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As data centers continue to evolve to meet the growing demands of modern applications, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) have emerged as popular, versatile, and efficient solutions for enhancing data center performance.

In this article, you’ll gain a foundational understanding of what an FPGA is, learn about the different types of FPGAs, explore the benefits and challenges of using FPGAs, get a high-level overview of how to program an FPGA, and uncover the different types of FPGA programming languages.

Related: Intel Shatters Precedent, Embraces Dedicated FPGA Infrastructure Processors

A field-programmable gate array (FPGA) is a type of integrated circuit (IC), or chip, that is customizable through an array of configurable logic blocks (CLB) and that can be reconfigured after manufacturing.

A CLB is the fundamental logic unit of FPGAs that typically contains a combination of flip-flops and lookup tables (LUTs). Flip-flops provide the ability to store and manipulate data in sequential logic circuits, and LUTs are used to implement combinational logic.

Related: Data Processing Units: What Are DPUs and Why Do You Want Them?

FPGAs may include additional components such as:

FPGA manufacturers can implement custom digital circuits and reconfigure the components to meet the needs of the end user.

Along with FPGAs, ASICs and CPLDs are also important components in modern computing that are often compared in the industry. Knowing the differences between them – and which one to choose for certain applications – is important for both novice and veteran IT professionals involved in computing decisions.

FPGAs and ASICs are both types of integrated circuits with similar circuit designs, but they differ in purpose and functionality. In general, ASICs are custom designed for a specific application whereas FPGAs are more multi-purpose and able to be refitted for multiple applications. CPLDs are less complex than FPGAs and ASICs and are often used for simpler logic applications.

The below table breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of each circuit type to help you decide which is best for your applications.

There are three types of FPGAs: static random-access memory (SRAM)-based, flash-based, and anti-fuse.

SRAM-based FPGAs use volatile SRAM cells to store configuration data, which must be loaded every time an FPGA powers up. They are commonly used for prototyping, development, and applications where frequent design changes and tests are needed.

Flash-based FPGAs use non-volatile flash memory cells to store configuration data, allowing the FPGA to retain its configuration and remain live at power-up. Flash-based FPGAs are most suitable for applications that need instant-on functionality without needing to reload the configuration data at each power cycle.

Anti-fuse FPGAs are non-volatile and remain live at power-up but are one-time programmable and cannot be undone or reconfigured. These traits make anti-fuse FPGAs ideal for applications that require security and do not need additional reprogramming, such as in defense, aerospace, or other high-reliability applications.

FPGAs provide many benefits, including, but not limited to:

Some challenges of using FPGAs, include, but are not limited to:

It can be helpful to first familiarize yourself with terms and concepts such as logic gates, boolean, and logic circuits and their various types.

An FPGA bitstream is a binary file containing the configuration information for the FPGA. The FPGA bitstream should specify the configurable logic blocks, interconnects, and other necessary components that should work together for the desired digital circuit.

Learn and use an HDL, such as Verilog or VHDL, to write code for an FPGA design flow that describes the desired behavior of your logic, including interconnections between components, registers, control signals, and data paths.

Debug and verify the correctness of the HDL code through simulation and testing. Once verified, use synthesis tools to convert your code into a netlist representation of the logic gates and interconnects.

Convert the synthesized netlist into a format that is compatible with your FPGA device. The configuration files define how the FPGA's resources should be interconnected based on your HDL code.

Load the generated bitstream onto the FPGA device using programming hardware. The bitstream will configure the FPGA to implement the logic described in the HDL program.

Verilog and VDHL (VHSIC hardware description language) are the most commonly used FPGA programming languages.

Verilog is a simple, easy-to-learn, text-based language and is widely accepted as an industry standard. It was designed to resemble the C programming language, is more commonly used in the US, and is characterized by a flexible syntax.

VHDL is known for its strongly typed, hardware description language best suited for complex digital systems. It has syntax reminiscent of the Ada programming language, is more commonly used in Europe, and is characterized by rigorous logic and prudence.

Other FPGA programming languages include lucid, C and C++, python, and AI frameworks like TensorFlow and PyTorch.

Popular vendors in the FPGA space include Xilinx (acquired by AMD in 2022), Altera (acquired by Intel in 2015), Lattice Semiconductor , Microchip (formerly Microsemi), and QuickLogic Corporation .

The FPGA’s unique versatility and processing power make it an excellent solution to meet the growing demands of modern data center infrastructure needs, characterized by the increasing popularity of cloud computing, the explosion of data creation, and the rise of new computing-intensive applications, like machine learning.

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