Two different boards were required for our hardware design courses: one board with a field programmable gate array (FPGA), and one board with a system on chip (SoC). In order to choose new hardware for our digital hardware design courses, two sets of requirements were formulated. These requirements were divided into hardware on the one hand, and software and toolchain on the other hand.
The hardware requirements included that several interfaces and periphery elements should be located on the board, e.g., power supply, Ethernet, USB, I/Os, buttons, switches, LEDs, and 7-segment displays. Another important hardware requirement was the FPGA respectively the SoC.
For the software part, the availability of operating system support (OS support), of basic software packages, and of board support packages (BSP) were considered most important. As our intention was to find a new hardware platform for teaching students, the toolchain was one of the most important requirements. The toolchain must be easy to use in order to focus the students’ attention on the technical contents of the course. Moreover, the toolchain must be free software and must support several operating systems (Linux, Windows). Therefore, we reviewed the toolchains of the largest FPGA/SoC manufacturers, i.e., Altera, Xilinx, Actel, Lucent and Lattice.
We then created an overview over the available FPGAs/SoCs and specifically the availability of state-of-the-art development boards and development tools. The first research results had shown that only two manufacturers met our requirements referring to availability of the development boards and toolchain. These manufacturers were the two largest on the market, Altera and Xilinx. In the field of SoC/FPGA design, there are many different development boards supported by these two manufacturers. We therefore summed up our review results in a table reflecting our requirements. Based on the requirements, the features were evaluated for each board and a score was decided on. As mentioned before, we need two different development boards. For the scores for SoC boards and FPGA boards, see Figure 1 resp. Figure 2 below.
2.2. Board Selection
A wide range of SoC boards are offered on the market, and several of them were qualified. Figure 1 displays the qualified SoC development boards, ranked by the evaluation result.
Figure 1 - Ranking of qualified SoC development boards
In order to evaluate the toolchains of both manufacturers, two boards were selected, bought and tested. The toolchain evaluation showed that the Xilinx toolchain excellently meets our requirements. For this reason, we decided on Xilinx as manufacturer. As displayed in Figure 1, the Zybo Zynq™‑7000 development board meets our requirements including hardware, software and toolchain and was therefore decided on.
For the FPGA board, there was less choice which met our requirements. Figure 2 displays the qualified FPGA development boards, ranked by the evaluation result.
Figure 2 - Ranking of qualified FPGA development boards
As mentioned before, we decided on the Xilinx toolchain. This matched our research result of the FPGA boards as seen in Figure 2. For this reason, we decided on an FPGA development board by the manufacturer Xilinx. Their Basys 3 board is a smaller version of the Nexys 7 with some restrictions which are not important for the intended use. For this reason, we decided on the cheaper Basys3 Artix‑7 FPGA board.