides access to Cortex-M1 and Cortex-M3 soft processor IP for integration with the Xilinx Vivado Design Suite. DesignStart FPGA is available for prototyping, research and commercial use on any FPGA that supports Vivado.

Arm DesignStart FPGA

Proven Cortex-M technology optimized for FPGA integration

The Cortex-M1 and Cortex-M3 soft processor IP are both available in DesignStart FPGA, but which CPU is best for your application?

All Cortex-M processors have 32-bit processing capability. Cortex-M1 is very similar to a Cortex-M0 processor, but optimized for implementation on FPGA. Cortex-M1 implements the Armv6-M architecture, using a relatively small subset of the Arm Thumb instruction set. In Armv6-M, the instruction opcodes are almost all 16-bit in size, with a few double-opcode instructions of 32-bit. This processor is ideal when you need minimal area, while still having a good performance point. When the Cortex-M1 is implemented inside the Digilent Arty A7 board, it can reach a peak frequency of 100MHz.

The Cortex-M3 has been built to have a balance between performance and efficiency. Its Armv7-M instruction set is a superset of Armv6-M and includes more 32-bit opcodes to provide more computing capability per cycle. In SoC applications, its balance of power, performance and area has made it widely applicable across a vast range of applications and consequently supported by a vast ecosystem of tools and users. The processor can reach a peak frequency of 50MHz when implemented inside the Digilent Arty A7 board. This is a typical frequency for Cortex-M3 based MCU.

Arm Cortex-M processors FPGA

Benefit from a single software base and the broadest embedded ecosystem

With DesignStart FPGA, all the ecosystem from Arm is finally reaching all major Xilinx devices. With over 40 RTOS providers, 20+ IDE compilers and 21+ debug and trace solutions, the choice is incredible. Arm-based development means it is easy to find the right tool or piece of software and at the right price point – from free to professional.

There is also a thriving developer base working on Cortex-M. Just look at the 8.5M downloads of the Cortex-M software called CMSIS alone, you can imagine the scale of the number of people developing on Cortex-M!

All of this is backed by the largest open-access development resources - with thousands of articles, how-to guides and other resources.

Arm FPGA embedded Ecosystem Xilinx

From a software perspective, Cortex-M processors have been built to remove the need for the user to write assembly code. This is enabled by the combination of CMSIS (Cortex Microcontroller Software Interface Standard) and powerful compilers that can be optimized with high-level C language for Cortex-M.

CMSIS is a software standard that provides a well-defined API to access the processor's internal registers and peripherals. CMSIS is free to use and is supported by all leading toolchains, allowing developers to focus on the creation of the device and reduce software development time.

DesignStart FPGA provides access to the most comprehensive software development solution for Cortex-M: Arm Keil MDK. It contains the µVision IDE and debugger, the Arm compiler for superior code performance, and ready-to-use middleware. The debugger supports all advanced features for the soft processor cores: event recorder, component viewer, and event statistics. With DesignStart, you can access a free 90-day trial of MDK-Essential edition to help you accelerate software design.

IAR Embedded Workbench and Xilinx XDSK will both support DesignStart FPGA in the future.

Getting started: Fast and simple access to the world's leading IP

Accessing Cortex-M1 and Cortex-M3 soft processor IP with DesignStart FPGA is straightforward. Here's how to get started:

1. First, create an Arm account. Registration is a short process that concludes with a click-through end-user license agreement (EULA) with a series of simple terms.

2. Following acceptance of the EULA, you will have access to download the encrypted RTL, an example system for our target development board, Digilent Arty A7 and Arty S7. The IP has been packaged to be easily imported into the Xilinx Vivado Design Suite. In addition, we have created an adaptor board to support debug from Cortex-M using the standard DAPLink connection to the Cortex-M processors and standard compilers.

3. Following the download, you will be able to seamlessly drag and drop as many Cortex-M1 and Cortex-M3 cores into Vivado as needed. Vivado allows you to configure your Cortex-M cores as necessary. There are debug, instruction memory and data memory wizards for configuration purposes.

4. Finally, you are ready to export your design for software implementation in your favourite IDE. As previously mentioned, Arm Keil MDK is currently supported, and you can access this software solution for a free 90-day trial as part of DesignStart FPGA.

For additional support when getting started, watch our latest videos. Alternatively, you can also get help from the DesignStart Community.

Arm FPGA development flow

Easier, faster development of FPGA-based products

So what does all of this mean? More possibilities, faster development and a greater range of software and tools choice. It means that embedded developers can now experience the benefits and flexibility of a commercial FPGA with market-leading Arm processors. And the new no license fee, no royalties access model unlocks faster, easier access to the IP a designer needs, when they need it. Since the Arm portfolio extends from SBCs to custom SoCs/ASICs, developers can reuse any software and expertise they’ve developed to ensure faster time-to-market on their next project.

Get started on your Arm-based FPGA design by accessing Cortex-M1 and Cortex-M3 CPU soft IP through the link below.

Get started with DesignStart FPGA