[Point of VIEW] Are FPGAs Too Good To Be True?

Monday, December 15, 2014

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I’m going to contradict myself in this month’s blog post. I don’t use clichés much, however I (usually) find them to be accurate and descriptive. (Note: because most clichés have become trite or irritating, we often forget that their novel origin was based in truth). Let me take you back to when I started at NI.

 

In the late ‘90s, reprogrammable silicon was considered mainstream across consumer, automotive, and industrial applications. Based on the critical invention of the XC2064 FPGA by Freeman and Vondershmitt, the FPGA was becoming a coveted technology for the compute power, field-upgradability, and performance capabilities. However, tools to program the FPGA prevented domain expert access: creating a technology that was too good to be true. Or so I thought.

 

In 2001, I began working with an in-development product we had demoed at NIWeek a few years earlier, but hadn’t released yet. This not-so-secret project, code named “RVI” or reconfigurable virtual instrumentation, was a graphical design approach to programming an FPGA. Having a computer science and math background, abstract and software-centric is more comfortable and familiar to me than meticulous hardware design. So the idea that you (or even a CS-person like me) could abstract a ton of silicon details and program the hardware with a productive tool like LabVIEW (rather than an HDL) seemed impossible.

 

This is where the contradiction begins. It wasn’t too good to be true; the cliché was wrong. It was good AND it was true. Luckily, I could rely on another well-known phrase used at NI to describe the innovation taking place: “the genius of the AND” inspired by author Jim Collins. With productive, graphical programming; system abstraction; AND hardware design for dedicated determinism including 25 ns I/O response, protocol customization, and rapid prototyping, LabVIEW FPGA breaks the cliché.

 

I’m not the only geek who gets excited about this capability. Stijn Schacht of T&M Solutions took advantage of the control accuracy of an FPGA to lift 20-metric-ton unbalanced trays of uncured concrete more than 6 meters while maintaining a strict accuracy of two millimeters. Because he used LabVIEW to get that precision from the FPGA, his team developed an application in only two months and was able to reuse the modular code for their next project.

 

Kurt Osborne at Ford Motor Company is a believer as well. Ford used LabVIEW FPGA to design and implement a real-time embedded control system for an automotive fuel cell system.

 

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The LabVIEW Communications environment enables an entire design team to map an idea from algorithm to FPGA using a single high-level representation.

 

So what’s next? I encourage you to explore the latest cliché contradiction that takes FPGA design to the next level – LabVIEW Communications System Design Suite.

 

LabVIEW Communications is a complete design flow (with bundled software defined radio hardware) for wireless communications algorithms. This suite includes everything from an integrated FPGA flow, to an HLS compiler, to a new canvas (Multirate Diagram) for streaming algorithms, and an innovative way to explore your hardware system with the NI System Designer. The genius of the AND lives on in LabVIEW Communications.

 

Explore the latest cliché contradiction today at ni.com/labview-communications.

 

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Today’s Featured Author

Shelley Gretlein is a self-proclaimed software geek and robot aficionado. As NI’s director of software marketing, you can find Shelley championing LabVIEW from keynote stages to user forums to elevator conversations. You can follow her on Twitter at @LadyLabVIEW.