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ARM ships soft core for FPGAs

Mar 19, 2007 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

ARM is shipping its first-ever processor core designed for synthesis onto the programmable elements of FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays). The company hopes its “soft” Cortex-M1 processor will help device designers standardize on a single architecture for ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits), ASSPs (application specific standard parts), and FPGAs.

Additionally, ARM has announced that Irish FPGA vendor Actel has licensed the Cortex-M1, and will offer the processor at no charge to customers of its Fusion and ProASIC3 FPGAs. Configured with the M1 processor, these chips could cost as little as $5 apiece, and be capable of running uClinux at clock speeds up to about 75MHz, the companies said.

The M1

The M1 is the second of ARM's “M-series” processors to ship — the first was the Cortex-M3, which launched in October of 2004.

ARM's M-series processors target cost-sensitive, deterministic, interrupt-driven applications. They are based on ARM's high-density 16-bit “Thumb-2” architecture with 32-bit extensions. Thumb-2 provides a sort of lowest common denominator instruction set for all of ARM's “Cortex” processors, in order to promote code reuse, scalability, and migration.

ARM hopes that by scaling its popular architecture down into FPGAs, it will help device makers save money by standardizing on a single set of development tools. Additionally, using an “industry standard processor” provides greater vendor independence, the company said.

Dominic Pajak, product manager of ARM's processor division, explained, “Thousands of engineers are familiar with ARM and its toolchains. ARM is vendor neutral, and we have a proven track record.”

Actel FPGAs

Actel FPGA programming algorithms are implemented on-chip in non-volatile flash, rather than in external volatile SRAM memory, as with other FPGAs. According to Actel product manager Mike Thompson, this offers several inherent advantages. For one thing, “Non-volatile FPGAs do not use an external ROM; the parts are always programmed,” Thompson notes.

Additionally, there is a security benefit. “ARM was very concerned about FPGA, because they knew that once they released it, they would have little control of who used it, and they were concerned about security. We showed them that we could protect their intellectual property,” said Thompson.

The flash-based approach also offers power advantages. “In the SRAM parts, you get a large current spike until the part is programmed,” Thompson explained.

Radiation tolerance is another touted benefit. However, Actel will not offer the M1 initially in its product lines targeting aerospace and defense.

Actel will support the M1 processors with a variety of freely downloadable tools, including its CoreConsole IP Deployment Platform, its SoftConsole program development environment, and Actel Libero Integrated Design Environment.

Availability

ARM's Cortex-M1 processor is available now. Actel will offer the M1 processor free with its Fusion and ProASIC3 FPGA lines.

ARM and Actel will demonstrate the technology running in Actel FPGAs at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, Calif. Apr. 2-5.


 
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