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dspZONE Products for the week of July 30, 2007
Embedded Systems Design Says…

Compact StreamBlade MiniFX FPGA Board Targets Streaming Applications in Telecom, SDR, Video and Voice

Embedded Systems Design, Inc. (ESD), an embedded engineering services and products company delivering high-performance, real-time, embedded processing systems, announced its release of the StreamBlade MiniFX. This 3.5” X 3.0” FPGA-based processing board is designed to process real-time streaming data. The board is the result of ESD’s consulting work with a Product Developer specializing in direction finding and geo-location products and systems for Commercial & Government customers. The MiniFX is ideally suited for streaming applications such as telecommunications protocol processing, software-defined radio (SDR), and real-time streaming data, including video and voice processing, generation, recording, and playback.

“The MiniFX is the newest member of ESD’s StreamBlade product family, offering software infrastructure and hardware building blocks for developers to prototype and build distributed FPGA-based processing systems easily and affordably,” said Mark Wecht, President and CEO, ESD. “Like other StreamBlade boards, the MiniFX was conceived to solve a specific challenge in a customer’s system, in this case implementing one quarter of the StreamBlade SOE-4 board’s functions and interface with a customer’s dual ADC board.”

The MiniFX receives streaming data IF samples from two ADCs, performs SDR functions, computes steering vectors (used for direction finding), and provides results via Gigabit Ethernet. Using Ethernet to implement a distributed computer backplane, configuration, and control, the MiniFX allows developers to take full advantage of its configured Xilinx Virtex-4 FPGA available with a FX20, FX40, or FX60. The device supports a 10/100/1000 Ethernet port, two serial ports, plus an assortment of LVDS connectors which enable direct user-configurable access to the FPGA. With 128MB of DDR2 SDRAM, developers can use the MiniFX as a dual PPC405 processing board, a pure FPGA processing board, or for combined hardware/software boundary processing.

“FPGAs enable considerable acceleration of processing capabilities and reduction of size, weight and power consumption (SWAP) in many applications,” said Wecht. “Yet FPGA adoption and the development of combined hardware/software boundary solutions have been held up by the lack of development tools and user friendly processing fabric. We are intent on addressing both of these obstacles with the StreamBlade product family.”
The boards are delivered with the MiniFX Development Kit, which is compliant with Xilinx EDK 8.2i and includes sample applications to help customers begin using the product immediately. System-on-FPGA (SoFPGA) reference designs are provided, including cores for DDR2 SDRAM control. The development kit also includes utilities for loading FPGA bit streams and PPC405 elf files into MiniFX flash memory.

EN-Genius Says…

Sporting one of Xilinx largest SerDes-enabled Virtex 4 FPGAs and a single port of GbE (plus a dense assortment of other commonly-used I/O connections), this nifty little development board looks like a great prototyping platform for development and low-volume production of FPGA-based signal and stream processing applications. It’s a smaller version of the ESD four-port, dual FPGA development board that Embedded Systems Designs (ESD) introduced earlier this spring, but still packs enough power. One of the things that sets this FPGA prototyping board apart from vendor eval kits and several other excellent products on the market is that it uses some well-thought-out IP to enable its GbE connection to serve as the primary data path interface. As we’ll see, this unusual approach allows you to build both small and large applications more quickly and much less expensively than with a traditional backplane-based system with only a few drawbacks that should not be issues in most cases.

 The Ethernet-based interconnect used in both  development boards can trace its origins back  to ESD’s need for cost-effective in-house tools  to support their own design and consulting  projects. Frustrated with the high cost and  limited scalability of RACE++ backplane-based  systems traditionally used in many stream  processing applications, they decided to use  GbE and its associated low-cost commercial switches as the interconnect medium between their blades and modules. The result is a flexible development platform that allows a user to blend hardware and software as needed.

Of course this flexibility and low cost does have some drawbacks in terms of the overhead associated with the packet headers and then non-deterministic latency that any TCP/IP-based system has. When I raised this issue with Mark Wecht, President of ESD, he was very up-front about Ethernet’s somewhat undisciplined characteristics and said that they did not intend these products for the kinds of ultra-high-speed real-time processing applications favored by certain governmental agencies and that the boards were targeted at the majority of DSP applications such as SDR, voice or video processing which could happen in so-called near-real-time. He is betting that for these and many other stream processing applications (cryptography/security, image processing/feature extraction/feature recognition, and XML acceleration to name a few), these issues are not a real problem -- or at least a problem worth solving for the 75% - 80% in savings you get over a comparable bus-based system.

Wecht also said that, in cases where latency and throughput are critical issues, some users dispense with the Ethernet protocol and lengthy standard header altogether. In these applications, they create their own lightweight MAC and streamlined headers that use the Ethernet PHY as a raw data interconnect medium. Other users who need to minimize the host system processing load use lightweight OS-free commercial protocol stacks that run on the FPGA’s PowerPC control processor core.

At the moment, ESD products require the user to write a small amount of standard sockets-based code to set up and support the connections that move Ethernet-encapsulated data between boards. Not wanting you to have to re-invent the wheel, ESD kindly supplies you with model code and prototype applications that show how it’s done. Things may get easier in the future if ESD goes ahead with its plans to polish up and release some of the software that they developed for their own use.

One of the things they hope to do is create a user-friendly version of their Streaming Data Distribution (SDD) package, a software-configured patch panel which allows users to define streams and route them to the desired board or a specific resource on a particular board. SDD does this by managing a block of pre-assigned MAC addresses using a visual interface to enable establishment of data flows without the hassle of low-level bit-twiddling. Their current in-house version lacks a clean API and GUI so it’s not available yet as a standard product today but my conversations with their lead software gnome indicates that they are working on making a public version available in the future. I also suspect that if your application was more than a one-off deal they would work with you to adapt what they do have running to your purposes -- but you didn’t hear that from me…

In addition to the standard suite of Xilinx development tools (their venerable ISE and EDK packages) and IP cores, ESD supplies its own IP cores to drive all the connectors on the Mini-FX board and support the Ethernet PHY. Naturally, all ESD cores work cleanly with the appropriate Xilinx standard internal busses. They also supply a slightly tweaked version of Xilinx’s DDR2 memory interface that boasts improved performance.

During my discussions with ESD it became apparent that these platforms provide a very cost-effective alternative to the expensive, limited-volume chassis-based solutions that have dominated the market until recently. When I remarked that the Advanced TCA and microTCA standards also address a similar problem I was told that their products had been developed before ATCA was mature enough to consider but now that it was gaining widespread acceptance they were strongly considering new boards that would work in this environment. Given what I’ve learned about the technical skills and flexibility of the ESD organization, I would not be surprised to see an ATCA mezzanine card sporting all the functionality of their MiniFX processing boards showing up on the market some time in 2008.

The MiniFX processing boards, part number SB-MiniFX, are in production priced at $2500 in single quantities, configured with Xilinx FX60 FPGAs.

Software Defined Radio (SDR):
ESD has significant expertise in the management and development of SDR systems.

Range Extension:
ESD has unique experience with range extension through interference mitigation with multi-sensor adaptive beam forming technologies.

Data Distribution:
ESD has extensive experience with the distribution and processing of real-time streaming data.

Hardware and FPGA:
ESD has experience with multi-layer printed circuit board design, FPGA design, CPLD design, million-plus gate ASIC design, and system-on-chip (SoC) architecture including SoFPGA.