CORNET PROJECT: Dynamic Hardware Reconfiguration in Industrial Applications.
Dynamic and partial reconfiguration of FPGAs was introduced in the mid ‘90s. By ‘dynamic’ reconfiguration we mean the reconfiguration of an FPGA at run-time. When a specific part of the FPGA is static, the reconfiguration is referred to as ‘partial’. Typically, in systems that are partially dynamically reconfigurable, the static part contains a component that controls the reconfiguration of the dynamic part of the FPGA.
In the last decade, dynamic and partial reconfiguration of SRAM-based FPGAs has made major scientific and application-oriented progress through faster reconfiguration time, smaller granularity of the reconfigurable partitions, a large diversity of FPGAs that supports the technology and easier access to the technology through improved EDA tools. This resulted in a number of success stories that were mainly based on faster start-up, faster design cycle, lower occupation of resources and lower static power consumption.
Faster start-up: The larger the FPGA, the longer it takes to be reconfigured and operative after power-up. Many protocols such as PCI Express or CAN bus have very strict timing requirements, which cannot be fulfilled by starting up large FPGAs. In these cases partial reconfiguration can be used to allow a fast start-up of the needed functionality, e.g. by first loading the PCI express or CAN interface using partial reconfiguration and afterwards reconfiguring the rest of the FPGA.
Faster design cycle: Processing a large design takes a lot of time. A small modification in a subsystem of the design, forces the designer to go through the synthesis and place & route process all over again. Partial reconfiguration can offer a solution to this problem through an incremental design approach in which subsystems can be processed separately. This significantly decreases the time-to-market of FPGA-based electronic systems.
Lower occupation of resources and lower static power consumption: Dynamic and partial reconfiguration is very beneficial for systems, which have mutual exclusive functions. These functions can then be swapped in and out depending on the run-time requirements of the application. This way, smaller FPGAs can be used to save both costs as well as power consumption. One of the first applications benefiting from dynamic and partial reconfiguration was Software Defined Radio. Another application domain is image processing. Here dynamic and partial reconfiguration is used to reconfigure the digital image filters depending on the image content. The advantage for these kinds of systems are (1) no frames will be lost, as the camera interface stays active while the digital filter is reconfigured, and (2) as only parts of the FPGA are reconfigured this can happen so fast that between two frames the digital filter can be modified.
It turned out, however, that these success stories were mainly only realized in large companies with a substantial amount of R&D activities, while a lot of SMEs could also benefit from the use of the technology. The reason is that the technology is still perceived as being difficult to adopt and expensive in terms of NRE costs. Therefore, the goal of this project is two-fold:
- It develops a number of use cases and guidelines in different application domains, tailored to the activities of the SMEs in the user group and in the broader target group, demonstrating the abovementioned benefits of partial and dynamic FPGA reconfiguration.
- It develops a low-cost, vendor-independent emulation environment for dynamic and partial reconfiguration, which is non-existing in commercial and academic EDA tools. Another benefit of this emulation environment is that it can also be used for static designs. This allows SMEs to have a low-cost emulation environment for their applications instead of either making their own emulation environment manually (which is very timeconsuming) or buying big cost-intensive commercial emulators such as the Synopsys CHIPit.