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Fast as Lightning: 5 Cases When Using FPGA Is Your Best Choice


One of the biggest advantages of field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) is the vast potential of their uses. An FPGA is an integrated circuit with an array of logic blocks. It has a pretty unique architecture that allows reprogramming the circuit multiple times and using it for different purposes.

With the help of a hardware description language, such as Verilog, programmers can set the relations between these blocks and reprogram an FPGA to match the exact requirements of a particular application.

But what exactly can FPGAs be used for? And what applications of FPGA technology will be the most beneficial to today’s developers? In this article, we’ll try to answer all these questions. But first, let’s learn some more about FPGA technology and its benefits.

Advantages of FPGAs

Depending on the task at hand, FPGAs can have different pros and cons. However, some advantages remain unchangeable no matter what the reason you have for using an FPGA. Here are these advantages:
  1. Flexibility — The fact that an FPGA can be programmed by the end user (and not the manufacturer) is, undoubtedly, one of the main benefits of these circuits. An FPGA can be configured to a specific design. Furthermore, you can reprogram an FPGA for performing any other task whenever you need, as many times as you need.
  2. Performance — FPGAs can be programmed at the logic level, so they can process signals faster than a regular microprocessor. In addition, the blocks of an FPGA can be programmed in a way that allows them to run several tasks simultaneously, allowing for parallel processing of different signals.
  3. Energy efficiency — When it comes to resource-hungry tasks such as training machine learning models for Artificial Intelligence (AI), you can decrease power consumption significantly by using an FPGA AI accelerator.
It’s noteworthy that FPGAs have some drawbacks too, the difficulty of the programming process being the most important one. Still, in many cases such as machine learning, using an FPGA might be the best solutions possible. So let’s see the five best uses of the lightning fast FPGA technology.

5 Best Uses for an FPGA

Due to their many benefits, FPGAs can be used in different areas, from building device controllers to emulating large hardware systems and accelerating data processing. Below we list the five FPGA applications that use the potential of this technology to the fullest.

1. Signal Processing Systems

Digital Signal Processing (DSP) allows interpreting digital patterns and is used in many technologies. It’s one of the most common uses for the FPGA technology. For instance, you can use an FPGA for building a VGA driver.

FPGAs offer a high level of versatility and a fast speed of signal processing. Plus, in contrast to most DSP chips, the FPGA design cycle doesn’t require the programmer to have extensive hardware-specific knowledge.

A curious fact: Mars Exploration Rover (MER), Curiosity, uses an FPGA for processing data received while exploring the surface of Mars.

2. Custom Systems on a Chip (SoC)

System-on-a-Chip (SoC) combines all kinds of electronic circuits (on-chip memory, processors, peripheral functions, and so on) in one integrated chip. And since modern FPGAs can contain one or more soft- and hardcore processors, these circuits can be used for building reprogrammable versions of SoCs.

Both FPGA market leaders, Intel’s Altera and Xilinx, have circuits that can be classified as both SoC and FPGA. Altera refers to these devices as SoC FPGAs, while Xilinx uses the term All Programmable SoCs.

3. Data Processing Acceleration

Perhaps, the biggest potential of the FPGA technology lays in the field of accelerating compute-intensive applications. You can use FPGAs for Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and the Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

FPGAs can solve three major problems any computing-hungry application faces:
  1. Power consumption
  2. Latency
  3. Concurrency
An FPGA can improve the performance of resource-hungry applications and processes while keeping the latency and power consumption at a low level. Some cloud service providers even offer a service called Acceleration as a Service, allowing their customers to use their FPGAs for accelerating computing-hungry processes. Large companies also employ AI powered by FPGAs in their projects. In particular, Microsoft’s project Brainwave uses FPGAs for AI application acceleration.

4. Prototyping and Emulation

FPGA-based prototyping and emulation allow developers to prototype SoCs and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for early software development and hardware verification.

With the help of these prototypes, developers can detect and fix most of the code bugs and performance issues at an early stage. And even though creating a quality FPGA-based prototype is a challenging task, the flexibility of these circuits works in their favor.

5. Radio Communication Systems

Another common use for an FPGA is a software-defined radio (SDR) development. Generally, an SDR is a wireless communication system that can be configured with the help of a specific software or a programmable hardware, such as an FPGA.

In contrast to traditional radio transmitters, an SDR is supposed to communicate at different frequencies and be able to send and receive different types of signals. The re-programmability of an FPGA allows changing modulation types and carrier frequencies without adding new physical components to the system.

Conclusion

FPGAs have great potential in many areas: from developing drivers to training complex neural networks and supporting space communication systems. The main advantage of this technology is the reconfigurable nature of the circuits. And when it comes to computing-intensive applications, FPGAs can be used to both accelerate the processing of data and reduce the power consumption.