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Embedded Linux vendor adds FPGA softcore support

Mar 2, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 28 views

Wind River is shipping a version of its commercial embedded Linux distribution for Altera Nios II FPGAs. Running on the NIOS II softcore, the distribution supports Altera's entire line of FPGAs and “HardCopy” ASICs, and is available with tools and development hardware.

(Click for larger view of Altera Cyclone III board kit)

The version of Wind River Linux customized for the Nios II FPGA (field programmable gate array) softcore is based on a Linux 2.6 kernel. The distribution is said to be customized to support the Nios II instruction set, processor architecture, and custom instructions feature for Altera FPGA fabrics.

Built with a GNU 4 tool chain, the new NIOS II Linux implementation can be adapted using Wind River's Eclipse-based Workbench Development Suite, and deployed for testing on a Cyclone III-based reference design. Built around a Nios II/f core, the Cyclone III offers peripherals such as Ethernet, timer, and UART, and ships with a board support package (BSP) and a pre-built Linux kernel.

The Nios II family of 32-bit soft RISC processor cores first shipped in 2004, and is now claimed to be the most widely used embedded processor in terms of design starts, according to Altera, pointing to a Gartner study. The Nios II targets FPGA-based software-intensive custom processor designs where ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) are too costly and time-consuming to produce. Providing up to a claimed 340 DMIPS of performance in FPGAs, the softcore can be implemented with “a few cents worth of logic elements,” says the company.

Typical Nios II FPGA implementation
(Click to enlarge)

In 2006, Altera shipped an Altera Nios II Evaluation Kit capable of running uClinux, and the kit recently won an EDN Magazine 2008 “Innovation Award”. The company also offers its Linux-compatible Quartus II software toolsuite, which includes a “SOPC Builder” tool. Quartus II was recently rev'd to version 9.0, adding support for the new Stratix IV GT and Arria II GX FPGAs. Version 9.0 also adds an SSN analyzer tool, as well as an ModelSim Altera Starter Edition simulation engine.

Stated Mike Langlois, GM of networking solutions at Wind River, “The Nios II processor can run on all of Altera's FPGAs and HardCopy ASICs to enable a broad spectrum of solutions.”


The Wind River Linux distribution tailored for the Nios II/f processor is available now, along with the Nios II/f-based processor-system reference design and a BSP for the Altera Cyclone III FPGA Development Kit. All the products are available from Wind River, says Altera. No pricing information was provided. More information on the Nios II platform may be found here. More on the Cyclone III kit may be found here.

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